Spectrum Reviews: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

3 November 1997

Reported, written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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Editorial

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Spectrum Reviews. This sister publication to Spectrum, to be published on an irregular basis for the time being, will present original reviews of software, hardware, books, Web sites, events and more. Software categories to be covered in Spectrum Reviews include Web authoring tools, content creation tools (e.g., 2D/3D graphics apps, audio/video production/editing tools), Internet email and Usenet news clients, multimedia clients such as RealSystem, consumer multimedia titles, and, of course, games, both local and online. In the hardware realm, we intend to cover 2D and 3D graphics accelerators, game controllers, mass storage products and more. If you would like to submit a product for coverage in Spectrum Reviews, please send an email inquiry to mailto:duberman@dnai.com

In this first edition of Spectrum Reviews, we offer a nice range of product categories in three software reviews: a 3D graphics app, a 2D graphics app, and a game. Enjoy, and please let us know what you think, via mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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Today's Stories (details below)

--Stumbling Through the Beta Patch - A Look at 3D Studio MAX Release 2.0

--Art Dabbler Review

--Fallout Review

--About Spectrum Reviews

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Stumbling Through the Beta Patch - A Look at 3D Studio MAX Release 2.0 by Jeffrey Abouaf with David Duberman

Release 2.0 of Kinetix's 3D Studio MAX (R2) shipped for Wintel PCs on October 23--18 months after the product's introduction. R2 sports more than 1,100 new features and fixes, targeted primarily at the video and film industries. We've all heard this--now for a more specific evaluation.

I worked with the product during the last seven weeks of its beta cycle, and I have to say that it all seems to make sense. Experienced users will be spared having to accommodate to another UI approach, and many unrealized promises in Release 1.0 are now reality.

R2 supports OpenGL for solid-rendered scenes in the workspace. This gives faster, smoother display response on a GLINT-based video accelerator. Using a Diamond Fire GL 3000, I found Diamond's older Open GL driver performance superior (faster and at least as stable) as their latest HEIDI offering.

(R2 also works great with Intergraph's Intense 3D Pro 1000 OpenGL driver - ed.) Further, tests using pre-release drivers from 3Dlabs, specifically optimized for MAX's Open GL, produced additional acceleration. MAX R2 allows multiple MAX sessions to run on a single workstation. I experienced no conflicts running MAX R1 with a HEIDI driver and R2 running Open GL simultaneously.

The interface looks the same--(thank you!). But as you pore through the menus, modifiers, rollouts, etc., you begin to see added features, integrated as if they'd always been there. For example, the UVW Map modifier appears almost the same as in R1, except now you can also choose alignment X, Y, Z and Channel 1 or 2. In other words, you can scale, orient and composite materials by using multiple mapping coordinates on a single object without making the composite in the Material Editor, Video Post, or Photoshop. This could be of great help to game designers who often have to deal with "map slippage." Those used to MAX will find most new features comfortable and inconspicuous--a "natural" integration, which maintains logical consistency with MAX's layout and organization.

Those new to this environment will find online help and online tutorials implemented via Microsoft's new HTML help system. Kinetix designed the help scheme so that additional documentation and tutorials can be supplemented online and viewed as hypertext. The "browser" format is a good idea. But it needs work from the Microsoft side: The formatting capabilities are limited, resulting in wasted white space in the browser, thus requiring too much screen space. You don't have the feature sets you're accustomed to in IE or Netscape - you can't change font size or navigate as you should be able to.

By popular demand, the Material Editor received a major overhaul--a neat trick because at first glance, it looks the same. Drag-and-drop for colors, maps, bitmaps, materials, etc. has been implemented throughout the interface. You can drag to or from the Material Editor, the material map browser, the viewports, the Environment dialogue, Lighting dialogue, etc., and to/from a new color clipboard and Asset Manager. I particularly like the speed and flexibility of the Asset Manager (the built-in image browser), but it needs to support long file names.

Right-clicking any slot in the Material Editor reveals a host of new options, including the ability to rotate any image in the editor slot, or to render any map and then sample any of its colors with a new eyedropper tool. You can now control the lighting, background and even the object shape in any slot. This all results in a more visual approach to building, organizing and applying materials. New materials and maps include, in particular, the Thin Wall Refraction map, which simulates the effect seen when viewing part of an image through a glass pane. This welcome addition is faster than Reflect/Refract mapping and is easy to use, with settings for thickness offset and bump map effect. The Raytrace material and map from Blur Studios each permit selective ray tracing, limited to specific objects or sub-objects in a scene and specifying which objects or backgrounds are reflected or refracted from that surface. However versatile, the Raytrace material/map is full featured and contains options that are not obvious or particularly well documented. Further, it is sensitive to how well a mesh is constructed, and quite literally can transform rendering time from moments to days with little apparent difference. This one has a learning curve.

Modelers will be happy with the addition of NURBS capability. I understand R2 uses the same ACIS NURBS library used by Alias/Wavefront and Rhino.

However, the implementation in MAX is an introductory one, with additional tools, such as Trim Surfaces (for cutting holes) and bidirectional lofting, to appear in a subsequent or maintenance release. You create NURBS surfaces and curves in MAX as you would any other object, and apply modifiers, similar to working with splines or patches or shapes and meshes. You can also animate NURBS curves, letting you, for instance, cause a snake's skin and muscles to undulate smoothly as it swallows a victim. There are special NURBS tools available at the object and sub-object levels The online documentation and tutorials I've seen are basic and less than extensive, so I can't comment yet on the limitations of NURBS in MAX, or features in the competing products I'd like to see included.

MAX's spline and patch modeling capabilities remain much as they were--we will still need the Surface Tools Plug-in. Likewise, metaballs modeling has been left to third-party developers such as Digimation (Clay Studio/Pro) and REM Infografica (MetaReyes).

For those involved in low-polygon modeling, there are some improvements: A Mesh Select modifier has been added to serve the limited function of passing selection sets up the modifier stack, thereby eliminating the need to repeatedly use edit mesh modifiers for this purpose. Lofting capabilities have been enhanced, and spline vertices can now be animated without Xform modifiers. Mapping is improved: You can use an object's inherent XYZ mapping, and you can now apply two additional UVW map modifiers to a mesh or face selection and align each differently. Shapes and splines can be rendered.

But there is still need for an "intelligent" polygon decimation tool; one that can reduce total poly count without compromising mesh deformation during animation. It would be nice for MetaCreations' RTG technology to show up as a MAX R2 plugin. (MetaCreations just included this technology in their Infini-D 4.1 release: As a mesh is optimized and the poly count reduced, information stored in the vertices lets the mesh "know" which polygons can be deleted and which need to remain for the mesh to deform properly). I saw no additions specifically aimed at VRML developers--I'd like to see VRML import capability and further development with Hyperwire.

More importantly, the need remains for a more extensive tool set tailored specifically for real-time modeling, similar to that found in products from Nichimen and MultiGen. As MAX evolves from an animation tool toward a dynamic simulation tool, the need increases for improvement in tools aimed at real-time content.

Third party plug-ins must be recompiled for R2. Those distributed through Kinetix--Character Studio, Hypermatter, and Radioray--have been or are being recompiled unchanged and are either included with R2's release or will be provided on the company's Web site and CompuServe forum. Character Studio 2.0 will not ship until year's end or Q1 '98. I was happy to see that several developers made beta versions of their R1 plug-ins available for testing, so they could make R2 versions available contemporaneous with the release. Expect some R1 plug-ins to be rendered obsolete by R2--notably Scatter, Atomizer, Pandora, Glider, and Imagemaster, and several others.

Particle systems in MAX have been expanded to include a Particle Array, Particle Cloud, Blizzard and Super Spray. These are full featured, like Sand Blaster, but lack the latter's ability to select multiple successive targets. New particle types include MetaParticles, for creating liquid effects (this requires _a lot_ of experimentation), and Object Fragments, which creates particles out of object fragments--particularly useful for explosions. You can also specify any object geometry to be particles, spawn new particles from original ones, and can cause particles to collide with objects/warps for which deflectors have been assigned. For particles being able to collide with one another, look to third-party plug-ins--in particular, Outburst. This physical-based solution, developed by Animation Science, was originally implemented in Softimage and just released as Outburst for MAX R1. It sports a different interface from the native R2 particle systems, and appears to have a different formula. Likewise, Sand Blaster should remain useful for its multiple target features.

Digimation contributed Lens Effects (Flare, Focus, Glow, and Hilight) to R2. For those not invested in Lens Effects or RealLensFlare as a separate plug-in(s) for R1, this inclusion nearly covers the costs of the R2 upgrade and is well worth it. Lens Effects is an excellent product, providing versatility and flexibility, through an understandable interface. Also in Video Post, Adobe Premiere filters are supported in addition to Photoshop filters, and we can but hope for After Effects filter support soon. Neither Adobe nor Kinetix has announced specifics, but have agreed to work in the future to make these two products work optimally together.

MAX's IK has undergone major revision, moving from straight hierarchical linkage to an IK controller "bones" metaphor. What used to require setup and using the Apply IK button in R1 now uses bones in R2's real-time implementation. Character Studio or Bones Pro is required to make use of this with a one-piece mesh. However, these plug-ins are not needed for multi-segmented characters. Also, the original interactive IK remains, apparently with the ability to edit joint limits without having to redo the animation key frames.

R2 widely expands physical dynamics as implemented in R1. Objects interact with one another in a manner consistent with real-world physics (e.g., collision, friction, and gravity). New space warps specific to Dynamics include Path Follow, Push and Motor. MAX calculates dynamics solutions over time--for objects through the new Dynamics section in the Utility panel, and for materials through the Material Editor. These features don't deal with elasticity and are not optimized for fluids, so the Hypermatter and Splash plug-ins remain useful. At this writing it's hard to see what areas remain for further development.

Lighting and Atmospherics are expanded: Volume fog can now be confined to a volume gizmo, and the Noise settings for atmospheres and materials have been made more consistent in functionality with other parts in the program.

Omni lights now cast shadows, and all lights have new or expanded controls for Attenuation and Decay.

The renderer also sports added improvements: You can specify a different viewport to render without leaving the Render dialogue; you have several standard output settings for film and video, and you can maintain both a draft and production rendering settings for the same scene. You can now clone the virtual frame buffer, i.e., you can have several versions of a draft or final render on the screen at the same time.

The new scripting module is a powerful, object-oriented command language capable of generating routines that can function like plug-ins. The scripting language provides access to every major function in MAX, including rendering and file functions. Among the example scripts supplied with R2 are Flocking, which simulates a flock of flying creatures, and Detach, which creates a new object out of selected faces. This feature also adds a command line to MAX, which should delight keyboard-oriented users.

Other new features and enhancements: The new Motion Capture utility lets you control and record animations in real time from external devices such as MIDI instruments, mice, keyboards and joysticks. The Omni light can now cast shadows. Camera matching lets you build a camera path that matches a camera move in a real scene by specifying five reference points in the background scene. Ideal for facial animation, weighted morphing lets you morph between multiple targets. For modeling complex shapes based on real-world objects, you can assign different background images to different viewports. And you can zoom in on a camera view temporarily, for close-up work without needing to manipulate the camera. Animators will appreciate the Show Ghosting (onion skinning) command, which shows previous or subsequent animation frames of selected objects. In the "duh" department, the keyboard shortcut for Undo is now--you guessed it!--Ctrl-z. But on the downside, there's still no way to change the default settings for Adaptive Degradation.

The Track View has also undergone numerous significant improvements, including the ability to display current position data for any selected object, the status of any controller applied to an animation track, and a direct link between the Track View and the Modifier panel for navigation of modeling histories. To add variation to a motion, keys can be randomized.

Add to this a slew of new filters and utilities, and you realize that Track View is one of the most powerful animation editing tools around.

While some features, such as redoing Inverse Kinematics, implementing NURBS, adding scripting capability and Dynamics represent major additions and build in new directions, most R2 changes, however plentiful, are evolutionary. They extend capabilities introduced 18 months ago--most are wish-list items sensibly placed. As a production tool, its workflow aspects are enhanced. MAX R2 is very nicely done, and as I said, it just makes sense.

Kinetix delivers this major upgrade to MAX at a time when its high-end competitors will not deliver their next-generation products until late winter or next summer. The capability or prestige of such products notwithstanding, with MAX R2, Kinetix has a widow of opportunity to make many new conversions in the film and video production houses, which is their stated goal.

Find more info and demo versions of 3D Studio MAX and Character Studio on the Web site at http://www.ktx.com

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Jeffrey Abouaf is a fine artist and designer, working in 3D graphics/animation for online and television projects. He reports on industry events and products for publications including CyberEdge Information Services and teaches 2D and 3D graphics applications. He recently completed online tutorials which will be included with 3D Studio Max Release 2.0, and is a contributing author on the upcoming revision to the Inside 3DS MAX series from New Riders. He can be reached at Ogle cg/fa, mailto:jabouaf@ogle.com ; http://www.ogle.com

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Art Dabbler

by David Duberman

One of the Spectrum's consistent themes is enabling technologies: making the tremendous expressive potential of the personal computer more accessible to the average person. Why should an imaginative gamer have to learn C++ just to make a game? Or, to draw meaningful images with the computer, should it be necessary to familiarize oneself with a complicated interface designed for graphics professionals?

Answering the latter question with a resounding "No" is Fractal Design Art Dabbler 2.1, now out for Windows 95 and Macintosh PCs. Previous incarnations of this product have been around for a while as Dabbler (in fact, most interface features still omit the "Art" modifier), a scaled-down version of Painter, Fractal's high-end natural-media program. It actually pioneered the use of tool-organizing "drawers," now found in Painter as well.

Art Dabbler provides the beginning user with a versatile yet not overly confusing range of tools for natural-media painting, most represented as icons organized into drawers. The Extras drawer presents options available with certain tools; for example, the Eraser tool options enable partial or full erasure. The Tools drawer holds most of the drawing tools, including Pen, Pencil, Brush, Paint Bucket for area fill, and various selection tools. These work very much like their real-world counterparts; for example, the crayon tool builds in intensity when drawn over itself, and gets darker more quickly when drawn over a dark color. The five most recently used drawing tools are available from the drawer front, so it doesn't have to be kept open all the time when switching tools. No tool tips are available for these or any other icon in the program, so it's good that there's also a pop-up text list of tools in the drawer. Also in the drawer, most drawing tools give the user a choice of five different sizes, represented as a range of triangles.

Sound effects, such as the scratching of a pencil on the paper and drawer opening/closing sounds, are intended to enhance the "realism" of the art experience. However, if you're not using a fast computer, they may slow things down slightly. Fortunately, they're easy to turn off.

The Colors drawer holds a variety of color palettes for drawing with, and the Papers draw holds different paper textures. Examples of the latter include cotton paper, basketball, and rough.

One of the coolest features in Art Dabbler, newly inherited from Painter, is cloning. Using any painting tool, you can reproduce an existing image, such as a scanned photo, in a new drawing style, such as chalk or oil paint. It's ideal for augmenting snapshots with painterly effects, and can really add life and interest to portrait photos. This feature alone could keep the kids busy for weeks. And for the truly ungifted, AutoClone does the drawing for you, placing random brush strokes throughout the current image or selection. Cloning takes advantage of the program's sketchpad metaphor, in which you can draw on any of several pages.

Dabbler does animation, too! Also exploiting the multi-page capability is Flipbook, another new function derived from Painter. The artist can create animations by drawing on successive frames, with optional onion-skinning to see previous and/or successive frames, and then export the moving image as a QuickTime movie (on Mac) or AVI animation (on Windows). And Sessions lets you record painting sessions and play them back at full speed or step by step.

You say you want filters? Art Dabbler's got a nice selection, including motion blur, sharpen, negative and glass distortion. And for good measure, MetaCreations threw in three of its KPT filters: Page Curl, Planar Tiling, and the ultra-cool Gradient Designer. And on the CD-ROM is a plethora of other goodies, including photos in a variety of categories, fonts and additional paper textures.

Topping it all off is a very nice example of online documentation, including great animated tutorials on drawing still cartoons and cartoon animation, basic tutorials on Art Dabbler usage, and an online reference.

As user-friendly as Dabbler is, one wishes Fractal had gone just a bit further, incorporating such relatively common features as tool tips and a "What's this?" help tool. At the end of the day, though, priced at $49, Art Dabbler program is a steal, and if you've got folks who want to get creative on the computer without breaking the bank, this is the one to get.

Metacreations' Web site is http://www.metacreations.com

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Fallout Review

by David Duberman

Although Fallout is a new game for Windows 95, it's essentially a DOS-based, single-player roleplaying title, with turn-based combat, on a single CD-ROM. Gee, sounds like Interplay's tossing us a bit of a throwback, doesn't it? Well, in a sense it is, having been inspired by the company's classic roleplaying title Wasteland, although it's fully modernized. While not officially a sequel, Fallout has enough in common with Wasteland that fans of that venerable game will finally have their thirst for desert-based apocalyptic wandering slaked, at least for the time being.

Fallout takes place on Earth in the near future, the planet having recently been devastated by nuclear war and its inhabitants newly emerging from underground vaults that protected them from the worst of the radiation.

Inhabitants of this brave new world find cutthroat raiders, savage mutant creatures and not a whole lot of kindness or gentility. As the leader of a band of one, your initial goal is to replace your vault's water purification chip so that your neighbors will have enough to drink. The community leader gives you one lead, but as it turns out ... Well, you'll have to play to find out the rest.

And play you should, because Fallout is one helluva fine game. True, it doesn't exploit the latest razzle-dazzle 3D technology, using an Ultima-style isometric overhead view, but this only goes to prove that the play's the thing. The well-designed interface uses a combination of mouse and keyboard. If you click on a random spot, you move there. Click on a person, and you initiate a conversation; if you're not close enough, your character runs over first. Click on a usable or takeable item, and the appropriate action is performed. Click and hold, and you get a shortcut menu that lets you use an inventory item or a skill on the item. (For example, using your Science skill on a computer lets you use log on, if possible.)

In combat, when you ready a weapon, all nearby foes are highlighted; even those behind walls. If your weapon uses ammo, the remaining supply is depicted graphically. For the detail-oriented, there's an option to select which body part to target upon each attack. You're allotted a certain number of action points for each combat turn, and different weapons require a specific number of action points. An inconsistency crops up here: A low-effort pistol shot costs more action points than a physical attack with a melee weapon, such as brass knuckles, which obviously takes more work.

One very nice interface element is your pocket computer, the RobCo PIPBoy 2000. Here you can check up on the current status of any quests you're on, view a list of locations you've visited as well as automaps for each, and review cut-scenes you've already watched. Also, when you go to the edge of the current location and step on the "exit grid," you get a scrollable world map, which includes a list of all locations you've been to. This lets you automatically navigate to one of these areas, which saves you from having to explicitly direct your character there, although you must still deal with any intervening hazards. Like giant scorpions, or rats the size of a Saint Bernard.

The conversation interface in Fallout uses a text menu system, with a scrolling record of the current conversation. Unlike some games, character interaction makes sense, mostly. If you enter a community with weapons drawn, certain characters won't talk to you. If you act abusively, your reputation travels with you and you might not get as much cooperation from others as you'd like. On the other hand, if you make odd or repetitive conversational choices, nobody looks at you askance, which is perhaps to be expected in a world where most wits are half-addled by radiation or worse.

There's much more to Fallout, of course, including all kinds of cool gadgets and weapons, and character skills, traits and perks, which are new abilities awarded every few levels. For example, the Action Boy (or Girl) perk gives you additional action points, letting you do more during each combat turn. The manual is quite informative, and includes a well-written tutorial that gets you started on the first mission. The backgrounds and animation are top-notch, and the sound effects are spooky and effective. If you're fond of roleplaying games, consider Fallout a must.

Find more at http://www.interplay.com

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F.Y.I.

About Spectrum Reviews

Spectrum Reviews is an independent service published irregularly for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum Reviews covers the tools used to create interactive multimedia applications, and the applications themselves. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.

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(c)Copyright 1997 Motion Blur Media. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any for-profit or revenue-generating venue in any form without written permission from the publisher.

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