Techniques to be quick on the draw

How could 2D designers find 3D apps beneficial? Sutherland Lyall provides some explanations and takes a look at the latest 3D apps on the market

Last year when Apple brought out Quickdraw 3D, its 3D API (application program interface), a lot of graphics designers said: “Nice, but will I ever use it?” Now Microsoft has brought out its Direct3D API which does the same thing. Which means you’ve got to take all this 3D stuff a bit more seriously. Incidentally, Apple’s PC version may be out in time to wipe out Direct3D (which isn’t shipping until the middle of the year) in the way its QuickTime wiped out Microsoft Video for Windows. Well, almost. Microsoft has responded with the cross-platform full-screen movie API, called ActiveMovie, which will be embedded in Mac apps before the end of the year. And Apple has co-responded with QuickDraw 3D RAVE which is available sooner and enables 3D in software. Meanwhile, QuickTime 2.2 has been ported over to Silicon Graphics’ UNIX-based operating system.

But as an essentially 2D graphic designer, are you really likely to need 3D software? I’m always impressed with the flexibility of designers in the sense that on the topic of applications they move very rapidly from a phase of grumpy disdain to wild-eyed enthusiasm to bitter complaint that the available features aren’t powerful enough – features for which, the month before, they would have killed, buried and exhumed either set of beloved grandparents. So I wasn’t too worried at the reluctance of our reviewers to take a long hard look at a bunch of serious and newly Quickdraw-aware 3D apps – to whit Strata Studio Pro Blitz, Specular’s Infini-D 3.1 and Ray Dream’s Studio 4.0. We’re already at phase two: the most recent view about these new 3D apps is amazement at what they can do.

Infini-D at around 600 is an oldie – we reviewed earlier marques several years ago – which has been vectorised, and version 3.1 is a hasty revision of a not-so-hot-release 3.0. StudioPro Blitz was the most expensive at 1000. Ray Dream at 375 is probably the cheapest – and on balance the best value. These apps allow you to do much the same things: you can build shapes from 3D primitives or you can create your own by picking spline points and distorting the original shape or, in the case of Ray Dream, selecting an object from a library and distorting it. The objects can then be placed in 3D settings or imported into Photoshop for rendering as a print image or anything – you may, for example, be moving towards Web page design. And most 3D systems incorporate some form of animation.

One thing our reviewers emphasised is that you have to read the manuals, not least because designers have to adjust their mind-set from flat to 3D Cartesian space, where there is an extra axis for everything from the objects themselves to camera and lighting positions, reflections and refractions. If there is a criticism of Infini-D it is that you have to read the manual more than you want to and that, although there is high level of commonality in the tools offered by each of the apps, Infini-D lacked a few of the features of the other two.

OK, but why would 2D designers want 3D apps? Well, there are a lot of good reasons. The first is that they’re there, and they add to the number of tools the graphic designer has to hand. Second is that many images produced by print-based graphic designers are 2D representations of 3D objects. In some cases it’s easier to build a 3D model of an image in Ray Dream than to fake one up the way you do now in, say, FreeHand. That makes sense when you’re not sure which view of the object is going to look best – or when you want to replicate the object at different angles – or when you want to have a number of inter-related 3D objects but aren’t sure how they will best be inter-related. It turns out to be very useful, but more important long-term is the fact that graphic design is a mutable thing, and CD-ROM design and Web page design are part of that mutability as they are potentially lucrative market areas for graphic designers.

The fee for a heavy-duty Web site can be around 50 000, and even higher figures are being paid for Web sites with all the bells and whistles and databases, and designers don’t have the skills to do the serious techie stuff. So getting to know one or other of these first generation of Quickdraw 3D-aware apps is probably a part of any serious long-term strategy for designers.

Which one to go for? We’re not sure because our reviewers, who used the apps on real projects, liked them both. But for the time being, and until the second generation of 3D apps hits the Mac, we’ll settle on Ray Dream Studio.

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