Spectrum Review: Anark Studio 1.0
--X3D Accepted for MPEG-4 Standard
--Macromedia Unveils Flash MX
--Ulead Releases DVD Authoring Software --MS .NET Game a Hit with Developers
--Fathammer, TI Partner for Mobile 3D
IN THE INFOGROOVE
--Scientists Put AI in Set-Top Box
--Pulse Adds Lip-Synch for 3D Character Animation --Cebas Updates finalRender
--Electric Rain Ships Flash Renderer for Autodesk VIZ --Wildform Updates Flix Vectorized Video App --Softimage Offers Free, Non-Saving 3D Software
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
--Activision Ships Star Trek: Bridge Commander --Blizzard to Offer Warcraft III Collector's Edition --Midway Releases Gauntlet Dark Legacy for Gamecube --Microsoft Unveils 2002-2003 PC Game Titles
--Chardot, Lander to Get Props at GDC
Anark Studio, from the folks who brought us the weird AI "game" Galapagos and other genre-busting software, is a brand-new, hybrid Web/multimedia authoring system. It combines the compositing functions of a Discreet Combustion or Adobe After Effects with strong 3D-handling capabilities, and throws in scripting for interactivity, a la Macromedia Director, for good measure.
The user interface, as in other authoring programs, comprises a number of windows: the Project window, analogous to Director's Stage; a timeline window, which doubles as a hierarchical scene list that lets you select objects by name; the Inspector window, which shows and lets you manipulate object properties; and the ubiquitous Library, which serves as a repository for the project content.
You typically begin a new project by setting its properties: size, which can be fixed or scaled to fit the browser window; and whether the aspect ratio can vary. Next, you import resources into the Library for use in the presentation. Anark Studio supports a goodly variety of data types and formats, including image files in JPEG, BMP, TIFF, Targa, PNG, and the Photoshop-native PSD formats; 3D objects in 3DS format; sound files in WAV, MP3, AU, etc. (but not AIFF); and video files in QuickTime, AVI, and several other formats. One slight problem with importation is that in two cases, the format list goes off the right edge of the Files Of Type drop-down list in the Import dialog, so you might need to consult the documentation to determine whether a particular format is supported. Also, neither the Import dialog nor the Library let you preview imported resources. On the plus side, Anark Studio recognizes multiple objects in a single 3DS file, so you can import them en masse and then work with them one at a time.
Once you've imported some resources, you place them in the Project window by dragging them over from the Library. You can reposition, scale, and rotate them in the window by dragging. You can also transform objects using the numeric controls in the Inspector. You can do this via mouse or from the keyboard, but either way you need to do it one axis at a time. I wasn't able to consistently undo numeric transforms; sometimes it worked, but other times it didn't. It's also slightly strange that, when entering transforms with the keyboard, they take place immediately, so that if you're entering a multi-digit number, you get several transforms for the price of one. More beneficially, setting a color (say, of a light source) updates the presentation window in real time as you move the mouse about the color palette; that's handy.
You can also add object to the Library from its toolbar. Some these make sense, such as the 3D primitives: cube, cone, cylinder, rectangle, and sphere. There's also a Group element for combining objects. Others are puzzling: For example, you can add music and video elements, but there doesn't seem to be a way to attach data to them, and the documentation doesn't offer any explanation. On the plus side, the Library has a useful cleanup function that automatically deletes all unused resources.
Working with Graphics
If you drag an image into the window, it's automatically converted to an object by mapping the image onto a rectangle. You can then move, rotate, and scale this object, effectively giving it 3D capabilities. Anark Studio does a nice job dealing with alpha-channel info. Also, you can apply images as various types of maps: diffuse, opacity, specular, light, and supercharge. The latter is good for making images vivid. And on top of all this, you can specify the blending mode of the material of which the image is a part: screen, multiply, overlay, bleach, ghost, and saturate. Last but not least, you can specify two ways that images can be compressed in the presentation: quality (as with lossy JPEG compression) and size reduction. These settings are visible in the window as you adjust them.
Anark Studio also lets you map images onto more-interesting objects than planes; you can supposedly texture map any 3D object you can import. Once you've done so, you can adjust U and V position and scale, as well as UV rotation and tiling on U and V. And in addition to UV mapping, you can apply an image as a camera projection, an object projection, or an environmental map. With all three of the latter mapping types, the image stays more or less fixed as the object rotates, but there are marked differences that are difficult to describe, but fairly obvious once you see them. At any rate, it's nice to have a choice. On the downside, I didn't have much luck importing an image and then applying it to a 3D object; the texture just wasn't visible in UV mapping mode. Fortunately, a texture-mapped object exported from 3ds max in 3DS format came into Anark Studio just fine, texture and all, and I could then manipulate the UV mapping using the aforementioned tools.
You create animation in Anark Studio using the traditional keyframe method. In the timeline, you enable property channels you want to animate, then go to a frame at which you want to set a key, then transform the object to be animated, and lastly press F6 to set keys for all enabled channels in which a transform has been made. Alternatively, you can set keys one channel at a time. Anark doesn't automatically set keys when you transform something, which can be a blessing, or a curse if you're forgetful. You can move keys in the timeline and set their interpolation--ease in and ease out. However, you can't gang-select keys; you have to Shift-click each one, which can be time-consuming if you have a lot of them.
For procedural animation and interactivity, Anark Studio comes with a library of drag-and-drop behaviors, grouped into four categories. Action behaviors include Jitter, which adds randomness to object motion, and Rotator, which animates the rotation of an object to a certain value when specified events occur. More sophisticated Actions include ParticleEmitter--a simple particle system--and Swarm, in which each object's direction and speed are based on the direction and speed of its neighbors.
The Event behavior category includes tools that let you activate and deactivate object properties, set whether or not an object can receive events, and control playback of audio and video. Then there's the Animation category, with behaviors that can effect interactive transforms, change colors and other parameter values over time, and make objects glow and fade in reaction to mouse events. Other included behaviors let you control playback of the presentation, let the user drag objects around the screen, apply a tumbling motion to objects, and copy objects into 2D and 3D rings and arrays. For online presentations, the PreBuffer behavior lets you load objects into memory before they're used, to avoid delays.
All these behaviors use the JScript scripting language from Microsoft, and source is included. Chances are however, if you want to create custom presentations, you'll want to write your own behaviors, so it's a good thing that about 80 pages of the 189-page manual are devoted to Anark Studio-specific scriptable functions.
But if you want to forego scripting--which is certainly understandable--and rely on Anark's included behaviors, you're probably in for a certain amount of head scratching (and/or lots of calls to technical support). For example, when I looked at Anark's included example scene of its particles system, I had to dig deep to find the particle emitter: it was attached to a lightmap that was included in a material attached to a sphere. Why? Here's Anark's explanation: "Because the model in the example has an image attached to it, the behavior must be attached to the image so that all necessary attachments will be made before the behavior is executed." Okay ... if you say so.
What's more, the particle action isn't visible in Anark Studio; you have to run the presentation in their player to see the effect. I was able to produce my own particle effect by importing a 3D object and attaching the emitter behavior to it, but that's about as far as I could get. If Anark wants people to be able to do more than rudimentary stuff with Anark Studio, they need to provide a lot more documentation and tutorials.
I also experienced a certain lack of robustness while using Anark Studio--as in, regular crashing and other anomalous behavior while performing fairly routine functions. This might have had something to do with the fact that I was running the software under Windows Me, but other programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, run fine with the OS. More likely, it was because this is version 1.0 of the software, and future versions will undoubtedly be more stable.
In conclusion, I give Anark Studio a qualified thumbs up. It's only version 1.0, but the program has benefited from the experience of lots of multimedia authoring programs before it, so it's a reasonably powerful piece of software. The user interface, despite a few quirks, is relatively easy to come to grips with. Once the bugs are squashed and the documentation brought up to snuff, Anark Studio could very well be a contender.
X3D Accepted for MPEG-4 Standard
The Web3D Consortium's X3D Interactive Profile was recently accepted by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) as the basis for lightweight, interactive 3D graphics in the MPEG-4 multimedia standard.
The next-generation successor to the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), X3D ("Extensible 3D") brings 3D graphics to the Internet and World Wide Web for a variety of applications and devices. X3D is an extensible standard that has been developed by the Web3D Consortium with the backing of 3D browser companies including blaxxun, Nexternet, OpenWorlds and ParallelGraphics.
As a toolkit for developing networked multimedia applications based on any combination of audio, video, 2D, and 3D content, the MPEG-4 standard was designed for delivering both static and interactive multimedia content to any platform over any network.
The X3D Interactive Profile for MPEG-4 defines a subset of X3D that enables baseline interactive 3D functionality for MPEG-4 Systems. By enabling interactive 3D for devices having limited processing power, the X3D Interactive Profile defines a standard for 3D destined for low-power computers, set-top boxes, mobile phones, and personal digital assistants as well as more capable devices such a desktop devices and gaming consoles. This profile was specifically designed to provide the baseline 3D feature set required by numerous application areas, including (but not limited to) electronic commerce, product visualization, entertainment, distance learning and interactive instructional manuals.
In addition to its collaborative relationship with MPEG, the Web3D Consortium is also working with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to tightly integrate X3D with other XML languages for the Web. The X3D standardization work includes an extension registry to be maintained by the Web3D Consortium that will let companies innovate within a standards framework and ship extensions to X3D, and to encourage and enable multiple companies to agree on common extensions to guarantee widespread content interoperability. Further details on X3D and how interested companies can get involved can be found at http://www.Web3d.org/x3d/, while details related to the X3D Interactive Profile for MPEG-4 and other Web3D-MPEG activities can be found at http://www.Web3d.org/WorkingGroups/Web3d-mpeg/.___________________________________
Macromedia Unveils Flash MX
Coming this Friday from Macromedia is Flash MX, the latest version of the Flash development environment. New features include support for video, application components, and accessibility.
Video support lets developers add interactivity to video clips within the overall Flash content. Designers can maintain control of the look and feel of their applications, unlike existing video options, which require external players to be launched and have platform inconsistencies. Support for the Sorenson Spark codec reportedly ensures compressed, high-quality video playback (see separate release).
The workspace can be customized using pre-built user interface components such as customizable scrollbars, and list boxes. Macromedia Flash MX also supports industry standards such as ECMAScript, HTML, MP3, Unicode, and XML.
Accessibility support in both the Flash MX development software and Flash Player 6 is provided via support for Microsoft Active Accessibility, said to let people with disabilities to interact with Flash content and applications using accessibility aids such as screen readers. Flash MX simplifies the creation of accessible content by enabling the addition of descriptive text to rich Internet content and applications. According to Section 508 guidelines, all federal agencies are required by law to make all content and programs offered on their Internet and intranet sites accessible.
For a detailed breakdown of the new and enhanced features in Macromedia Flash MX, visit http://www.macromedia.com/go/flashmxfeatures/.
Also, Macromedia last week previewed new server technologies for creating rich Internet applications with Flash MX. The new technologies include Macromedia ColdFusion MX (the next ColdFusion release, previously code-named "Neo") for rapid application development, a new technology for high-performance application server connectivity, and a new technology for collaboration and communication. The server technologies will ship later this year.
ColdFusion MX, which can be used in conjunction with Microsoft .NET, Java application servers, and web services, will let developers create applications with Macromedia Flash MX. In addition, developers will be able to use a new server gateway technology to build Macromedia Flash applications that work directly with application servers and web services.
New communication server technology will enable two-way audio and video as well as real-time data transfer with Macromedia Flash Player 6.___________________________________
Ulead Releases DVD Authoring Software
Ulead Systems, Inc., a developer of video editing, image editing and Web graphics software, is offering a preview trial of Ulead DVD Workshop, a new DVD authoring program. The preview version will be available for download until March 26. The final program will be available for purchase in March.
The program is based on an array of menu-authoring features. Effects include motion backgrounds, buttons and scene thumbnails. Other features include customizable video scene buttons and specific selection highlight colors and actions. DVD Workshop's Power Menus feature will produce menus using one of three processes (blank, template or wizard) and merge them into one project. DVD Workshop offers over 60 theme-based convenient menu templates.
Included are over 300 background images, buttons, arrows, frames and other objects for use in customized menus. In addition, DVD Workshop supports objects produced in PhotoImpact, Ulead's image-editing software. Text and captions can be applied with effects such as wrap, neon, emboss and 3D effects.
DVD Workshop also includes capture and conversion tools, capturing video to the MPEG format using FireWire (IEEE 1394) and analog capture boards. It also supports continuous DV video stream captures beyond 4 GB in size, even when using the FAT32 file system, which inflicts a 4-GB capture ceiling.
For fast menu making, DVD Workshop will automatically create chapter thumbnails based on the captured video's DV date code. It also imports existing AVI video and automatically transcodes the files into DVD/VCD/SVCD-ready MPEG files. The software includes variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding as well as field-based compression.
MS .NET Game a Hit with Developers
Microsoft Corp. announced last week that more than 9,000 developers have downloaded its "Terrarium" game within a week of its launch. "Terrarium" is a peer-to-peer distributed-computing game written using the Microsoft .NET Framework, Microsoft's new programming model for developing and running applications and XML Web services.
In "Terrarium," developers use code to design herbivores, carnivores or plants and then introduce their creations into a peer-to-peer, networked ecosystem where they compete for survival. "Terrarium" provides a competitive medium for testing software development and strategy skills, as well as proof of concept for many of the technologies incorporated into the .NET Framework.
'Terrarium' was designed to introduce developers to some of the powerful features of the .NET Framework," said Eric Zinda, a product unit manager in the Developer Tools Group at Microsoft. "These include the role of Windows Forms and DirectX in generating a powerful user interface, XML Web services, support for peer-to-peer networking, support for multiple programming languages, and the ability to update smart client, or Windows- based, applications via a remote Web server, among many others."
Users can participate in "Terrarium" by developing creatures and placing them in the ecosystem or simply set up the application as a screensaver and watch as other developers' creatures battle for survival. Anyone can develop creatures using the .NET Framework Software Development Kit, available as a free download from MSDN, or they can use Visual Studio .NET, an integrated development environment for programming on the .NET Framework.
"Terrarium" was initially released in a beta version to Microsoft's industry partners and customers at the company's Professional Developers Conference last October. Since then, more than 17,000 creatures have been developed and submitted.
Fathammer, TI Partner for Mobile 3D
Fathammer recently announced an agreement with Texas Instruments Incorporated (TI) to bring 3D graphics to 2.5 and 3G mobile devices that use TI's OMAP wireless application processors. Fathammer will optimize its X-Forge 3D game engine for the OMAP processors, which the companies claim will let game developers deliver high-frame rate, console-quality 3D games with low memory footprint on wireless PDAs, Smartphones and handheld game devices.
IN THE INFOGROOVE
Scientists Put AI in Set-Top Box
A team of computer scientists at BIAP Systems recently succeeded in embedding artificial-intelligence-based software on broadband television set-top boxes.
The embedding of BIAP software on current generation digital set-top boxes reportedly marks the first time that a software application based on intelligent agents and artificial intelligence has been made to run on a set-top.
The BIAP application, which requires no headend servers or middleware components, is a small-footprint software module that runs on the digital set- top, sending out intelligent agents to automatically retrieve content from digital data sources. BIAP will market the application to broadband television service providers, who will offer subscribers personalized, non-linear TV experiences through software application downloads.
Pulse Adds Lip-Synch for 3D Character Animation
Web 3D developer Pulse has incorporated the ProductionSync and InstantSync technologies from California-based Automatic Sync Technologies in Pulse Animation Studio 5.03, available now. The new functionality lets interactive 3D characters include full lip-synchronization functionality. Information entered via captured audio is processed by the ProductionSync and InstantSync components, which then automatically drive the character's lips to realistically deliver the information, as follows: * ProductionSync is used in the Pulse Creator module as an off-line animation tool. Speech is converted into animation as a production step that an animator can then enhance with expressions, gestures and other behaviors. * InstantSync is used in the Pulse Player to animate a face in real-time in response to the speech, which can either be downloaded or streamed to the player via streaming audio.http://www.automaticsync.com
Cebas Updates finalRender
Just out from Germany-based Cebas Computer is finalRender R1.1. The new version of the rendering plug-in for 3ds max and VIZ, initially released in November 2001, fixes reported bugs and adds enhancements and new features.
The update includes (note: GI=global illumination; don't ask me what HDRI is):
Electric Rain Ships Flash Renderer for Autodesk VIZ
Electric Rain, Inc. recently added support for Autodesk VIZ (formerly 3D Studio VIZ) to its vector-rendering plug-in, Swift 3D MAX. Already offering vector export to users of 3ds max software, Swift 3D MAX now extends the proprietary RAViX II rendering engine to the Autodesk VIZ user by enabling export to Macromedia Flash (SWF) AI, EPS, and the latest XML-based vector format SVG.
Wildform Updates Flix Vectorized Video App
New from Wildform is Flix 2.0, software that encodes video into the Flash format. Additionally, Flix 2.0 features performance enhancements and new features such as batch encoding. Each Flix 2.0 license also includes $100 in video from the Wildform Video Library and access to Wildform's customer-only resource section.
Softimage Offers Free, Non-Saving 3D Software
New from Avid's Softimage Co. is 'The Softimage|XSI Experience,' a free two-CD pack comprising the full feature set of the Softimage|XSI v.2.0 Advanced system, the online documentation library, and a video-based training module. As it is intended for non-commercial use only, output has been restricted with the use of a watermark on rendered images and ***projects cannot be saved*** (emphasis added). CDs are available at no cost and are designed for use with the Microsoft Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows NT platforms. No additional licensing procedures are required (nice of them -ed.) other than those in the license agreement included on the CD at the time of installation.
Users can work with modeling capabilities including NURBS, polygonal modeling and subdivision surfaces, plus nonlinear animation editing and mixing functions including IK/FK blending and the unique animation mixer. Users can also test-drive the integrated 2D/3D compositing environment; real-time shader technology, dynamics simulation including the brand-new hair/fur simulation subsystem; and interactive rendering technology based on mental ray v.3.0 software.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Activision Ships Star Trek: Bridge Commander
Just out from Activision, Inc. and Totally Games is the PC game Star Trek: Bridge Commander. Players take command of a Galaxy-class starship and outwit, out-maneuver and battle hostile aliens in ship-to-ship combat across the far reaches of space.
Featuring more than 25 missions with dialog penned by sci-fi writer D.C. Fontana, the game's campaign propels players across the Alpha quadrant. Over the course of the single-player campaign, players will encounter classic Star Trek antagonists such as Cardassians, Klingons, Romulans and Ferengi, and explore many of Star Trek's fundamental elements - exploration, diplomacy, combat, rescue, and scientific discovery. Once in command, players can choose the style of play that suits them best, issuing orders to their bridge crew or jumping right into the action by personally taking the helm.
After mastering the single-player campaign, players can continue to explore the final frontier in the Quick Battle instant-action mode, or warp online for interstellar multiplayer mayhem. Players can control any ship in the game from the tactical view in four different gameplay modes including Deathmatch, Team deathmatch, Federation vs. non-Federation, and Defend the Starbase with up to four-players over the Internet or eight-players over a LAN.
Also, Activision and Raven Software have announced a contest for their upcoming action game, Soldier Of Fortune II: Double Helix. Fans can enter the contest by designing and submitting a custom skin for one of the game's character models. One grand prize winner will receive a prize package and have her custom skin included in the final release of Soldier Of Fortune II: Double Helix when the game ships later this year.
Blizzard to Offer Warcraft III Collector's Edition
To commemorate the premiere of the next chapter in the classic strategy game series, Blizzard will offer its Warcraft III Collector's Edition in limited quantities at select retail outlets. The Collector's Edition features several exclusive items including:
The Collector's Edition will be created in a one-time, limited run. The Warcraft III Collector's Edition will be available during the first half of 2002 coinciding with the launch of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.
Midway Releases Gauntlet Dark Legacy for Gamecube
Newly available from Midway Games is Gauntlet Dark Legacy for the Nintendo GameCube; an Xbox version will ship in April. The title was previously available for PlayStation2.
The action-adventure videogame lets up to four game players battle cooperatively and interact simultaneously. Continuing the time-honored "hack-n-slash" style of gameplay, players work as a team as they embark on a quest to save the world. Using a force of special weapons, exotic magical powers and deadly combination attacks, players slay hordes of evil minions and hideous creatures - such as golems, dragons and chimeras while searching for treasure, evading traps and solving the many mysteries of Gauntlet Dark Legacy.
Players adventure through eight realms: Mountain, Desert, Forest and Castle and the new Ice, Town, Sky and Dream worlds. In each realm, players find obelisks, rune stones and other items, while confronting more than 50 different enemies and challenging bosses. Players can choose from a variety of characters - including the new Jester, Sorceress, Dwarf and Knight - which can perform special turbo attacks and deadly combination moves during battle. Players can also find more than 21 secret characters and unlock their hidden, split personalities.
Microsoft Unveils 2002-2003 PC Game Titles
Microsoft recently unveiled its 2002-2003 games portfolio:
In "Rise of Nations," players build a city and then improve its infrastructure, create new communities and expand national borders. Gamers can win through military might, using everything from slingshots and cannons to stealth bombers, or they can corner the market on key commodities as they wheel and deal with a wide variety of civilizations. This title from Big Huge Games Inc. founder Brian Reynolds, co-designer of "Civilization 2" and "Alpha Centauri", is scheduled for release in spring 2003.
"Age of Mythology," scheduled for release this fall, lets players create armies, develop civilizations through the ages, and manage economics through resource-gathering and trade. The mythological excitement begins when players call upon the gods to act on their behalf or reinforce their armies by choosing from among more than 20 mythological creatures. Ensemble Studios' uses a new 3D engine to add graphical detail to the real-time strategy game based on the ancient Greek, Norse and Egyptian cultures.
"Asheron's Call 2," scheduled for beta release this winter, features a dynamic, evolving world that reacts to player behavior and actions; the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Turbine Engine G2 graphics engine; a revamped combat system; and a new crafting system that gives players a chance to pursue noncombative skills.
"Combat Flight Simulator 3," for release this fall, features a graphics engine designed to showcase realistic terrain, ground objects and detailed aircraft during high-speed, low-altitude combat missions. Features include 18 World War II aircraft and character role-playing attributes that change throughout the course of the war campaign.
The fantasy 3D action role-playing game "Dungeon Siege," expected to hit stores in April, starts players with a single character and lets them eventually gather a party of up to eight characters who work together on the quest.
Slated for fall release, the outer-space 3D adventure "Freelancer" lets players choose the life of a bounty hunter, trader, pirate or explorer, following a linear storyline or determining how their story will unfold. The multiplayer component lets friends fly missions or explore together on their own persistent world servers.
Set in the 1930s, "Impossible Creatures" is a 3D, real-time strategy (RTS) game that pits players against an evil madman in a desperate campaign across a chain of remote and diverse islands. Using formidable animals as building blocks, players create an army of genetically altered mutant monsters in a struggle to protect an unsuspecting world. The title is scheduled for release this summer.
Chardot, Lander to Get Props at GDC
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) will be recognizing Hubert Chardot and Jeff Lander for their outstanding industry contributions at the Game Developer Choice Awards, March 21 in San Jose, Calif. Chardot will receive the First Penguin Award and Lander the IGDA Award for Community Contribution at the ceremony to be held at the Game Developers Conference.
The First Penguin Award acknowledges developers who have shown a willingness to take risks for potential advancements in game development. Chardot will receive this honor for his work on "Alone in the Dark," a game that started the "survival-horror" genre. The title was the first of its kind, with a rich story, dark atmosphere, elaborate cinematography, complex puzzles and unique game play.
The IGDA Award for Community Contribution is presented to a developer who has made significant efforts in building community, sharing knowledge and advancing the art form of interactive entertainment. Lander writes extensively for game-development publications and fosters a strong developer community in Los Angeles. He also speaks at numerous industry events, organizes seminars dedicated to sharing advanced technical knowledge and champions student outreach efforts.___________________________________
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