Kid’s stuff

Designers investing in 3D graphics software could learn a lot from games arcades, says Sutherland Lyall

The software houses, especially the Mac software houses, are talking up 3D apps a storm – ostensibly on grounds of the new opportunities offered by QuickDraw 3D. But that’s only partly true, and a more credible theory is that they have grasped, perhaps intuitively, that events in adjacent worlds have almost overtaken them. One is in multimedia, the other in games.

It’s today’s Sonic the Hedgehog II generation which, round about now, should be starting to take a look at current earnest and perfectly serious multimedia offerings and ask who’s kidding who. What should be – and seems to be – happening is the end of a self-imposed delusion whose most easily understood parallel is pre-talkies people watching silent movies running at between 15 and 18 frames a second. Until very recently we were at the stage of those early watchers of the jerky Keystone Cops, who took it all perfectly seriously and innocently and genuinely reckoned they were watching a fair

simulacrum of reality. Today we now all comprehend the awfulness of clunky graphics, pathetic “friendly” control graphics, snail-like response rates, banal content and the general grim nerdishness which is inherent in almost all multimedia to date. It’s understandable, as one multimediaiste explains it: “In multimedia you soon get pissed off by the low level of technology and the poor speed because you have to produce it for a limited delivery platform, which in most cases will be an 8Mb 486 PC 8-bit colour machine or the equivalent Mac.”

But if the technology is inherently limiting, what is it that has changed our perception of the quality of multimedia? The answer is that probably nothing has change our perception, but what has happened is that there are perceptions of acceptable quality abroad borne by the new paint monkeys in the office and their younger siblings who have all been brought up in arcades playing games of extraordinary visual intensity and technical quality – and often of very intelligent design.

Games? You shudder delicately. Sorry, yes. Incidentally, should you think games a minor economic activity, go see your local Virgin store. And ponder the significance of the fact that Madonna’s Erotica album at 13 a copy was outsold three to one by Sonic the Hedgehog II – costing 40 a cartridge. And games all the more so since the introduction of the Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation consoles, which you use at home plugged into your TV set. The current war to the death between the two games giants is less interesting than their price (in the 400 region) and graphics performance you wouldn’t believe possible with a base RAM of only two megabytes – or even on your PowerPC9500 with a raft of RAM. There’s no doubt that the forthcoming range of 3D graphics cards for Mac and PC will have deployed technology transfer from the games console industry – and there’s a hint that the console boards might become available as add-on boards for your desktop. What has happened already is a transfer of the value judgements and aesthetic faculties inculcated by the intelligence and high quality graphics of games that you and I have probably never seen.

Perceptions of quality can change and travel rapidly. If multimedia looks amateurish in contrast to what you see on the 300 home console boxes, no-one is going to buy it any more. As one pundit puts it: “Once the 32-bit games standard is set, multimedia is going to look like crap and clients are going to start asking why.” And that’s why the new 3D graphics software had better be extremely good.m

New APIs

Traditionally, the Mac has not been used extensively for 3D work, mainly because the early 3D applications were developed on PC and Unix platforms for the CAD and architectural markets. The Mac began to be seen more as a “flat” graphics machine. Maybe this is set to change with the release of QuickDraw3D, Apple’s new system extension. In fact, both Microsoft and Apple are bringing out 3D APIs (application programmable interfaces) but QuickDraw3D is available now. It’s in the public domain – you download it for free and it’s built into all Mac operating systems sold from now on. In a sneaky but admirable Apple move, QuickDraw3D will soon be available for Windows 95 and all the other graphics platforms as well. So like the QuickTime movie format, it rather than Microsoft’s Direct3D could well become the de facto standard. The Apple API supports the various polygonal geometries as well as, and this is important, NURBs (see File formats). Shooting itself in the foot, Apple’s first release won’t allow you to write or read NURB-based files. It’s promised for later and is set to be a very open system which allows you to use your own apps for rendering, modelling and so on, should you want to. And you can use parallel processors such as the four PowerPC 604 processor Daystar Genesis MP – or a render farm. The file format is 3DMF (3DMetafile) which can contain any 3D information.

Earlier this year Microsoft bought London-based RenderMorphics together with its 3D engine, Reality Lab. Surprisingly, the Microsoft 3D API, called Direct3D, is not, apparently, a subset of Reality Lab and is probably not as powerful. It’s still in alpha test stage with the beta promised around Christmas. The upside is that cardmaker Creative Labs will be bringing out a low-cost, but very fast 3D card given the imaginative appellation 3DBlaster.

File formats

There are some interesting technical problems with 3D graphics. One is the file format. The current de facto standard is Autodesk’s DXF file interchange format. It’s an interchange format because it’s intended that DXF files from an app on any computer platform can be read by any DXF-aware app on any other platform. In practice it’s never as simple as that, but it works quite well in the construction industry, where more or less everybody uses AutoCad. DXF files are polygon-based, which is to say three-dimensional objects are described in terms of a whole lot of flat polygons joined up to each other forming a surface. That’s fine for construction. The difficulty is that almost all other heavy-duty professional 3D programs describe objects in much more sophisticated and often more economical ways based on curves and mathematical descriptions. The generic description is NURBS, non-uniform rational B-splines. An easy way to think of NURBs is to think of three-dimensional bezier curves. Like 2D bitmaps. 3D polygons can’t be scaled up. NURBs can. You’re not describing, for example, a sphere as an object made up of a large number of polygons, but as a single continuous curved surface. There is a spline-based file format, IGES, which is used in such “real” modelling as stereo-lithography and is being incorporated into most new 3D computer modelling applications. But the big new development for desktop 3D is the launch of the QuickDraw 3D system extension and the soon-to-come Direct3D from Microsoft. The Mac system, at least, will use 3D Metafiles format, though it is not yet clear what compatibility this has with the Iges standard.

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