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Tip of the Day
Language: DHTML
Expertise: Beginner
Jul 25, 1997

Caligari update

Question:
What's happening with Caligari and its VRML tools (trueSpace, VRML, Pioneer, etc.)?

Answer:
Caligari has rethought its approach to VRML and has integrated the features you may have seen in Pioneer and Pioneer Pro into the latest release of its modeling and animation package, trueSpace 3. (The Pioneers continue to exist but no news is available about their future.) trueSpace is a very interesting package and offers VRML creators some unique features.

It exports VRML 2.0 — an important feature and a big improvement over Pioneer, which stuck at the little-used VRML 1.1. However, the VRML 2.0 it generates can only handle actions produced by animation, i.e. there is no scripting capability. You add scripted effects separately in something like Sony's Community Place conductor (which is free). But trueSpace still only imports VRML 1.0, along with a range of other 3D formats. So be warned that because trueSpace converts everything it imports into its own native format, works with it in that format and then exports it as you command, you may have to save files in its .scn format in order to be able to continue editing and making changes to your VRML 2.0 file.

I think trueSpace makes better sense strategically than the Pioneer products. Professional 3D artists would prefer to be able to produce a model in a full-featured tool in a higher resolution and then use optimization tools to make the file work as VRML. trueSpace is a professional-level modeler and animator with features that make it particularly suited to artists; for example, a large uncluttered workspace and good organic modeling features.

New features in this release include:

  • a real time metaballs modeler, LiveSkin, that's great for creating organic bodies
  • inverse kinematics to help make realistic figure animation possible
  • forward dynamics to give physical properties to objects
  • 3D paint to produce texture or bump maps on 3D surfaces
  • PlastiForm surface engraving , which simulates pressing a hot stamper into a solid
  • accurate collision detection with magnetic surface effects for helping fit objects together.

Not all of these effects will be immediately useful to VRML modelers although, as 3D avatars become a more popular commodity on the Web, the means to produce organic creatures with natural movements and detailed texture maps for features will be in increasing demand. trueSpace supports Direct3D, so can it take advantage of either software or hardware acceleration based on the Microsoft API. This should help the display of your models as you make changes to them. The faster the response for real-time modeling, the better.

For those accustomed to the way Caligari puts its interfaces together, this is more of the same and hence perfectly useable once you've memorized a new set of buttons concealed within buttons. Caligari provides a fold-out guide to all the buttons, which you may need to post on the wall by your machine. Once past the initial learning curve, you'll find trueSpace an outstanding modeler interface.

An addition to the trueSpace box is trueClips, a CD with a smorgasbord of models and textures to use with trueSpace. When you register as an owner you will receive another CD containing six new plug-ins or extensions that provide excellent enhancements to the basic software. These are:

  • Windmill Fraser Multimedia has developed three environmental and modeling plug-ins: Landmass, a fractal landscape generator; Multiplex , an object replication and animation tool that can calculate paths for animations or 'grow' fantastic ships over time; and Wiggedly, a vertex randomizer used for making rough surface effects like rocks, water rapids and hair.

  • Sunfish Studios has produced the TrueView hierarchy editor, a drag-and-drop interface that helps you select any object, manipulate it and set up hierarchy levels for it.

  • Vision 3 has created PrimitivesPlus, an object creation tool for producing rocks and organic landscapes. To add greater realism for those unable to spare the memory resources needed to use trueSpace's ray tracing renderer, Vision 3 have provided a series of environment maps.

  • Tom Schlosser produced the Particle System Foundation, which creates particle systems for special effects. With this plug-in you can produce fountains, volcanoes and any feature that needs the combination of particles, flow rates and gravity.

    If you're going to output the final results into VRML you must watch the polygon count. Water, rich textured surfaces and hair soak up bandwidth. The snag with trueSpace is that it tempts you to produce lovely high-resolution worlds of broadcast quality that take an eternity to download over the Internet. Fortunately it provides some really handy scene optimization tools such as an automatic LOD generator, inlining and polygon reduction. Caligari is launching a developer program to encourage more developers to produce plug-ins using its API. If you are interested in developing eXtensions, you can find the SDK on the CD in the TSX_API folder.

    The 'fun feature' I suspect you will either love or hate is the 3D bookmarks utility, which lets you 'collect' souvenir objects from VRML sites and use them as bookmarks in a homeworld space. This must be the feature for packrats, because I can't see how it helps with filing and finding the quantities of bookmarks any serious surfer ends up with. However, Caligari sets a lot of store by the virtues of the 3D interface, as do I, so this feature will undoubtedly improve with time. You can configure Netscape Navigator to use trueSpace 3 as its VRML browser, although it will only work for VRML 1.0 sites. It is useful to have an integral VRML browser but I'll be watching for an upgrade to VRML 2.0 (which can read VRML 1.0) before I'd consider changing browsers.

    To run trueSpace, you need at least a 486; a Pentium or better is advised. The minimum RAM requirement is 16 MB, but 32 MB is recommended (as any modeler knows, the more you can afford, the better the performance). trueSpace 3 has a suggested retail price of $795; the upgrade price for trueSpace 2 owners is $299. An improved Key Frame Editor patch will be available free from Caligari in July or August. Keep an eye on Caligari's Web site (www.caligari.com).

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