Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News9 January 2006
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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IN THE INFOGROOVE
THE DIALS & LEVERS OF POWER
Perhaps the best-known vector-graphics or drawing software is Adobe Illustrator. It's the standard, but if you're not beholden to standards, and want to save hundreds of dollars while still being able to do just about anything AI does, and more, check out Xara Xtreme, the latest version of a program previously known as Xara X. It's primarily a vector-graphics program, although it regards anything in its workspace, whether shape or bitmap, as an object. Click an object once, and you get standard handles for resizing on ordinal and diagonal axes. Click it again, and you get handles at the corners for rotating it and on the sides for skewing it.
Where Xara Xtreme really excels is in its tools for creating and modifying vector shapes. You can add rectangles, circles, ovals, and polygons (such as a star) simply by dragging them out on the canvas. You can choose a fill color (or transparency) by left-clicking a color on the bottom edge of the screen, and a line color by right-clicking the color. You can also apply bitmaps as fills, and special procedural vectors as lines; several included samples simulate such effects as brush strokes, and it's easy enough to create your own and add them to the palette. In addition, the program lets you apply graduated fills in shapes such as circular and diamond, and provides similar capabilities with flat or graduated transparency. Once you have a patterned or bitmapped fill, you can scale and rotate it simply by dragging with the mouse.
Xara Xtreme also offers two tools for creating custom shapes: a freehand tool for sketching curves, and a pen tool for more precise placement of the Bezier control points. Either one lets you close a curve, while drawing or after the fact. And the freehand tool also lets you modify a shape by drawing a line connecting any two points on the curve, thus adding to or subtracting from the shape; a very nifty feature.
There's also a tool for adding text in standard paragraph format or along curves; you can adjust the font, point size, tracking, line spacing, kerning, and baseline. It's a bit tricky to do so before entering the text; best to enter using the default, then select the text and make your changes. Similarly, you can apply fills, outlines, shadows, beve ls, etc. to shapes.
You can combine any number of shapes in a variety of ways. You can add them, which results in a Boolean union; intersection is also available. You can subtract the topmost shape from the underlying ones, or use the top shape to cut/slice the others; in this case they don't interact with each other. Other tools that take advantage of the procedural nature of vector graphics are Contour, which gives you a gradated outline, and Blend, which creates any number of intermediate shapes between pairs of shapes. Both of these include a plethora of options, including the ability to set a bias, or emphasis toward one end of the contour or blend. Unfortunately, though, you can't blend between end shapes of a blend for a round-robin effect, unless you convert the blend to shapes and ungroup them, which means you can no longer adjust the ori ginal blend.
If you want to apply a nonstandard form to a shape or a block of text, you can use the Mould tool (yes, this software is from England). As its name suggests, this tool bends and distorts the existing shape to match the mold shape. Molds are available in two types: envelopes, with a combination of curved and straight sides; and perspective, with straight sides only. The latter is useful for making a shape appear as if it's receding into the distance. The mold affects the entire shape, so is particularly effective with text; for example, by applying a circular mold, you get a fisheye effect. It doesn't, however, affect a bitmap fill applied to the shape. You can also edit the mold by moving points and envelope handles, and copy a mold from one shape to another.
The Import from Web command is a nice touch, but the implementation needs work. When I specified the URL of a blog I frequent, I received several error messages, after which the program indiscriminately downloaded every image from the home page and placed them in a cascading layout in the current document. It would be more useful to be able to choose specific images to load, perhaps from a thumbnail layout.
One real weakness is navigation. With Photoshop, you can zoom in and out with the mouse wheel, and pan across your image by dragging the mouse with the spacebar held down. Not so here. You have to use a special a Zoom too l, and a Push tool to pan the drawing. You can use the wheel button in conjunction with the Shift and Ctrl keys to zoom in and out, and by itself to center on the point you click, but it's not as friendly as Photoshop.
Just for fun, I tried exporting some of the included, great-looking clip art to AI format, and then imported the images into Adobe Illustrator. Each time, upon loading the file, I encountered a dialog warning me that some of the objects in the image used CMYK mode and others used RGB mode, and forcing me to choose one or the other. Either way (the choice didn't seem to make any difference), they didn't look so great in AI; in fact, most lost quite a bit in translation. I'm no AI expert, so it could be I was doing something wrong by using the default settings. Incidentally, in using a variety of files in Xara Xtreme, I missed the sta ndard Ctrl+W shortcut to close an image; in Xara Xtreme, Ctrl+W opens a Web URL for importing images. Alas, there doesn't seem to be any way to customize shortcuts. Interestingly, though, you can customize the left and right mouse buttons to perform a variety of nonstandard functions, such as Shift+clicking or zooming in or out.
Of the new features in Xara Xtreme, perhaps the most significant is Live Effect. This simply means that you can apply a Photoshop-type filter to one or more vector shapes or objects, and then if you subsequently edit the vector shapes, the filter automatically readjusts itself. Xara includes a number of special-effects filters from suppliers such as Alien Skin and Redfie ld, but documentation for some of these is scant. Also, there's an Edit button for changing existing filter effects, but it doesn't work with some of the supplied filters. In such cases, a dialog appears informing you of the fact and offering a "Recreate (sic) effect" option. The problem is, clicking this button has no effect.
To access the Xara Picture Editor program from within Xara Xtreme, you load a bitmap image and then double-click it, or choose the Xara Picture Editor command from a menu. Typically, when I tried this, though, a small, empty "Progress" window (about the size of a Web banner ad) appeared over the Xara Picture Editor window and never went away. Why? Ya got me. I could move it aside and perform some functions, such as cropping and rotating, but others, such as Enhance (adjust brightness and contrast) and applying Photoshop fil ters, had no effect. Well, at least no visible effect in Xara Picture Editor. But accepting the change and returning to Xara Xtreme, I could see that the changes did indeed take effect. Again, that's a real head-scratcher.
However, none of these problems occurred when I ran Xara Picture Editor as a standalone, so I guess that's the way to go. One very nice feature of Xara Picture Editor is that it saves the entire history of any edits you make to an image, so you can reverse any or all. For example, if you crop an image and then apply a filter, you can remove the cropping action and the filter is reapplied to the entire image. I assume it saves the history in a separate file, because as far as I know the JPEG format does not support such data. I couldn't find the file, though; I looked in both the folder containing the image file and the Xara install folder, but nothing obvious showed up. Ironically, this feature does not evidence itself when running Xara Picture Editor from within Xara Xtreme; yet another reason to stick to the standalone methodology.
Incidentally, Photoshop-native filters show up in Xara, but they don't do anything. This isn't news to anyone who's used Photoshop-plug-in-compatible software in the past, but it would be nice to have some kind of warning in the software for newbies.
If, evidence and conventional wisdom to the contrary, you're dead set on producing animated GIFs, you have a friend, sort of, in Xara Xtreme. That is to say: The program supports animation creation ... barely. Basically, you start an animation, draw in t he first frame, copy that to a second, new frame, modify the contents, and so on. There's no tweening, nor any support for path animation. But if you just want to create a very short animation and have no other tools, this could do the trick.
My favorite feature, although it's not necessarily one every user will find useful, is the ability to convert bitmaps to vector graphics by tracing contours. It's fast and does a great job. The settings ranges let you create anything from a reasonably faithful rendition to a semi-abstract, painterly version. It's a powerful, unique function that lets you see your photos in new ways.
That's it for the major features; you can discover the rest for yourself by downloading the free, 15-day trial version. At $79, Xara Xtreme is easily one of the best values available in graphics software; it's easy to learn and use, and if you get stuck there's an online forum with lots of help. If you use your computer for graphics, this program should definitely be part of your toolset.
Khronos Releases OpenMAX IL 1.0 Spec
The Khronos Group has ratified and publicly released the royalty-free OpenMAX IL 1.0 specification that defines media component interfaces to enable the rapid integration of accelerated codecs into streaming media frameworks on embedded devices. Additionally, Khronos released details of the OpenMAX IL 1.0 Adopter's Program, including conformance tests to enable conformant products to use the OpenMAX IL trademark to provide cross-platform audio, video, and image-codec interoperability. Additionally, a sample OpenMAX IL implementation for Linux, coded by Texas Instruments, will be freely available i n the first quarter of 2006 to enable experimentation with OpenMAX IL functionality by any interested party. OpenMAX IL was developed under the Khronos Working Group process, with the support of Khronos member companies including ARM, ATI Technologies, Beatnik, Broadcom, Emuzed, Fraunhofer, Freescale, Infineon, Intel, Motorola, Nokia, NVIDIA, Philips, SKY MobileMedia, Samsung, Sasken, Siemens, ST Microelectronics and Symbian, and was chaired by Texas Instruments. The OpenMAX IL 1.0 specification is free for download at http://www.khronos.org/openmax/.
OpenMAX IL is the first of three layers of the overall OpenMAX standard that will provide streaming-media codec and application portability by enabling accelerated multimedia components to be developed, integrated and programmed across multiple operating systems and silicon platforms. The OpenMAX IL (Integration Layer) API defines a standardized media component interface to enable developers and platform providers to integrate and communicate with multimedia codecs implemented in hardware or software. OpenMAX DL (Development Layer) APIs will provide codec developers with a standardized set of primitive functionality across a range of computing platforms. Ratification and public release of OpenMAX DL 1.0 are expected in the first quarter of 2006. The OpenMAX AL (Application Layer) is an application-level API that will enable streaming media applications to be portable across multiple operating systems and hardware platforms. OpenMAX AL is expected to be released during 2006.
Google Unwraps the Google Pack
Google Inc. last week announced Google Pack beta, a free collection of software from Google and other companies designed to improve the user experience online and on the desktop. In a few clicks, users can discover, install and maintain software to surf the Web faster and safer, communicate better, and effectively manage information.
Google Pack includes:
Google Pack also includes Google Updater, a new tool that intelligently downloads, installs and maintains all the software in the Google Pack. Google Updater alerts users when updates and new programs become available and ensures each program is always up to date. Google Updater can also be used to monitor the status of installation, run software that's been installed, or easily uninstall software.
Users can choose which programs they want to install. For programs alr eady installed on a computer, Updater checks whether the latest version is running. If not, it installs the latest version.
Every program included in the Google Pack is free, has earned a reputation for excellence, and was evaluated to ensure it meets Google's Software Principles. Google respects users' rights to control their own computers and does not include software that is spyware, generates pop-ups, or that is difficult to uninstall. Additional information on Google's Software Principles is available at http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/software_principles.html.
Google Pack beta is available in English, runs on Windows XP, and supports Firefox 1.0 and higher and Internet Explorer 6.0 and highe r. More info on Google Pack is available at http://pack.google.com
3Dmsg to Bring 3D Talking Avatars to Wireless
3Dmsg, a subsidiary of Sensory, Inc., is now under formation focusing on applications for the cell phone and wireless handset markets. 3Dmsg's avatars use lip-synchronization technology that morphs between visemes (visual phonemes), providing accuracy said to be precise enough for lip readers to understand. The company claims this will enable the development of products for fun, communications, and language learning. 3Dmsg als o says avatars can be created from live speech, input text, or a combination of text and speech. The company expects to announce its initial products during the first half of 2006. To see a demonstration of 3Dmsg's talking avatar technology, go to www.3Dmsg.com.
The 3Dmsg technology takes advantage of a hybrid neural network and hidden Markov modeling speech technology to analyze spoken data and break it into components that can be represented visually. These components can be thought of as visual phonemes or "visemes" and represent different mouth/teeth/tongue positions and movements. By stringing and morphing between these visemes, an avatar can be controlled or rendered to represent a talking person or creature.
The 3Dmsg technology allows MMS, SMS, Instant Messaging, and other text or voice messages to be delivered as low-bandwidth, 3D, video-like messages by a talking avatar.
3Dmsg's products will include 3D animated messaging (from voice and text), 3D greeting cards, 3D pronunciation, and language learning.
3Dmsg to Bring 3D Talking Avatars to Wireless
New from Avatech Solutions, Inc., a developer of design and engineering technology for the manufacturing, building design, and engineering markets, is Earth Connector, an AutoCAD plug-in that lets architects, building designers, and engineers place 2D and 3D structures developed in AutoCAD-based products directly into Google Earth's 3D world.
Google Earth has done more to advance the public's awareness of GIS - Geographic Information Systems - than anything since MapQuest and is delivered via a desktop service.
While images created using Avatech Earth Connector will not replace rendered scenes created with products like Autodesk VIZ, the ability to quickly develop and send a design to a client which allows them to view a structure or land project in place from all angles makes Avatech Earth Connector a useful addition to the designer's toolkit.
The benefit to architects, designers and engineers is that they can show buildings, subdivisions or other designs to clients in the context of a 3D world. The ubiquity of Google Earth, its game-like rendering speed, and built-in GIS imagery provides users of Avatech Earth Connector with a quick, easy way to show clients how a finished project might look in place.
Avatech Earth Connector is currently in beta form, and works with Autodesk AutoCAD 2006 and 2005. Earth Connector is free to download from the Avatech Web site at http://www.avat.com/products/software/avatech/extractkml/extractkml.asp.
Adobe Labs Delivers Early Access to Emerging Tech
Adobe Systems last week launched Adobe Labs. Originally introduced in October 2005 by Macromedia, Adobe Labs will reportedly let developers and technology enthusiasts experience, evaluate, and share f eedback about new and emerging Adobe innovations, technologies, and products before they go to market. In return, Adobe will receive feedback and have the opportunity to make adjustments to product strategy before shipping. Earlier last week an update to Flash Pro 8 software was made available on Adobe Labs, http://labs.adobe.com, for building mobile applications with Flash Lite 2 software. This, along with Alpha versions of the Flex product line and Flash Player 8.5, is the beginning of an expanding roster that will evolve as Alpha and Beta versions of new software become available. Since the first Labs release in September, developers have posted suggestions, feature requests, and questions in public forums. Much of this input is actively being incorporated into upcoming releases.
Technologies available on Adobe Labs range from early releases of new products to toolkits, individual components and interesting ideas from the Adobe engineering team. Depending on user feedback and market opportunity, some of the technologies on Labs may result in new products or become part of existing ones, while others will continue to be hosted on Labs mainly as a resource to the broader community.
2006 Game Developers Choice Awards Open For Nominations
Nominations are now being accepted for the 6th annual Game Developers Choice Awards. Entries can be submitted through www.igda.org/awards up until Jan. 13, 2006. The awards ceremony, produced by the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and presented by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), will take place Wednesday, March 22, 2006 during the GDC. The gala, held in conjunction with the Independent Games Festival, will be hosted at the San Jose Civic Auditorium.
"The GDC is proud to produce and showcase the industry's most highly-regarded awards,” said Jamil Moledina, director of the GDC. “The ‘Choice' refers to the fact that professional game developers themselves freely nominate and vote for other developers, a process administered by the IGDA, an independent non-profit organization. This structure gives the Game Developers Choice Awards a level of credibility that puts it on par with other top entertainment industry awards shows, and we are excited to continue our tradition of honoring the game industry's greatest talent.”
The Game Developers Choice Awards acknowledge excellence in the art of game creation – regardless of genre, platform or delivery medium. Awards will be presented for the following categories:
Nomination ballot and further details on the C hoice Awards available online at www.igda.org/awards.
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/online-development tools and end product for review.
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