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Super-real rendering solution Auto des sys has smoothed the bugs out of its modeller to create a complete and affordable visualisation tool

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Auto des sys' high-end modeller, Form Z, has had a tricky time of late, with a distinctly buggy version 3.0 being sprung on an expectant public earlier this year. Now, eight months later, the program has reached version 3.1.3, and some of its more wayward behaviour seems to have been brought under control.

The most evident change in version 3.0 was the revamped interface, but it was this that had some of the biggest problems - most notably with redraw and preview rendering. The new version seems largely to have cured these problems, with all views in the split-pane window frames view now updating correctly.

There is still some odd behaviour: jumping into a four-view setup from a perspective view will place all views in perspective, where you would expect three orthogonal views (these then have to be reset individually), and the three orthographic projections do not pan or zoom together, so you have to update each one individually, which can be a chore.

There are also still redraw problems when panning in QuickPaint preview (but who uses that anymore?) and you cannot zoom out directly from a perspective view - although it is possible to do so by using the view tools housed in an on-screen roundel - this device works flawlessly and is really a joy to use.

Another big change in version 3.0 was the introduction of new tools for modelling organic shapes. The nurbZ and patch tools allow the generation of malleable primitives either from sets of control lines or parametric objects, in the case of nurbZ, or from polygonal objects or planes, in the case of patches. A patched cube, for example, resembles a squared- off ball. Polyhedrons can be edited into a rough shape and smoothed by the patch tool, although patch generation can be quite slow, lacking the immediacy of LightWave's Metanurbs or ElectricImage Modeller's Ubernurbs. The original polyhedron is ghosted once the patch is generated and cannot be used to refine the model. To do this, you have to undo the patch operation and re-edit the polyhedron.

Edit controls allow you to transform the surface controls directly, or to edit the bounding box formed by the original sources (in the case of nurbZ). You cannot use the standard tools for this but have to bring up a menu of transforms. Here there are some shortcomings: any other operation, such as adjusting the view or even switching to another program in the finder (we tested the Mac version) bumps you out of edit control mode, so you have to continually reselect your object to continue editing. However, undoing the last transform will no longer exit the edit mode.

The biggest overall change in modelling is the introduction of parametrics - objects which keep their internal controls and whose parameters can be edited at any time. A parametric sphere, for example, can have its radius, angle of revolution and latitudinal spread altered. The number of ways in which you can alter a parametric torus is mind-boggling. Parametric primitives render perfectly smoothly. Some of form Z's 'ready mades', such as screws and bolts and staircases, have been made into parametrics, and the staircase tool is considerably improved with the option to generate balusters and handrails on straight and spiral stairs. Staircases can be generated along any shaped paths now - they are not limited to spirals, and for architects and interior designers, this is a real time-saver.

Animation has been introduced and works by directing a camera along a spline path. Given the program's architectural/interiors/product design bias, this is an excellent addition - it is ideal for walkthroughs and flyovers. Coupled with the optional RadioZity renderer, it can produce interior lighting renders of breathtaking quality. The RadioZity solution is calculated only once (it is notoriously processor-intensive) and the results are passed to the raytracer, which produces the high-quality realistic light dropoff, believable ambience and colour spills, but at raytracing speeds.

If you bought version 3.0 and registered you will receive the new manuals in due course, but users who upgraded from an earlier version will have to pay for the new guides (£86 for the basic Form Z manual or £116 for the full manual which also covers RenderZone and RadioZity).

For those with an architectural or product design bent, Form Z still represents one of the most complete and affordable visualisation solutions. Organic modelling is still a little patchy (no pun intended), but the integrated 2D cad drafting tools and the new animation module make it a complete front-to-back solution for anyone who needs high-accuracy modelling and super-real rendering.

For information on Form Z by Auto des sys contact Gomark on tel 0171 731 7930 or www.formz.com/

Prices start at £1119; with RenderZone £1495; with RadioZity £1745

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