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To B3D or not to B3D?

computing

The time, effort and cost associated with the final production stages of an animation are aspects that are not lost on max users, myself included. Rendering at broadcast resolution is demanding enough but getting your finished production in the right hands involves further exertion.

Among the many new products at this year's siggraph, b3d Max stood out because it promised an efficient way of delivering max content via the Internet. Brilliant's strategic partnerships for broadband distribution of b3d movies on the @Home Network, dvd.com and the Fox Family Channel further demonstrate the company's potential.

Using the b3d Max plug-in, 3d Studio max users can output content in a format optimised for sending and viewing over the Internet. This is viewed using the Digital Projector plug-in, either Netscape or Internet Explorer, available as a free download from www.bde3d.com. This is a good starting point for evaluating the Brilliant products.

This Digital Projector can display b3d Multipath movies, so called because they are three-dimensional, digitally animated stories with multiple plot alternatives or paths that lead to a variety of distinct conclusions influenced by the user. Output from b3d Max generates a .b3d file, a format which contains the 3d model and textures, as well as sound and animation. These elements are compressed, with advanced polygon data compression for the 3d models and sophisticated keyframe reduction and data-scaling algorithms for the animation. The content can either be streamed over the Internet or be self-contained. b3d streaming files include auto-detection of bandwidth, providing dynamic selection of sound and graphics quality to fill the available bandwidth.

Because the content is packaged into a single file, it can be emailed and a double-click is all it takes to play the movie. And because the Digital Projector browser plug-in is an ActiveX component, it can be embedded in third-party applications, so the movie can be played within a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. The Digital Projector can also be launched as a standalone b3d viewer with a simple user interface encapsulating the ActiveX Projector component.

Streaming b3d files is similar except that the animation and sound files are not included in the main b3d file. Instead, animation and sound are stored in a separate dat file that is streamed after the main graphics have been downloaded. Movie playback begins while the streaming data is downloaded.

Unlike other streamed applications, such as RealVideo, streaming .b3d files requires no special server software (so no licence fees) and files can be placed on any http web server without any special requirements. The Digital Projector can automatically detect Internet bandwidth and select the best quality for setting the aspect ratio of the finished movie, along with three settings of animation compression, which should be adjusted to determine the best option for each project.

Upon actual export, options determine target bandwidth settings, as well as the degree of camera control in the movie.

Further options specify sound and image compression before the export can go ahead. While this is all pretty straightforward, the art is in squeezing the maximum quality out of the movie by balancing all these settings.

A healthy selection of max features is supported, including geometry and material morphing. Both standard and multi-sub material types are valid, as are omni and directional lights. Most animation controllers, such as tcb and Euler, are supported, as are path and audio controllers. Most importantly, there's Character Studio support.

Indeed, there's definitely an art in animating for output. You are relying on a real-time 3d engine at the user end, limited in the number of polygons and effects it can handle, so not all content will be suitable for publishing in b3d format.

Our review of the latest version of Microgds (V6) in the September issue of Architech may have led readers to believe that Microgds is more expensive than Autocad or MicroStation. In fact Microgds is cheaper and includes fully intergrated photo-realistic rendering as standard - no additional module is required. We hope this clarifies the position. Any further information about Microgds can be obtained from Cambridge Data Systems at www.camdat.co.uk or telephone 01799 506500.

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