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-- by Serdar Yegulalp
When trueSpace first appeared, it brought studio-quality 3D rendering and animation on the PC down into the three-digit price range. TrueSpace 3 continues Caligari's tradition of making high-end, photo-realistic graphics easy, enjoyable, light on hard disk space and relatively inexpensive.
The beta version we looked at is designed to appeal to the moviemaker and the dreamer-rather than the engineer-in all of us. It earns a slot on our WinList for the creative user, as opposed to the business-oriented 3D user who will probably opt for Macromedia Extreme 3D's simpler, more straightforward features.
Since trueSpace 3 is primarily a tool for creative and artistic applications, many of its new features fall into that realm. For instance, Live Skin allows you to create organic-looking objects by using metaballs-objects such as spheres and cubes that change shape when they touch. Metaballs act something like electronic clay, letting you build objects that were once next to impossible to create or animate-such as throbbing globules of water or rippling muscles-and that can be animated over time. PlastiForm, another tool, uses one shape to "burn" holes in another. The deformations achieved with both Live Skin and PlastiForm objects happen in real time.
Many of trueSpace 3's innovations make animation more realistic. Environmental simulations allow scenes to be rendered with wind and gravity effects acting on objects, while collision detection keeps objects from sharing the same space. Also, by specifying an object's physical properties-rubber, iron and so forth-you help the program determine how the object will behave when it collides with other objects. As a result, the way trueSpace objects bounce, roll and interact is highly realistic. In addition, effects are rendered with amazing speed.
Inverse kinematics is another feature new to version 3. It's a fancy name for programming animation into an object by grabbing part of it and posing it like a jointed doll. To add a joint to an object, you just have to point where you want it to go. You can include details such as the joint's stiffness and how flexing one joint will influence other joints in the rest of the model. Any two objects can be joined and referenced in this fashion. Extreme 3D doesn't have anything like environmental features, metaballs or inverse kinematics.
Internet capabilities are also part of the trueSpace 3 package. You can assign hyperlinks to objects and export a whole scene as a VRML 2.0 file. To make it easier to debug a VRML scene, the program includes a built-in VRML browser. Also new in the multimedia extensions department is the ability to add WAV sounds to objects. The sound is tagged to the object and moves (in stereo) as the object moves.
Other new creativity tools expand trueSpace 3's functionality into slightly different areas. The 3D Painter tool lets you paint freehand directly onto an object's surface. While it's not as sophisticated as a full 3D paint program, such as Fractal Design Detailer, it's fine if you want to add a basic level of detail to objects. You can also use Adobe Photoshop plug-ins with trueSpace. Its own internal functions are available in a programmable API for use by developers, allowing you to script trueSpace's object creation and rendering from the outside. We successfully brought in existing 2D and 3D images in various formats, such as JPEG and Targa for 2D, and DXF, LightWave and 3D Studio for 3D.
The trueSpace 3 graphics engine can now use Direct3D, when also supported by Windows. For systems without a graphics accelerator but with a Pentium 133 or better processor, the 3DR Solid Render display lets you do quick-and-dirty polygonal renderings. Final rendering options and animation controls include presets for all the major video and film formats, including many common standards: NTSC, PAL, MPEG video (very useful for direct-to-DVD output) and letterboxed video.
The program's biggest drawbacks lie in its user interface. If you're working on many object attributes, the screen can get incredibly cluttered with subwindows. We found that a 17-inch or larger monitor was the best way to get the most from the program. But trueSpace's native strengths and capabilities far outweigh its weaknesses.