Share your vision—CAD visualization tools

1 Aug, 2003 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst

Helping you take an image from your mind’s eye and expressing it for others to see is one of the most powerful achievements of modern computer systems and visualization software. Visualization was once the domain of high-end graphics studios, but today, even when you explore the Internet, you find numerous examples of 3D visualization and rendering. Rendering’s popularity has led to some fragmentation of the market, both in software and software/hardware combinations. The field is growing more diversified.

For this survey, Cadalyst Labs requested products that had been updated since last year's survey. This eliminated several popular applications that don't have significant updates.


More than a pretty picture, a visualization can help nail down a design concept, win a bid, sell a product, or earn client approval. As you evaluate visualization applications, keep in mind the following: What’s your primary purpose for the software? What file import and export capabilities will you need? Do you want your visualization to link to the CAD drawing? What level of sophistication and photorealism do you require? And how much time do you want to devote to learning and using a visualization program?

The programs featured here and in the sidebars below run the spectrum from sketch programs to high-end rendering programs. You’ll be able to find at least one program that’s a good fit for your needs.

Among the applications that qualified, we looked for features such as modeling capabilities, the handling of NURBS, reflection, refraction, and anti-aliasing, Other key areas include available rendering methods, file format support, network rendering capabilities, support for OpenGL and preview capabilities, and whether the application is extensible through plug-ins.

This month we concentrate on visualization applications that either provide rendering and visualization capabilities only or combine such capabilities with the ability to create models. Both these approaches assume that you complete the final rendering on your normal hardware, although that is not the only option. "Processing power" (below) looks at online render farms and a hardware and software combination that could be the basis of your own in-house render farm.

"Other rendering options" (below) include rendering technology that's part of a broad spectrum of visualization software currently on the marked and a popular postrendering application designed to create the look of traditional media once you render the basic model.

With faster processors, high-capacity hard drives, speedy graphics cards, and heavy doses of both system and video RAM, current computer systems are better equipped than ever before to handle the demands of rendering and visualization. Indeed, it seems that we're entering what may just turn out to be a golden age of visualization.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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