9 July 2001
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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If you've been reading Spectrum for a while, you might remember something called Spectrum Reviews; a special edition of the newsletter with original reviews of multimedia software. We're pleased to announce that, with this edition, we've incorporated Spectrum Reviews into the weekly newsletter, with reviews this week of Corel Painter 6 and Electric Image's Amorphium Pro. Both are new versions of programs we've reviewed in the past (Painter in Morph's Outpost), and graphics software enthusiasts will find a good deal of interest in these much-improved updates. Please let us know what you think, and what you'd like to see reviewed in future editions of Spectrum.
- David Duberman
High Speed Net Solutions, Inc., d/b/a Summus, says its BlueFuel architecture, currently in development, will represent a breakthrough for delivering multimedia content to mobile subscribers. Through technology referred to as Cool Processing and mathematical techniques, BlueFuel will reportedly deliver a high-performance multimedia solution at very low MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second), generating less heat, improving battery life, and eliminating the need for an expensive graphics co-processor.
The plans for BlueFuel product suite includes the following:
For more information, contact Laurel Moody at Vision Corporate Consulting, 212-484-5313, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Germany-based Lightcube GmbH last week announced the availability of gxSDK, a software package for the development of real-time 3D applications. gxSDK is based on RealityGX (or "GX"), Lightcube's software technology for real-time simulation and visualization of interactive 3D worlds.
The GX object-oriented programming model is said to provide scalability and extensibility, and the open architecture of the GX runtime system lets developers custom-tailor it using the built-in C/C++ API.
3D objects, scenes and complete animations can be imported from 3D modeling packages such as 3D Studio Max, LightWave or Cinema 4D using the .3DS file format.
An integrated scripting language lets developers equip 3D objects with code that describes object properties and application logic. Communication and interaction of objects is defined using the built-in messaging and event system.
GX applications are pre-compiled into a special microcode, designed to provide maximum runtime performance and platform independence.
The GX technology features real-time lighting, shadows, positional audio, particle system, inverse kinematics and procedural animation, procedural terrains, portal technology, and a 3D graphical user interface (GUI).
Newly available for Macintosh computers from Realviz is Stitcher V 3.0, a stand-alone application for creating panoramic images up to 360 x 360 degrees. Stitcher can be used to create panoramas for print, architectural visualization, feature film and television effects, and cylindrical and spherical panoramas for the Web. As the first Realviz product for the Mac, Stitcher currently supports Mac OS 9 and is in beta for Mac OS X.
New feature enhancements over version 1.5, which was released in the autumn of 2000, include file export to QuickTime 5 and Macromedia Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio (Windows NT/2000 Professional), as well as a sleeker engine design, a new interface and improved memory management.
Coming this fall from Electronic Arts is The Sims Hot Date Expansion Pack, a new add-on disk to the hit PC game The Sims. The dating-oriented expansion pack adds new characters, interests, romance objects, and a new Downtown area filled with restaurants, shops and parks.
Players can have their Sims ask each other out on a date or try their luck with an in-game dating service. Arrange to meet another Sim Downtown at romantic locations that the player can create.
Once your Sim is out with that special someone, additional interests and new interactions keep the conversation flowing and chemistry clicking. Sims can now flirt, play footsie, engage in a little tonsil hockey, or converse in Simlish about new and diverse interests. Being a fun and fascinating date gets your Sim one step closer to a goodnight kiss or more.
Players can watch sparks fly or fizzle as their Sims meet and date a host of new characters. Sims can spurn the advances of The Jock, welcome the overtures of the Femme Fatale, find true lust with Mr. Medallion, or strike out with the Blonde Bombshell. Over 100 new objects, including the Picnic Basket, Cuddle Couch and the Love Tub, allow players to set the mood for their Sims.
Active Learning Associates, Inc. will hold a three-day institute for individuals who design interactive media for children. It will be held September 23-25, 2001 in Lambertville, NJ.
* Sunday banquet - Mark Schlichting (Noodleworks, formerly Living Books) and Shelley Day (Hulabee, formerly Humongous)
* Monday breakfast - Bernadette Gonzalez (JumpStart/Knowledge Adventure)
* Monday lunch - James Oppenheim (NBC Today Show/Child/Oppenheim Toy Portfolio)
* Tuesday lunch - Aleen Stein (Voyager/Organa/Scholastic) will give closing remarks.
* Facilitators for the event will be Warren Buckleitner, Ann Orr and Ellen Wolock of Children's Software Revue.
The preliminary agenda:
* The 10 best and 10 worst designed products of 2000
* How to make products that work with today's Internet
* How to design decision points and leveling in games
* How to make a four-star product into a five-star product
* The five most common and effective AI techniques applied to children's products
* Five rules for increasing child engagement and persistence
* A hardware-centric view: A look at specific design issues as they relate to Win, Mac OS, smart toys, GBA, DVD players and game consoles in the coming two years.
* Predictions: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years
by David Duberman
Two years ago to the day, in the July 9, 1999 edition of Spectrum Reviews, I reviewed Amorphium, a powerful, easy-to-use 3D modeling app for Windows and Mac. At that time, I used superlatives like "… its super-interactive displacement mapping and distortion absolutely must be experienced …" and "Amorphium … makes virtual sculpting accessible, easy and enjoyable." The program was later published by Play Inc., which subsequently sold it to Electric Image, who then souped it up into a new version now available as Amorphium Pro. The awesome accessibility is still there, for the most part, but scads of new features make it even more compelling.
Basically, Amorphium Pro (AP) lets you model by painting displacement onto an object surface. You start by adding a built-in primitive object, such as a sphere or cube, or you can import objects in a variety of formats, including 3D Studio, LightWave, and Wavefront. Then, using a variety of 3D brushes, you push and pull the object surface to deform it. Each brush (a default assortment of 14 is supplied) is a shape made by revolving a curve around a central axis, with optional noise added to roughen the tool surface. A major new feature in this version lets you modify the curve that forms the brush using a special editor window. You can also duplicate and delete brushes; any changes get saved with the program.
You can limit a brush's modeling coverage with the Mask tools; you can mask or unmask the entire object, paint or erase a mask freehand, or drag out a rectangular or oval mask or unmask area. You can also invert masks, and smooth their edges.
You can also use brushes to paint color onto objects, and for texture mapping AP's toolset is comparable to Amorphium's. The latter's nifty Paint Texture feature, where you could use a brush to move parts of the texture around, has been more descriptively renamed "Liquify" (sic). AP also adds some a number of procedural textures, such as Wood and Stucco, and some sophisticated mixing methods, such as the ability to combine two textures on a surface using a third to define where each goes.
Another way AP lets you modify objects is with the FX toolset. These normally affect the entire object, but can be limited with masks. They couldn't be easier to use: You pick an effect, and then drag in a window to apply it. The names are descriptive: Bend applies bends, Noise adds surface irregularities, and Twist and Twirl inflicts different types of spiral distortion. In some cases, AP adds parameters that weren't present before; for instance, Spike now lets you set the number of protuberances. Amorphium had 24 "Distorts"; AP bumps the total up to 35. Five of the new effects involve painting procedural textures such as clouds, veins, and marble onto the object surface; unfortunately, no parameters other than color are available for these. You can also paint a custom material onto the object. Other new effects include Displace, Normal Displace, and Smooth Paint. Chances are you won't be using these too often, but they're nice to have, just in case.
A third modeling method is HeightShop, aka displacement mapping. This hasn't changed in AP: You load an image, choose a combination of RGB/alpha channels, optionally modify the brightness and/or contrast, specify how it's to be mapped--planar, cylindrical, or spherical--and let 'er rip.
For more organic modeling, AP offers BioSpheres, which you might know as "metaballs." These are mathematically calculated spheres that affect each other's shape. Normally, when they're close together, you get an adjustable physical connection that fills the space between them, akin to how drops of mercury interact. You can also set a negative "energy" so one sphere indents another. In Amorphium, the working view of the spheres was rough; they looked "chunky" and you had to go to a non-interactive preview mode to see them smoothed. In AP, the working view is relatively smooth, so you can get a much better idea of the final result as you model.
So what else is new? First and foremost, the entire user interface has been altered radically in a number of ways. All the icons have been revised. More importantly, you can now resize the workspace window by dragging a corner (the contents scale automatically to fit), and you can move the tool and settings palettes around. You can have as many view windows as you like and position them manually, or let the program open up a dual-view or quad view setup, which is saved and loaded with the scene file.
The overall look and feel is a lot more utilitarian, a step back from the perhaps overly ornate, Kai-influenced interface of the previous version. For example, to move or rotate an object, instead of first selecting the object, and then dragging over a palette tool, you first activate the tool, and then manipulate the object directly in the viewport. This goes along with the increased scene-setup capabilities in Composer (the only module that lets you see more than one object at a time). For instance, Composer now lets you set up object hierarchies, so important for character modeling and animation.
Speaking of animation, AP takes a quantum leap over Amorphium's primitive capabilities, adding a timeline that lets you set any number of keyframes for objects, lights, camera and so on. You can animate transforms as well as modeling changes, move keys by dragging them, and interactively set the animation length in seconds. It would be nice if you could expand the timeline window to reduce scrolling, but I guess EI had to leave something for version 2! When it comes time to render, you can output animations as QuickTime, animated GIF, and … (drumroll) … Flash! Flash output options include edges on/off, cartoon-style surfaces, and gradient surfaces. This makes it easy to output your animations to the Web.
In Amorphium, you could add a pervasive fog/smoke element to the scene, but in AP, you add a Fog sphere that you can size and position. Inside the sphere the fog is convincingly wispy, but it drops off unrealistically at the volume boundaries. Other rendering options include raytracing and radiosity, which simulates the real-world interaction between light and colored surfaces.
Also revised was the method for adding new objects. Instead of a New menu in the main interface, object creation, in most cases, is available from icon based menus that fly out from the Composer palette. You can tear these off so they stand freely in the workspace, by the way. And instead of instantly creating the object when you choose its type (sphere, cube, cone, etc.), you now get a dialog that lets you specify the mesh resolution as Organic, a high-resolution mesh best suited for Amorphium's deform tools, or as Synthetic, where you specify the resolution. Then you drag it out in one or two steps in a window. As a consequence of this somewhat arbitrary design decision, you must create your initial BioSphere in Composer, and then go to the BioSphere module to add/edit/manipulate spheres.
AP adds an entirely new object type: Wax. As with BioSpheres, you add the object--a sphere, cylinder, cube, cone, torus, or converted object--in Composer, and then jump to the Wax module to work with it. Here you can "melt" the wax, causing indentations, or add wax, causing elongated knobs to protrude from the surface. You can set the modeling tool's radius and pressure, but you can't change its shape. Working with wax takes a bit of getting used to--you need to move the mouse slowly--but ultimately it gives you more control over the modeling process than the other methods in AP.
Overall EI has added a tremendous amount of functionality to Amorphium, but at the cost of some of the integration that made the original version so friendly. I liked that you could add (or delete) an object from almost any module, and that it would automatically replace the previous one. It was also handy to have all the modeling tools--brushes and distorts--present in one module; so easy to go back and forth. And while the object transform tools took a bit of getting used to, they saved a step; just drag on the tool, instead of the new, more traditional method of having to click the tool, and then drag in the workspace. And the original interface was certainly more attractive; elegant, in a flashy way. Also, the manual is sketchy, and still comes in hard-copy only; EI needs to provide a more thorough online reference to make it easier to look stuff up.
But these are relatively minor quibbles. When you consider that this program costs $229, only $80 more than the original (a $50 rebate is available to purchasers of Amorphium), it's a no-brainer for anyone interested in innovative, straightforward 3D graphics software. The bottom line is that Amorphium Pro is not only fun, but highly useful as well.
by David Duberman
First there was Fractal Design Painter. Then came MetaCreations Painter, and then MetaCreations sold all their graphics apps to focus on Web 3D. So now, thankfully, we have Corel Painter, of which the latest version is 6.1. Through it all, the program has come packaged in a real paint can; that's fun, but incidental. What's important is that this "natural-media painting tool" has stuck close to its roots, while adding functionality out the wazoo. It's an amazing program, and I can't do it justice given the limited time I have to write this review, but I'll try. Basically, I'll touch upon the each of the most important features, but with the primary focus on new features and enhancements.
Photoshop is arguably the most important 2D graphics program around, and it's more than capable for a wide variety of tasks, especially compositing. But when it comes to creating art from scratch, or converting a photo into a seemingly painted image, Photoshop just isn't the best tool for the job. That's where Painter comes in; it takes advantage of its digital status in ways you can continue learning to exploit for years, if not a lifetime. In other words, Painter can do a lot that simulates real-world painting, but it can do far more that could never happen in the real world. For instance, each bristle of a camel-hair brush can use a different color, and the color set can be calculated, or derived from a gradient, or from a set of user-defined colors.
As with Photoshop, Painter's tools are organized into an icon-based palette. You have the usual array of tools that work pretty much as you'd expect: zoom (Magnify), pan (Grabber), Crop, various selection tools, geometric shapes and a Pen tool for drawing lines and Bezier curves. More functionality is available from program menus, including file commands such as Save and New. I like that the New dialog always remembers the last size you set, although Photoshop's penchant for automatically setting the size to be what's in the Clipboard can be handy. My opinion: both programs should default to the former, but also have a New-dialog choice for "Get Size from Clipboard."
The File-menu function Clone copies an image to a new document and overlays it with "onionskin" on which you can trace the original. You can automate the process using just about any brush, with varying degrees of success depending on the brush and settings you use. Similary, a special Mosaic function, with a limited degree of automation, can convert a picture to a grid of small tiles, with grout color of your choice.
Painter's combined equivalent of Photoshop's Image and Filter menus is called Effects, and offers standard functions such as tonal adjustments, as well as a number of unique ones including Marbling, which adds wavy distortions, and Blob, which inserts irregular circles of color or pattern, and warps the image around those. More useful are the Surface Control functions, which provide quasi-3D functions such as applying a paper texture. The Effects menu's "last filter" function improves on Photoshop in a couple of ways: It shows the two most recently used filters, instead of just one, and it re-opens the filter's dialog instead of automatically applying it again.
At the heart of Painter, and where it easily outshines the competition, is its impressive array of brushes. As has been traditional in Painter for most of its life, you can open a "drawer" that presents some of the brushes as colorful icons, but I find it easier to choose from the drop-down text menu, which offers such choices as Pencils, Pens, Brushes, Dry Media (such as chalk), and Felt Pens. Special brushes include Photo, with paint-on retouching effects such as Dodge, Burn, and Add Grain; and F/X, with variants such as Confusion, which sends pixels shooting off in random directions, and Hair Spray, which adds "fur" colored the same as the area you're painting. New in the Airbrushes category is the ability to respond intelligently to the stylus angle and tilt, producing a more realistic effect.
One major new feature in this area is the addition of "computed" brushes, based on the concept, introduced in Fractal Design's late, lamented Expression program, that you can draw vectors and simultaneously have them "stroked" with various painterly shapes. Thus, instead of laying down a series of separate dabs and hoping that they'll connect, the software extrapolates your input and draws a smooth line from it. Underlying this feature is an assortment of new computed dab types, such as Camel Hair (round) and Flat, and Palette Knife, which lets you scrape, push, or drag colors as you paint.
The brushes consume the lion's share of the user interface, so it's nice that the support palettes have been reorganized to produce a smoother workflow. The basic settings are now available in the new Brush Controls palette, where you'll find parameters such as Size, with the eminently useful new Minimum Size setting, Spacing, and Random, which lets you add jitter to your strokes. Each section is individually expandable, and sections not applicable to the current brush are grayed out. If you've expanded many sections, you can scroll through the palette; unfortunately, it doesn't respond to a wheel mouse. For those who like to have things just so, you can reorganize the palette by dragging section titles.
A font of more creative choices is the Art Materials palette, also new to Painter 6. Here's where you choose colors, paper textures (of which you can combine any number within a single document), gradients, patterns and weaves, color variability, and nozzles. The latter is used in Painter's Image Hose tool, recently copied in Photoshop, but still far more powerful in its Painter implementation.
Do I have any complaints about Painter 6? As with any highly complex software, the interface is sometimes confusing; it can be difficult to find out what something is, or how to do what you have in mind. This is exacerbated by the fact that the online help system takes the form of a number of Adobe Acrobat files, so there's no way to search the entire reference for a particular term. The printed manual, which is identical to the online help, mostly excels throughout its 503 pages, and adds a very good 31-page index, but there's no substitute for an effective search capability. With a little digging around, however, you can usually find out what you need to know.
While writing this review, I kept getting lost in Painter--in a positive way. Every time I fired it up to check out a feature, I found myself exploring a few other settings, and then more settings, and then a different brush, and then … It's the type of application that encourages exploration, and the more you explore, the more ways you find to be expressive. And that's a very good thing.
Spectrum is an independent news service published every Monday for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum covers the tools and technologies used to create interactive multimedia applications and infrastructure for business, education, and entertainment; and the interactive media industry scene. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.
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- David Duberman
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