NT Goes Head-to-Head with High-End Graphics Workstations

As Windows NT Server charges into the server and enterprise computing market, Windows NT Workstation is quietly becoming a major force in computer graphics. The release of Windows 95 has given rise to a crop of inexpensive and accessible 32-bit 3D graphics programs. Until now, these same features required high-end workstations and expensive, proprietary software.

3D modeling, rendering, and animation place tough demands on hardware and operating systems, and the memory requirements and complexity of this class of software can easily cause system crashes. Windows NT has become the ideal platform for many graphics professionals because of its stability, memory management, and multithreading capabilities, as well as its low cost and versatility. You can render images and animation in the background of your NT Workstation while you work with other graphics in the foreground.

Before NT, all but the most high-end workstations could be tied up for hours while you tried to render a single image. The straightforward networking capabilities of NT help with distributed rendering, meaning you can farm out an animation to a number of workstations and each one can produce different frames.

These new programs bring workstation capabilities to the average user and power and flexibility to experienced designers. In some cases, you can even perform modeling, rendering, and animation in a single view.

Any one of these programs is suitable for product design, architectural visualization, illustration, and short animation, and street prices are between $200 and $500. I tested these programs on a 133-MHz Pentium system with 32MB of RAM and a 2MB video card, minimum requirements for this type of work. Although all the programs will run on a 486, they showed some strain even on the Pentium with 3MB or 4MB projects. With the exception of Visual Reality, these programs only run on Intel platforms.


TriSpectives
3D/Eye's TriSpectives is a solid modeler. It is based on the ACIS engine, a new 3D file interchange standard developed by Spatial Technology, which makes TriSpectives an attractive addition to computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM), scientific visualization, and games development. This standard allows you to retain your models' spatial and physical property information while you exchange them between programs.

The tutorials offer a good introduction to the modeling and placement tools you use to build accurate models. TriSpectives has two metaphors for the workspace: Scene and Page (see screen 1). Scene is a 3D workspace where you build and render models and create animation. Page is a 2D view into a 3D world, where you arrange models to create illustrations.

You can store your objects, textures, and animation movements in "catalogs" and drag and drop them into a Scene. Users can even build their own catalogs so that they can use elements in other projects. TriSpectives uses IntelliShapes, which are basic geometric objects that have innate "knowledge" of gravity and position. This knowledge makes it easy to use them as building blocks for complex models. You can set anchors on objects to determine where they align with or link to other objects. You can then modify or combine the shapes with Boolean operations and Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines (NURBS), which are curves with greater control and complexity than Bezier curves. You can also modify the shapes by changing values in the property sheet, by dragging parts of the model, or by using 2D drawing tools. You can drag and drop textures on objects or on individual surfaces, and you can drop animation on individual objects or on the entire Scene.

Two nice features of TriSpectives are its abilities to bevel an object's edges from the property sheet and to hollow out, or "shell," an object to give it an inner and outer wall. You can add Smart Dimensions for precise placement of objects, but you are limited to technical drawings with these dimensions because font, letter size, and arrow types are not configurable except by editing the Registry.

You do all your work in a 3D window, which you can split if you want to look at more than one window at a time. Actually, split windows are essential because you can't save camera angles or views. Once you zoom, pan, or roll the view, you need to manually enter its coordinates or play with the view tools if you want to return to it.

You can create multiple scenes, but you have to individually populate each one with the objects. You can also use TriSpectives in a 3D Page mode to create a page layout with 2D and 3D elements. This is useful if you want to produce illustrations and brochures.

TriSpectives will import and export Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) files, the new virtual-reality 3D format for the World Wide Web. You can even configure the program with Netscape to act as a VRML viewer. TriSpectives is Microsoft Office-compatible: This means you can embed data from any Office application in the program, and you can embed TriSpectives data in any Office application.

TriSpectives can quickly generate final output renderings. However, setting up a final rendering is confusing because the dialog for defining output size and resolution doesn't appear until after you choose File/Export Image and name the output file. Other programs let you set the parameters first.

I found the program's initial performance painfully slow. I called the company's technical support and they told me to change the Registry setting for HKEY_CURRENT_USER/Software/3DEYE/TriSpectives 1.0/Raster/DeviceRaster Type from 5 to 6. Although technical-support representatives are helpful and knowledgeable, you are billed on a per-incident basis after the first free call. You can find free support and a 30-day trial CD-ROM on the 3D/Eye Web site. The trial product is free, but you will need to pay shipping and handling.

TriSpectives 1.0
System Requirements: Windows NT Workstation 3.51, Pentium or higher, 32MB of RAM, 2MB video card
3D/Eye * 800-946-9533
Web: http://www.eye.com
Price: $495



Visual Reality
Remember those times you've opened a new software package and discovered that the program was so huge it required seven floppy disks? Well, Visual Reality 2.0 ships with seven CDs. The first one contains the program, and the other six contain 2.5GB of models, textures, animation, video clips, and complete projects.

Visual Reality includes a number of separate applications. The core is Renderize (see screen 2), which was the strongest rendering product I reviewed. Other modules are Visual Model, Visual Image, and Visual Font. Visual Reality has a long pedigree of NT development, and you can see the results in the program's speed and output quality. Even though it's not a ray tracer, Visual Reality produces more realistic renderings than do the other packages.

The Visual Reality interface is unusual, to say the least. At first it seems confusing, but excellent tutorials walk you through every nook and cranny of the program. You'll be able to produce beautiful images after you complete them. The keys to using the interface are three "wells," called View, Move, and Edit. You can drop objects, views, lights, materials, and animation into the wells, which will then bring up the modification options. With a little practice, the system becomes very efficient. Users can control every aspect of a rendering, ranging from how an image is wrapped around an object (mapping), to the transparency and reflectivity of a surface, to the degree of fog in the air and the density of the shadows. You can export your projects to VRML if all the textures are .GIF or .JPG images.

The program offers alpha-channel masks for converting your 2D images into 3D objects. For example, if you have a photo of a tree against a solid blue background, you can make the blue transparent by setting blue as the alpha channel. The leaves and branches will cast accurate shadows, and you have given the tree the illusion of being 3D by setting the bump depth. You can create elaborate, detailed renderings from simple models with this technique and can populate them with realistic people, animals, and plants.

You've probably heard the adage: "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Well, Visual Model is the weak link in the package. Although it's a competent and precise module, all the basic tools and some unusual features (including the surface-deformation tools in the Munge menu) make it confusing. Even experienced designers will need to keep the manual close at hand.

All the packages I reviewed allow you to extrude text into 3D forms, but Visual Font is by far the most sophisticated (see screen 3). The well-designed interface lets you instantly preview extrusions, bevels, offsets, and other deformations. You can fit the text to a path and export it directly into Renderize. You can return to Visual Font and edit the text as long as your Renderize session is open. Visual Font comes with eight predefined bevels, which you can invert and stretch. The information on bevels is stored in an ASCII text file so it's available for user customization.

The animation features in Visual Reality 2.0 are vastly improved from the previous version. Users can move any object, camera, light, or texture individually or as linked items. You can assign separate texture and bump maps to an object and animate them separately. For example, you can use one image as a texture map on water for the color and pattern while you use another as the bump map to create the waves. For some spectacular animation, users can set the texture map to undulate slightly while the bump map moves diagonally. The manual is thorough, and Visual Software offers free telephone technical support if you do run into problems.

Visual Reality 2.0
System Requirements: Windows NT Workstation 3.51, Pentium or better, 32MB of RAM, 2MB video card
Visual Software * 800-669-7318
Price: $200

Extreme 3D
Macromedia is preparing Extreme 3D, the successor to MacroModel. It should be shipping by the time you read this. Extreme 3D is a polygonal surface modeler that uses spline-based modeling and familiar 2D drawing tools to create its models (see screen 4). Although it's billed as CAD-accurate to 15 decimal places, the strength of Extreme 3D is really in organic modeling. The accuracy and drawing tools in Extreme 3D are serious competition for the other programs in this mini-roundup, but the program's interface in the Beta 3 version I reviewed seriously hampers it.

An important consideration Macromedia developers had when designing Extreme 3D was its compatibility with the Macintosh version and Macromedia's other products. Thus, the product is a good choice for anyone who uses Director or Freehand or works in a mixed-platform environment. It uses an old Macintosh interface that has trouble adapting to the 1024 x 768 or higher-resolution displays most designers use for their graphics. Dialogs and the status bars use a painfully small proprietary screen font, and important commands are buried beneath several menus. These commands are available via hot keys, but some of the key combinations, such as Ctrl+Z for undo, come from the Mac background and not from Windows. The developers are aware of these problems and promised to try and address some of them in time for the final release.

A single window can support multiple render styles for different objects. This means that once you've set the textures for an object, you can switch it to display as a bounding-box or a wire-frame for improved display speed while you work on other objects in shaded mode. The animation tools are easy to use and allow you to have independent control over any object, light, camera, or material property. Users can edit all the paths and objects in their animations. For example, paths can be edited as splines. The program also supports time-based and frame-based animation, as well as cross-platform distributed rendering. This means that an animation can be rendered across multiple machines in a network, including the Mac and Windows. Extreme 3D uses the same "score" as Macromedia Director to control the time and frame aspects of an animation and will produce high-resolution images, up to 8000 x 8000, for output to print.

If developers bring the interface up to the usability level of CorelDream (see the sidebar "3D by Corel" on page 87) and TriSpectives, Extreme 3D will be a strong competitor. For instance, CorelDream and TriSpectives allow users to click on an object and bring up an editable properties dialog where users can scale, move, rotate, stretch, and otherwise modify the object. Extreme 3D allows some of this in a properties box you can access with a hot key, but the other two programs offer more control. All three programs offer tree-structured hierarchical views of the objects, lights, and cameras in a project, but CorelDream and TriSpectives let you edit the objects directly from the tree.

Extreme 3D Beta 3
System Requirements: Windows NT Workstation 3.51, Pentium or better, 32MB of RAM, 2MB video card
Macromedia * 800-326-2128
Web: http://www.macromedia.com
Price: $495



Challengers
There are other 3D products that are ready to challenge these four. Ray Dream did not sit still after letting Corel have the core of its Designer 3.0. The company has just shipped its latest offering, Ray Dream Studio 4.0. The product is designed around the Windows 95 user interface and features a simplified command structure, improved camera and light manipulations, and a variety of wizards. The wizards include a Modeling Wizard and a Scene Wizard, which are used to create indoor, outdoor, and studio scenes ready for the placement of objects. Studio incorporates Ray Dream Animator and features high-end tools such as rotoscoping and inverse kinematics. With rotoscoping, you can use movie clips as texture maps or backgrounds to create sophisticated animations. Inverse kinematics is a method of linking objects so that pulling on one will pull another. For example, if you pull a dog's leash, its head will turn toward you and it will dig its feet into the ground to resist you.

TrueSpace 2.0 from Caligari is a well-designed and well-rounded product. It includes Boolean capabilities, rotoscoping, procedural textures, Adobe Photoshop plug-in support, and interactive rendering with Intel's 3DR application programming interface (API). It has excellent surface deformation tools, and navigating the 3D workspace is easy. Similar to TriSpectives, TrueSpace 2.0 will produce VRML files. Its unusual interface is almost entirely based on icons, the sheer number of which can cause problems if you're trying to use the program on a high-resolution display. This 16-bit application requires a fast machine for designers who want to use it under NT. The company is also working on a Windows 95 version of TrueSpace 2.0. Unfortunately, Intel is steering away from development of 3DR in favor of Microsoft's Reality Lab/Direct 3D, and this could leave Caligari in the lurch.

Real 3D Version 3 from Realsoft International is a 32-bit that program that includes extensive modeling, animation, and rendering features, including spline modeling, rotoscoping, collision deformation, and inverse kinematics. You can draw a spline on an uneven surface and build a new object from it while conforming to the initial surface.


New Horizons for NT
Each of these programs has its strengths and its weaknesses. TriSpectives is best at quickly creating accurate and complex models, is well-suited for engineering and architectural visualization, and can quickly output rendering. Visual Reality is best suited for creating stunning renderings and animations from its 3D clip art and images or from models you create in other programs. The output it generates will rival that of any product available on any platform. A combination of Visual Reality for rendering, and any of the others for modeling, will bring excellent results.

Windows NT is taking over where the Commodore Amiga left off and going head-to-head with the high-end graphics workstations. A $4000 computer can produce the same graphics you used to output on a $30,000 workstation just a year or two ago.