Live Picture – weird but quite wonderful

Version 2 of Live Picture works in real time and it’s fast. And with an interface by Kai Kraus it should be the business – but is it? Sutherland Lyall takes it for a spin

First some news. Over in San Francisco they’ve just had the MacWorld Expo. Judging by magazine previews it was not looking immensely exciting, apart from the clones of which we’ve seen too little this side of the Atlantic.

Daystar was going to show a $25 000 (16 500) six-slot version of its multi-processor clone (near-SG Indigo price) and Power Computing its low-end $1700 (1125) 120Mhz 601PowerPC machine with a nice big hard drive and 8Mb of RAM and a CD-ROM. Apple has waived its royalties on QuickTimeVR applications and the player can now be distributed free. The VR authoring tools bundle is now $600 (400).

A year ago we got very excited about Live Picture. At the time it cost about 3000 and wasn’t to be viewed as a Photoshop killer. After all, the latter was a bitmap program, Live Picture a top-end vector-based app. By the time we’d finished our test run, the price had dropped, oddly enough to exactly match Photoshop. We don’t think the current version 2 is yet quite suitable for graphic designers doing early visual experimenting, but with a few additions it may well become that. Whatever, there are some things you can do at the end phase of a graphics project for which in pre-Live Picture days you would have needed a workstation.

We tested Live Picture on a networked 8100 with 96Mb of memory and a pair of two gig drives, but remember that somebody involved in image manipulation may well take a completely different view from ours, which was based on the workings of a modern graphics studio.

The first thing about Live Picture which got everybody excited – apart from the fact that Kai Kraus designed the interface – was the fact that you could work in real time. That part of it is very fast – you see things happen on- screen just as you make them happen. But every image has lots of elements – and that means lots and lots of layers. Even with a load of memory everything starts slowing down as you start creating them. So instead of the all-slow rhythm of Photoshop, you have this increasingly interminable wait to change layers interspersed with the aforesaid real-time speed of execution – which is the same for a one meg file as it is for a 100 meg file.

The speed of this accentuates the grinding slowness of the changeover time. The frustration mounts and you end up doing the front-end stuff at low resolution with Photoshop and, once you’ve got client approval, then, maybe Live Picture.

As you know, the process of designing involves this backwards and forwards process and, ideally, the ability to keep effects isolated – which is to say on separate layers. OK, so Live Picture’s layers forced Photoshop to include layers in its current version, but users are remorseless in transforming new wonderful ways of doing things into minimum specification stuff in a few weeks. It needs to be said that with Live Picture’s layers, unlike Photoshop, you can undo things – weeks later if necessary. That’s actually because the image you work with on-screen is really a representation of the real file buried deep somewhere on the hard disk.

Another reason for not being comfortable with Live Picture at the concept and experimentation stage is its built-in effects. You wonder why they bothered to incorporate them in the first place. Version 2.5 is promised as coming with the capability of using Photoshop plug-ins, but version 2 doesn’t. Given our familiarity with the wonderful things you can do with plug-ins, Live Picture looks very sparse. Odd that, when you think who designed the interface and the fact that Kai’s and others’ plug-ins are available for the two standard vector-based apps FreeHand and Illustrator.

We came across several strangenesses. When you make a hard-edged stencil for text you end up with round-cornered characters. We checked the handbook and asked around but to no avail. The other is colours: we did a check in Photoshop using blocks of colours and found worrying discrepancies – like, for example, a green made up of 100 per cent yellow and 100 per cent cyan turning out in Photoshop as being 92 per cent cyan, 90 per cent yellow and 2 per cent black. A 100 per cent Live Picture black was 65 per cent cyan, 53 per cent magenta and 51 per cent yellow in Photoshop. And so on. These were sufficiently different to be visible – and would be to a client with a tightly specified identity.

Some of these little problems may be addressed by version 2.5, which apparently adds EPS file- import and export, has direct support for Photoshop filters and ColorSync and allows you to export alpha channels to TIFF, Photoshop and IVUE format files. Minimum RAM will be 18Mb.

Electronic colonials, we’re waiting for the gods to send the upgrade in silver flying machines from across the big water. Meantime, we’re using Photoshop and Live Picture.

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