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Viz grows up

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Architech: 3D Studio Viz 2.0 is perhaps the best visualisation tool for AutoCAD users. Here we look at why

To celebrate its birthday Kinetix has released a major upgrade to its design visualisation software 3D Studio Viz. Viz 2.0 is the result of considerable development work involving both in-house code unification and producing items from users' wish-lists. Kinetix has also provided third-party developers with a solid foundation for plug-in creation with the code base of Viz now identical to that of the recently released 3D Studio Max 2.5. This is important as all plug-ins designed for Max that do not rely on sub-object animation will work with Viz.

DWG Linking, undoubtedly one of the major new features in this release, allows dynamic links between 3D sessions and any number of AutoCAD .dwg drawings. Drawings used to create 3D models are monitored and the user is alerted if any changes to those files takes place. This allows any number of Xref drawings to be used to generate a 3D visualisation, while allowing the design team to carry on working on the basic information. This is a major step forward for Viz - the majority of registered Viz users are architects and as such may well be using AutoCAD for design development and production information.

'Links were made one-way only as the introduction of two-way updating would lead to some complex management issues and users felt this could cause problems with document management on large projects,' comments Noah Kennedy from the development team. 'It may well be undesirable to have production information altered by the visualiation process and this could cause problems and confusion down the line. It would also be technically difficult to achieve.'

Non AutoCAD users have not been ignored as Viz gives you the option to install a .dgn translator for use with MicroStation files. While this did prove stable you can't link drawings in the same way, making the overall system much less useful.

Textures, as well as both Max and .dwg files, can be added to designs by dropping and dragging into the scene. Thumbnail images of scenes are positioned in the same way. The asset manger also respects and recognises any layering commands within files in .dwg format. This, along with the object nature of the code, means that even 2D representations of a 3D object can be converted into a visualisation. Links are made between Viz 2.0 and the object in question and you have the option of including or excluding anylayers from within the original model.

Another useful featureis instance and reference objects. These can be used to create object classes that share geometric characteristics - modifying one object can force all instances of the object to inherit the modification.

The object renderer itself supports Autodesk's Heidi graphics system to give real-time viewing and manipulation. As one would expect from a software system that runs under Windows NT, the renderer supports OpenGL and Direct3D. Features offered include selective ray-tracing, real-world cameras, analytical aliasing, screen-motion blur and Blinn rendering.

Five shadow-casting light types are offered from conical and parallel spotlights to omni-directional lights. Realistic lighting fall-off is another feature as well as volumetric lighting, fog and a host of atmospheric effects. Integrated effects, such as noise integrated with material properties, have been added to enhance presentations.

A new rendering engine, meanwhile, provides Viz users with selective ray-tracing, precise lighting and screen motion blur, all adding to the sense of realism that can be created. That said, radiosity is still only available via a plug-in, which seems a major omission as radiosity is often the best rendering solution for subtle interior and natural lighting situations. LightScape, now owned by Discreet Logic and renamed Light, is perhaps the best rendering solution for architectual projects at the moment and works well with Viz. If you want to produce images with a natural media feel, Piranesi from Informatix also works extremely well with the software.

Rendering and visualising are only the start of the process for many Viz users, with the production of animation the ultimate goal. A 'walkthrough assistant' does very much as its name suggests, but also lets you define sky, lighting and atmospheric conditions. Once again, here Max functionality is being used well. You can draw a spline in the Viz environment and an object will follow any path created. You can fine-tune subtleties of motion and create hierarchies of movement. Animation can be fully scripted and Kinetix ships sample scripts with the software to help users avoid common animation blunders. A spacing tool offers interior designers the chance to use a spline or snap points to define a space and then set parameters for the total number of objects needed to fit the space or to fix the total space needed. It is also very easy to add real world scenes to Viz models, perhaps snapped with a digital camera.

Another improvement in animation is limited support for sub-object animation. While not every object in Viz can be animated, as in 3D Studio Max, sub- objects such as windows and door components can be, to produce more realistic animations. Kinetix obviously realised how frustrating it was for users not to have this ability in 1.0 and now provides fully parametric objects with built-in behaviours. This allows windows to be placed, edited and animated without the user needing to do any work under the hood. New smart objects, including walls, stairs, railings and trees, are also fully parameterised so they can be virtually any size. Real-time feedback means that most object types can be created on the fly.

Alternatively, panoramas of rendered images can be built up quite quickly. Individual views of the camera are rendered seperately and can then be stitched together for one composite image. This acts in a very similar way to QuickTime VR and is used in a similar full spherical rendering perspective. A file-reduction algorithm makes sure that the final scene is no bigger than about 500K. At this size, the image is ideal for the Internet.

To enable the more extensive use of Viz, Kinetix has collaborated with Intergraph to incorporate .dgn format input and output capabilities into 2.0. This means users of MicroStation and Intergraph software can work with Viz without the need to come out of their native file format.

Viz 2.0 represents a maturing of the product and with the links to AutoCAD should prove itself an invaluable tool for designers in all disciplines requiring 3D working. The release of 1.0 was over-shadowed by AutoCAD R14 and as such didn't receive the marketing push it deserved. Let's hope Kinetix gets fully behind this version as it is a stable and flexible working environment that even novice users can quickly benefit from.

Viz 2.0 is available from Kinetix for £1495, upgrade from version 1.0 £375. Contact Kinetix 01483 303322 or www.ktx.com.

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