What is it about 3D which makes it so appealing, so attractive?

With 3D design becoming popular across a broader base of users, Sutherland Lyall investigates the latest of the wide range of computer software available

Product designers use it because their thing is 3D design and there is a solid body of high end CAD/CAM and 3D surface modelling software out there. Same with architects, interior designers and space planners who use AutoCad or one of its clones. Whizzkid architectural illustrators such as Hayes Davidson use everything going. Animation and special effects studios use high end and expensive SGI (Silicon Graphics) applications. And now even graphic designers do it on the Mac. Everybody’s at it. Hold on there – graphic designers? Do they really need 3D?

The answer seems to be yes, and there’s a theory which suggests it’s simply because they want it to be known that they can do just as complicated things as the rest of the design community. Still, you do find a lot of 2D designers telling themselves, often correctly, that the extra effort and file space involved in building a 3D model is worth it. It’s worth it because the chances are that if you get the orientation of a drawing of a 3D object just a bit off, you have to do it all over again. Especially when your client has decided to go hands-on. With a 3D application running the design, all you do is move the 3D elements around a bit until they’re spot on.

This also seems to be seductive to multimedia designers – even web designers – despite the disincentive offered by the massive download-time when incorporating anything other than simple graphics in Net pages.

Another explanation for this 3D obsession is simply because it is possible – and more or less affordable. This has been the case for around three years, since Apple launched its QuickTime 3D and the then-Mac-only graphics-heavies started bringing out new 3D applications and, since then, have regularly tuned them up. Today there is Strata’s Studio Pro (around 1200) and Macromedia’s Extreme 3D at half that price. There’s MetaCreation’s Infini-D, now in version 4 and with an allegedly 30 per cent faster rendering engine and some video-compositing-like effects at 650. Add to these three a whole bunch of cheaper applications for the consumer market. Back at the top of the range, there has been that expensive and idiosyncratic application Electric Image, years ahead of its time in its functions – and its 6000 price. Now coming up the straight is the current version 2.9 of the laboriously-named Autodessys Inc’s form.Z RenderZone which now allows you to apply metaballs to any shape, to apply shadows correctly to transparent objects and to match up the perspectives of objects dropped into the scene. Despite the 1500 price tag, it doesn’t do animation as many of the above do, not that all of them do animation totally satisfactorily anyway.

Over in Microsoft’s evil empire, at least in its Windows NT incarnation, heavy duty 3D programs have been around for a while and have become somewhat more sophisticated given the existence of AutoDesk’s 3DStudio Max, a natural extension of AutoCad the company’s industry standard PC-only CAD application. The program evolved into the current, 2500 3DStudio Max and is used on NT machines for 3D work in a wide range of design spheres, including the television industry where it is very popular, not surprising given the astronomical prices of Qantel applications. More importantly, in 1994, as a sign of its commitment to graphics, Microsoft spent $130m buying the powerful SGI 3D package SoftImage. Not content with being hardware of choice among the heavies, SGI itself bought the complementary and more expensive Alias and WaveFront, turning itself into a soft/hardware house. Much used by Industrial Light and Magic for such movies as Jurassic Park, SoftImage was ported to the NT platform – doubling sales and underlining at a stroke the heavy-duty graphics credentials of NT. SoftImage 3D version 3.7 works on NT and the two lower-end SGI machines, the O2 and the Octane. Its most recent enhancements have been such things as a 3D paint function, NURBS surface blending and the ease with which it can be customised. To come soon from this stable is the next version of SoftImage 3D code-named Sumatra. And there’s Digital Studio, like SGI’s Maya – a shot at creating the all-encompassing 3D animation environment. There’s also Newtech’s wonderful ex Amiga application, LightWave, originally developed for the Amiga and currently in version 5 which has been ported across to NT.

The necessarily small size of the audience for SGI applications, the thought of relatively astronomical development costs, and the juggernaut progress of Maya has probably put off more than a few potential developers. Even Houdini, the new somewhat 3DStudio Max-like 3D rendering application from Side Effects Software is actually a complete rewrite of the old SGI staple Prisms. Nevertheless, as Ian Bird, ex-601FX and one of the founders of the 14-month-old animation studio Eye, explains his company’s almost exclusive use of fully loaded SGI High and Maximum Impact Onyxs running Explore software thus: “Our thing is that we are a creative studio, not a facilities house. It’s simpler not to have to worry about the anorak stuff or a bunch of off-the-shelf subsidiary apps.” So it’s part of the Eye culture to operate entirely within the very broad limitations of Explore – and when it finally arrives, Maya. “In the end, it’s simpler to hire in the specialist stuff for the occasion.” he says.

Another occupant of the SGI citadel is award-winning 3D animator Christian Hogue. He takes a robust view about the current state of 3D, its style victims and its costs. His company, Lost in Space, deploys Macs, PCs and SGI machines. If you ask Hogue about 3D workstations with alpha processors of between 433MHz and 600MHz and dual Intel processors, he dismisses the emphasis manufacturers place on processor speed as misleading about the actual operation speed. “SGIs are presently viewed as the Ferraris but in reality most NT boxes at a half or a third of the cost can perform in a similar way and, with some applications, render twice as fast. And the maintenance and upgrade costs of my SGI machines and software is astronomical.” Nevertheless he reckons SGI applications are more interactive partly because of their better interfaces and partly because they are designed to be (and are) more real-time in use. But things are never static in the computer world: “There are some great graphics accelerators coming up on the PC.” So too with the Mac. Hogue characterises the current Mac operating system as “flaky”. “Plus the Mac is not sufficiently mass-market for enough 3D people to continue to develop for it.” Yet he believes that if Rhapsody could turn out to be an implementation of that stable operating system UNIX (not impossible) and if it could then embrace the OpenGL graphics technology used by SGI and Microsoft rather than the current and not highly regarded QuickTime 3D, the Mac could well have a continuing 3D graphics future.

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