Entering the realms of a new dimension

The software gurus seem to be falling over themselves in the scramble to release 3D packages, but what are the different apps offering?

You may have noticed a swell of announcements for a whole new raft of 3D apps, but what does it all mean? First off it plainly means the heavyweight software houses have decided there’s going to be a massive rush on 3D work for designers and that probably means animated 3D – of which most of the apps listed here are capable. Or maybe Apple’s release of QuickDraw3D suggests to them that Apple has the inside track on a blossoming of 3D work for designers. Or maybe it’s the Everest syndrome: because it’s there.

Of the recent announcements, Macromedia’s Extreme 3D, Strata’s Studio Pro, Ray Dream’s Studio and Specular’s InfiniD come immediately to mind. The latter is the only one actually shipping now but do have a look at its reception on users’ conferences before you buy. Meanwhile, we’re not sure what’s happening to the esoteric – and esoterically priced – Electric Image.

Over on the PC stand, there’s Superscape, New-Tech’s Lightwave, Hash’s Animation Master (soon, happily, for the Mac), the forthcoming AutoDesk 3DStudio, Caligari’s TrueSpace and Crystal Graphics’ Topas 5.1, to mention the main ones. Add to that the development by both Apple and Microsoft of 3D APIs (application programmable interfaces, see page 19) for their respective operating systems – and the current development of VRML, the 3D version of HTML (hyper text mark-up language) the Web site writing language.

This could all mean the end of an era for Silicon Graphics. Until now, if you wanted some 3D graphics you sent them out to a specialist such as Christian Hogue’s Lost in Space or to Rushes where they do the job stunningly on Silicon Graphics machines – at, naturally, SGI prices. Not their fault or, for that matter, SGI’s. It is the responsibility of the software suppliers who think nothing of starting at 18 000 for a graphics application.

Everyone is hoping that Lightwave, 700 on the PC (and originally a brilliant Amiga app), is going to make serious dents in that stratospheric approach to pricing when, soon, it goes Silicon Graphics at around the PC price. As one hotshot designer who had just bought 9500s pointed out recently: “We would have bought SG kit but the cost of abandoning our Mac software investment and starting a whole new investment an order of magnitude greater is simply not on.” That suggests that SGI might encourage Mac graphics software houses to build up a critical mass of well-loved graphics apps, plug-ins, Xtensions and so on which can be run on SGI machines. That is, sort of, starting to happen already – but only starting. The problem for SGI is that it could involve semi-abandoning the small band of SGI-faithful graphics software suppliers – including SGI’s own financial investment in several of the important ones, such as Alias at Wavefront. Or it could mean recalling software prices from outer space. Or it could be that SGI wants to remain a relatively low-volume supplier. Or perhaps this column should mind its own business. Who knows?

One interesting figure I offer to devout members of the First MacGraphics Church of CuperTino is that 3D Studio, exclusively (so far) a PC app, is used by more 3D TV graphics people than any other 3D graphics program. No, I can’t remember the source.

We know that Radius will be unveiling its NuBus-bus clones at Apple Expo next month. Not so certain is whether Daystar will send over one of its circa 7000, four-processor machines which use 604 chips in parallel. We are even less likely to see the Power Computing clones – the latest versions of which are tipped to offer a choice of mixed PCI and NuBus slots or an all-PCI bus. They are currently selling rather well in the US at prices not sufficiently below official Apple prices to quite make them compulsory buying.

Radius seems oddly wedded to NuBus, possibly because it sees a market gap now that Apple is going wholly PCI. But Power Computing provides a transition path in much the same way that PC users have combined ISA (old bus) and PCI slots. Trust Apple itself not to think of something so obvious and friendly – or to have heard the HiTech axiom that the primary bar to the adoption of new technology is investment in the old – or, to use the current buzz phrase, legacy technology.

As reported last month, Apple has screwed up on component ordering so all the above may be irrelevant because for a few months it’ll be difficult to get a firm delivery date for even the Mac originals. Incidentally, we hear that some enterprising US company has brought out a converter plug which slips into a new n500 series DIMM memory socket and allows you to use your old SIMMs. Hope to find out by next issue.

This column’s Internet e-mail address is lyall@dircon.co.uk. We’d be interested to hear from designers who have decided to reinstall System 7.1. DesignWeek is at design-week@centaur.co.uk.

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