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Posing as a lightweight program, here's an animation heavy

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Don't let the sliders and 'neat' symbols fool you. Poser can rigorously bring the human figure - or the odd dinosaur - to life in design work

Is it just me or is there something not quite right with Poser's front end? Certainly, it's neat and tidy, everything is organised in a very clear way, with expressive visual sliders and symbols, while any text is kept to an absolute minimum. Perhaps this is the trouble. When one is used to working with the Maxs, cads and Mayas of this world, Poser's universally familiar approach looks dumbed down, making it seem a much more lightweight product than it actually is.

Of course this is purely subjective criticism. Making a program that anybody can understand instantly has to be commended. It's just that in the end it always seems that so much space is used (and wasted) on creating its trademark style, that the all-important viewport suffers as it sits minutely in the centre of the screen. You can expand the window easily but you never reach a size that is satisfactory without having to overlap any of the icons surrounding it.

If you are unfamiliar with the Poser range, this argument will seem a little abstract without knowing the product's use. Its main purpose is as a figure design and animation tool for the human body and for a select number of animals. It is clearly aimed at the low to medium-end user, and is meant to be used for standalone pieces, or as a companion to illustration, 3D animation, cad renderings, and multimedia applications.

Listening closely to criticisms and requests from users, one of the commonest demands was for the ability to change clothes on the people. Poser now includes wardrobes of custom clothing in the Libraries palette. Importantly, each item includes parameters for the corresponding body parts. This enables the user to make the clothing conform to a figure so that it moves as the figure moves - adding an important element of realism to an animation.

Similarly, props are now bendable. For example, you can attach a cowboy hat to a horse rider's head, and have it flap up and down as he trots along a path. This has the potential for much more realistic, or if you so choose, comic results. Execution is achieved with the new Deformer tool, an idea more than a little inspired by Maya's clay-modelling system that lets you sculpt and alter by pulling, pushing and twisting. In practice, it needs greater refinement: the crude-looking magnet that's used is obtrusive in the view area and is also unwieldy enough to make subtle deformations difficult. A more sophisticated version will presumably be ready just in time for Poser 5.

Lighting has been overhauled as well, both in terms of what it can do, and in its ease of use through the interface. Now you have the choice of conventional Poser lighting that can be moved around the environment or, importantly, you can now have an infinite amount of lights, and can alter the intensity of each. This is obviously a great plus to the program, allowing you to create much more varied and therefore unique-looking scenes.

A lot of new physical tools and options are also now available that are designed for greater flexibility. The Sketch Designer is a good example of this, in that it lets you create and refine hand-drawn quality portraits of your scenes. The most prominent tools available are a number of brushstrokes in which you can alter the characters, as well as the backgrounds and edges.

Coupled with this, a second CD includes a special edition copy of Painter 3D. This is MetaCreations' in-house 3D paint and texturing program that can also be applied to any scene feature. Coupled with Poser's new transparency and reflectivity capabilities, it helps to give the program a fresh dimension.

If this wasn't enough, Poser 4 can now be used on the Internet, by exporting figures and textures into Metastream, MetaCreations' free web viewing package. This has the potential to upload 3D objects that can then be rotated and viewed from any angle. The potential impact that this can have on web-viewing is amazing in terms of offering something that previously has been confined to a flat 2D environment, and you know that things are only going to improve. If you're worried about loading times, MetaCreations has thought of that as well. Metastream gives direct control to the user, and it can make the uploaded models scaleable in detail to maximise the whole viewing experience.

Poser's crowning glory, however, is its new ability to be customisable. The new polygon picking, grouping and hierarchical selection tools allow the user to import 3D objects, break them into body parts and thus create new figures that can work fully with inverse kinematics. A morph target can be used to give a character a long nose, for example, and then a bumpy surface can be applied to give it a bloated drunkard's look.

Spherical falloff zones can then be used. This is a method of controlling the blending zone, say in an armpit area of a character, to control and stop unrealistic folding between the joints. Although it bears an uncanny resemblance to Character Studio 2.0, arguably Poser is more successful in terms of ease of use.

It has to be said that Poser is a very likeable program, its flexibility and ease of use make it an attractive option to anybody that wants a quick, easy way of creating and animating realistic-looking figures. And for this sort of price it really is an absolute steal.

But as more features are promised, it seems unlikely that the edutainment- style interface can cope. It may be attractive to the casual user, but will ultimately annoy anybody who wants something a bit more serious. Poser's time has come; it just needs to grow up a bit.

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