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7/96 Features: Get Real!

Quit playing games. The new wave of 3-D
is ready to do real work, and it's ready for your PC.

By Ian Etra, Technical Editor, and William Gee, Technical Associate

Click Here to see a 51.2KB bitmap image of artwork which goes with this article, entitled:
Fractal Design's Poser

YOU'VE GOT THE high-powered Pentium. You've got the RAM. You've even got a newly minted, state-of-the-art PCI graphics card with video acceleration, MPEG, the works. Time to rest on your laurels? Not yet! It just may be time to upgrade again. A new era of 3-D has arrived, and without it your PC will be looking, well, flat.

While you may think of 3-D as something that's just for playing games, it actually has many business applications, from creating compelling brochures to designing new products to preparing accurate architectural renderings, and everything in between. Imagine the selling power of 3-D renditions of your products on your company's Web page. Visitors could turn them around and see what they look like on all sides.

Want a blockbuster presentation? You can create 3-D images and animation that will knock the socks off your audience's collective feet. If you're a product designer, you'll be able to tune and tweak with 3-D tools before the production phase so you get it right the first time. And 3-D will bring a new breed of interactive applications for the consumer, from stunningly realistic games to new ways to interact via the Internet?

What is the new 3-D? Well, you can toss that cheap pair of glasses you got in a cereal box. The new 3-D is simply a way for your PC to represent three-dimensional objects on-screen and in memory. Although these objects may appear flat on your monitor, they have hidden surfaces you can rotate into view. You can also give 3-D objects texture and color, illuminate them, make them cast shadows and manipulate them in dozens of ways to represent a scene realistically.

This technology gives you a level of control over an image that you simply couldn't achieve in two dimensions. Add a new light source with the click of a mouse. Rearrange the furniture, change the wallpaper or view the room from a completely different angle. By rendering the scene to a file, your PC calculates all the shadows, determines which objects are in the foreground and which are in the background, and creates a photo-realistic scene in real time.

That's the good news. The bad news is 3-D graphics can be overwhelming. With this new dimension of control and realism comes a new dimension of complexity. Take a simple chair. To represent that chair on a PC, you have to build it as a wireframe model. The vertices and lines form basic planar geometric figures, or polygons, that meld together to form the shape of a chair. A simple, straight-backed chair may consist of only a few polygons, but a more complex, curved and detailed chair requires more polygons to represent the model. Next, you have to give the chair texture to make it look more realistic. This could be anything from a simple wood-grain texture to a fine upholstery seat and armrests.

You're not finished yet. Your image needs a light source. A chair placed next to a candle in a dimly lit room looks entirely different from one positioned in front of a roaring fire. Instead of just dealing with a chair, your PC needs to calculate how to wrap textures around hundreds of polygons, and determine how the light reflects off the wood and where the shadows will fall across the upholstery. Now imagine that chair as just a single element in a fully furnished mansion, add animation and the ability to manipulate objects in real time, and you have a scenario that will bring the noblest Pentium processor to a grinding halt.

The problem is the sheer density of 3-D information. The 3-D pipeline consists of a series of distinct operations, such as geometry management, transformations, lighting and pixel rendering. Every one of these components demands a significant amount of time from your CPU before an image ever makes it to the screen. Depending on your model's complexity, the processor can spend anywhere from a few seconds to several days rendering a scene. If you're planning to work with anything but the simplest 3-D graphics, your PC is going to need a little help.

One option is to add a dedicated 3-D processor to your desktop. Because the entire 3-D pipeline doesn't have to pass through the host CPU, you can achieve better imaging at high frame rates. You also gain the advantages of more advanced, feature-rich 3-D hardware engines, such as accelerated transparencies, atmospheric effects and Z-buffering (a process that removes hidden surfaces).

Attempts to address the need for speed were made as early as last year by accelerator board makers Creative Labs, 3Dlabs, Matrox and Diamond Multimedia. When these boards were initially released, there was no widespread industry support for a 3-D standard. More recently, several 3-D APIs (application programming interfaces) have emerged to provide software developers with a standard for gaining direct access to hardware acceleration. In order to support mainstream applications that use these latest programming specifications, earlier boards will need software driver or firmware revisions.

Pump up your processor

Today, vendors are adding 3-D acceleration to PCs in several ways. Some early solutions, such as 3Dlabs' Glint, solved the 2-D/3-D equation by placing 3-D processors alongside 2-D accelerators. NVidia uses a single NV1 processor to integrate multimedia sound, music and support for Sega PC game titles along with 3-D acceleration. S3's ViRGE chipset packs both 3-D and 2-D graphics acceleration into a single processor. The Rendition V...rit... graphics chip offers similar 2-D and 3-D features. Products from ATI, Diamond, Miro, Creative Labs, Number Nine Visual and Matrox are also poised to penetrate the Windows PC market, with prices as low as $200 to $300. IBM has announced plans to incorporate ATI's 3D rage graphics accelerator directly onto future motherboard designs. And other system vendors, such as Micron and Gateway, are beginning to offer 3-D accelerator cards as an option with new desktop systems. This new generation of accelerators will play a major role in bringing 3-D graphics to the mainstream.

The evolution of 3-D graphics on desktop PCs will most likely follow the pattern of past graphics technologies. When Windows first became prominent, Windows graphic accelerators cropped up as an alternative to VGA cards. A year later, you couldn't buy a new PC without one. Most PCs purchased a year from now will likely incorporate some form of 3-D acceleration, either as an add-in card or directly on the motherboard. Beyond that, 3-D graphics will become a de facto standard.

All the excitement and advances in the 3-D hardware market have fueled a similar explosion in the software arena. The arriving breed of 3-D graphics applications is giving business users the ability to bring their presentations to life, whether they're selling a product or a service. Presentations turn your laptop into a sample case. Over the Internet, a full-blown cyberspace catalog all but places the product in the consumer's hands. Price tags range anywhere from $50 to more than $5,000. Select a package according to your needs, the scale of your projects and the degree of control you'll need over the creation process. You'll probably require a variety of tools, each specialized for certain functions.

Several applications are so easy to use you can incorporate 3-D into your everyday work. For example, Micrografx's Instant 3D, which creates flying logos among other things, integrates into any OLE 2.0-compliant application. Fractal Design's Poser, which focuses on the human form, lets you shape and pose human figures into any lifelike position. You can import Poser files either as flat images for simple projects or as 3-D models for more advanced endeavors.

If you're ready to start incorporating more diverse 3-D elements, check out 3D/EYE's TriSpectives. A more complex 3-D package, TriSpectives emphasizes drag-and-drop design and OLE 2.0 integration. It comes with a library of commonly used, ready-made objects, such as furniture and office equipment, with preassigned animatable behaviors. For instance, you could drag into a scene a premade cellular phone that you can flip open as you would a real cellular phone. Caligari's trueSpace SE also provides a well-rounded entry-level package for the beginning 3-D designer.

For professional design work, you'll need to move up to midrange 3-D packages. Products in this range offer more sophisticated options for creating and modeling 3-D objects from scratch. The more advanced animation functions make it easier to control how objects interact with one another. A few products available now are 3D/EYE's TriSpectives Professional, Caligari's trueSpace 2, Macromedia's Extreme 3D and Ray Dream's Ray Dream Studio. These packages are in the $500 range, run on Windows 95 and offer expansive 3-D design within the grasp of the business professional. Each has its own strengths and specialties. TrueSpace 2, for instance, has a nonstandard but fairly intuitive interface; Ray Dream offers inverse kinematics (IK deals with how the movements of one object affect the position of another) and animation behaviors; and Extreme 3D features integration with Director and other Macromedia applications as well as cross-platform compatibility.

At press time, none of these products took advantage of the new generation of hardware accelerators. But 3D/Eye and Caligari have announced support for Direct3D in future releases, and you can expect most future packages to follow suit.

A new dimension to the Internet

You won't have to wait to incorporate 3-D into your Web pages. The marriage of the Internet and 3-D provides a wealth of exciting possibilities, such as the ability to create entire virtual worlds rather than flat HTML pages, and to interact with other users in a more realistic environment. If your business has a Net presence, 3-D can dramatically enhance your content, and draw additional traffic to your site.

Today's standard for presenting 3-D information on the Web is VRML (virtual reality modeling language). VRML 1.0 has been around for about a year. A few sites already use it, and browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape, offer VRML 1.0 plug-ins.

VRML 1.0 is fairly primitive and doesn't take advantage of advanced 3-D concepts, such as objects with movement and behaviors. The next version, VRML 2.0 (also known as Moving Worlds), includes provisions for objects with behaviors, sound, collision detection and more. The specs for VRML 2.0 should be finalized in early August. The VRML Architecture Group has already approved the Moving Worlds proposal by Silicon Graphics, Sony and other companies for the new spec.

Meanwhile, several companies are forging ahead with their own proprietary tools. Kinetix, the multimedia division of Autodesk, has released a Netscape Navigator plug-in that will support not only Moving Worlds, but its own brand of advanced VRML objects. Other companies, such as Superscape and Vream, are pursuing similar strategies, providing browser plug-ins at little or no cost. The problem is you can only create their own brands of VRML objects using specialized authoring tools, or in Kinetix's case, the more versatile but pricey Kinetix 3D Studio MAX. VRML will likely remain a volatile place to be, more heavily populated by early adopters and enthusiasts than the business arena at large.

3-D's early adopters

The early adopters in the 3-D field were those in the entertainment and CAD industries. In the gaming arena it was mainly confined to video arcades and proprietary game platforms because graphics acceleration could be standardized and built directly into the hardware. Many of the top-selling DOS games have also incorporated some form of 3-D graphics.

Now that the wave of 3-D hardware accelerators is poised to break over the Windows PC market, new entertainment titles are just beyond the crest. Microsoft's DirectX APIs for Windows 95 allow game developers to create faster, more responsive Windows games without requiring specific hardware drivers. The addition of Direct3D to the DirectX arsenal puts Windows 95 on a level to compete with the best of the console systems-or so game developers hope. Direct3D enables developers to deliver titles that are responsive at high resolutions, an otherwise impossible feat, even under DOS. Several companies have already announced support for Direct3D in future products. And this trend will gain momentum as 3-D hardware acceleration pervades PCs.

In the CAD precision modeling arena, programs such as Autodesk's AutoCAD and others provide tools for creating absolutely precise models for schematic diagrams. Most of the apps at this level are targeted at the full-time 3-D professional running Windows NT, because NT provides a more robust and stable production environment than Win95. These programs will also adhere to 3-D API standards, because users of these programs must be able to preview and render scenes as they work.

Examples of programs in this class are SoftImage 3D for Windows NT and Kinetix's 3D Studio MAX. Both provide the ability to animate every aspect of 3-D creation. You can build models, define hierarchical relationships among them, and assign complex IK chains to determine their movements. You can also use sophisticated modeling techniques, such as deforming objects with respect to other objects, and animating the results. (An example of this could be water cascading down a cliff.) Third-party developers can use software development kits (SDKs) to create new features beyond those found in the original applications. Kinetix's Character Studio, for instance, delivers a footstep-driven 3-D character plug-in for animating human figures. Just place footsteps into your scene and the model will follow them.

Now that the industry has placed the footsteps, business users should find the path to 3-D easy to follow. It's no longer just for the hard-core professional. The proliferation of affordable 3-D graphics hardware and the coming wave of 3-D-enabled applications have made 3-D accessible to the average user. It's here, it's cool and it's ready to move onto your PC.

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