Design Visualization

Digital Dreams - Visualization Software (Cadalyst Labs Review)

31 Jul, 2008 By: Ron LaFon

Make Your Design Visions a Reality

Communicating design ideas and concepts — whatever they might be — seldom can be done better than by showing them to someone. Thanks to great software applications and ever-increasing computer horsepower, turning a product or building design into a visualization that mimics reality has become a standard way to communicate intent or troubleshoot, convince a client, or promote your company's capabilities.

Combining photography and high-quality 3D rendering, illustrator Rodrigo Gelmi (São Paulo, Brazil) used Adobe Photoshop and Luxology's modo software for the complex modeling presented by Volkswagen's "Spider Machine," which depicts a Volkswagen easily outrunning a multiarmed, spider-like tractor. (Car photo by Hilton Ribeiro)
Combining photography and high-quality 3D rendering, illustrator Rodrigo Gelmi (São Paulo, Brazil) used Adobe Photoshop and Luxology's modo software for the complex modeling presented by Volkswagen's "Spider Machine," which depicts a Volkswagen easily outrunning a multiarmed, spider-like tractor. (Car photo by Hilton Ribeiro)

Visualization is a rapidly growing segment of the software industry, and the accuracy and visual fidelity of these images has become so sophisticated that it's often difficult to believe that they're not photographs of a real-world product or home. This roundup review looks at some of the remarkable visualization applications currently available.

Increasingly Prevalent Technology

Computer-aided animation and visualization have managed to make ideas visible in ways that touch us all, in broad areas of our day-to-day lives. Look no further than this summer's early blockbuster movies — Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — to see how visualization has affected the entertainment industry. For the designer, it's remarkable to have these tools readily available, even if your aspirations don't reach quite as far as Hollywood's cinematic marvels.

Not everyone can look at a CAD drawing and make the leap in imagination to the finished design. Fortunately, today's software tools make it possible for nearly anyone to see and experience design ideas by transforming detailed and accurate CAD drawings into visualizations. Applications range from creating a virtual building walk-through to show a client that the design meets his or her specifications to preparing advertising campaigns to identifying design flaws early in the product-development process.

For this design visualization software roundup review, Cadalyst requested the latest software version from vendors that specialize in visualization applications, whether stand-alone products or applications designed to run within another design solution. Although some of the usual roundup participants didn't have products ready for public scrutiny this year, Cadalyst received a variety of programs that I'll overview here.

Keep in mind that this article is not a nuts-and-bolts examination of product details, but rather a survey of general features intended to provide an overview. Consult the table on ( to compare software features side by side. As one might expect, the array of applications represents numerous approaches — and end results. The images they produce span the spectrum from hyper-realistic, abundantly detailed renderings that highlight every perfectly lit detail to traditional looks that mimic hand-drawn art.

Moving to 64-Bit Systems

The past year has seen more 64-bit versions of major visualization applications become available. The growing availability and popularity of these applications should come as no surprise, as design applications have been bumping into memory constraints for some time. This development is very good news for those whose work tends to make extreme demands on hardware and software, because 64-bit versions of their favored design applications offer access to larger stores of memory and more capable management of that memory. It appears that visualization software is becoming one of the driving forces in making 64-bit computing more mainstream. Wherever it goes, the growth and development in this segment of the industry is always interesting to watch, with end users being the ultimate beneficiaries.

Faster and more capable computer systems and improved software design helps speed the process somewhat, but a lot of time and effort typically are required for creating visualizations. But many design firms have found that a well-done visualization can be a deciding factor in whether a project ever reaches completion. Design visualization software is about compelling communication of ideas using visual media tools such as those described in this article.

form Z RenderZone Plus


AutoDesSys introduced its form Z solids and surface modeling product in 1991. Today, this extremely adept and sophisticated 2D/3D product — available in both Windows and Macintosh versions, with easy interoperability between the two platforms — is a favorite of design studios in nearly any discipline.

 The House Chmar by Scogin Elam and Bray Architects was modeled in form Z and rendered in form Z RenderZone Plus by John Alexander (AutoDesSys).
The House Chmar by Scogin Elam and Bray Architects was modeled in form Z and rendered in form Z RenderZone Plus by John Alexander (AutoDesSys).

Form Z RenderZone Plus, the company's top-level software bundle that was evaluated for this roundup, includes all the modeling, drafting, and animation tools found in the basic form Z package, plus photorealistic rendering based on the LightWorks rendering engine. Libraries with numerous predefined materials are also included and can be extended or customized. Three levels of rendering are available: simple, z-buffer, and ray trace. You can start developing the image of a 3D model at the simple level and gradually turn on features and render it at the most realistic level.

Images can be rendered and saved in a variety of user-controllable sizes and resolutions, to a maximum of 16,000 x 16,000 pixels. Partially rendered images can be produced and saved. RenderZone Plus supports multiple processors for accelerating ray-traced renderings, and large rendering and animation tasks can be distributed over networks of rendering clients, which are controlled by a dedicated server application. An unlimited number of clients can be assigned to any network rendering.

AutoDesSys' form Z RenderZone Plus requires at least 512 MB of onboard RAM (1 GB recommended), at least 500 MB of hard disk space (2 GB recommended), and a DVD-ROM drive for software installation. The Macintosh version requires at least OX X 10.4.3 (10.4.9 or later recommended). The Windows version of form Z requires Windows XP home, Windows Vista Home, Windows 2000, Windows XP, or Windows Vista. You'll also need a USB port or a USB hub for the hardware dongle.

For $1,995, form Z RenderZone Plus does it all, from drafting to modeling to photorealistic rendering. Visit the company's Web site for a full list of product features; additional information about the form Z family of products and available plug-ins; several free downloads, including a partially disabled demo version of form Z; and extensive software documentation in PDF format. The Web site also has a gallery of work created by users of the company's products and a very active and useful user's forum.

3ds Max Design 2009

Price: $3,495

Autodesk has streamlined its visualization product line somewhat, dropping VIZ and adding a new version of Autodesk 3ds Max that is optimized for architects, designers, engineers, and visualization specialists. Autodesk 3ds Max Design has the same functionality as 3ds Max — the 3D modeling, rendering, an animation solution designed for producing games and film and video content — but without the Software Development Kit (SDK) and with new exposure lighting analysis to assist with LEED green building certification. The Design edition also has its own user interface and application defaults, tutorials, and sample files.

With 3ds Max Design 2009, Autodesk introduced Reveal rendering, a system that gives users very precise control over renderings and the ability to visualize and manipulate a given region in both the viewport and the frame buffer.
With 3ds Max Design 2009, Autodesk introduced Reveal rendering, a system that gives users very precise control over renderings and the ability to visualize and manipulate a given region in both the viewport and the frame buffer.

Other features introduced in 3ds Max Design 2009 include the Reveal rendering toolset that streamlines iterative workflows and provides faster finished renderings and the ProMaterials library, which includes manufacturer-related materials for creating design and building surfaces. User interface and workflow updates, combined with improved data compatibility, provide better interoperability with Revit and AutoCAD. For a complete list of what's new in 3ds Max Design 2009, or to download a 30-day trial version, visit the product Web site.

Autodesk 3ds Max Design 2009 is priced at $3,495; international prices may vary. Purchase includes software for 32-bit and 64-bit Windows operating systems, and you can use both systems on your workstation with the same licensing, assuming you have the necessary hardware and OS to support this capability.

Plug-ins from 3ds Max 2008 and earlier versions will not work with either version of 3ds Max 2009. Those plug-ins must be recompiled with Microsoft Visual C++ Service Pack 1. For plug-ins to work with the 64-bit versions, they will require porting to that operating system. Numerous plug-in developers have already recompiled their products. A list of plug-in providers that have updated their products is available at

The basic system requirements for Autodesk 3ds Max Design 2009 are a PC running Windows XP Professional (Service Pack 2 or higher, 32-bit version), Windows XP Professional x64, or Windows Vista. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 or higher and DirectX 9.0c are required, and OpenGL is optional. The system must have an Intel Pentium IV or AMD Athlon XP or higher processor (32-bit version); an Intel EM64T, AMD Athlon 64 or higher; or AMD Opteron processor (64-bit version). For the 32-bit version, you'll need at least 512 MB of RAM (1 GB recommended), and for the 64-bit version, you'll need at least 1 GB of RAM (4 GB recommended). Additionally, you will need 500 MB of swap space (2 GB recommended). Both hardware-accelerated OpenGL and Direct3D are supported. Finally, you'll need a Windows-compliant pointing device (optimized for the Microsoft IntelliMouse) and a DVD-ROM drive for software installation.

Some features of 3ds Max Design 2009 are only enabled when used with graphics hardware that supports Shader Model 3.0 (Pixel Shader and Vertex Shader 3.0). Apple computers based on Intel processors and running Microsoft operating systems currently aren't supported.

NavisWorks Simulate 2009

Price: $4,000

The Autodesk NavisWorks 2009 software family includes four products for effective project review on even major AEC design projects by bringing a variety of shareholder data into a single building information model. Three of these products — Manage, Simulate, and Review — combine information created by building information modeling (BIM) applications such as Autodesk Revit with geometry and data from other design tools to provide whole-project visualization of all types of models, precise simulation of design performance and 4D construction schedules, and clash detection analysis. The products run independently, although Simulate contains the Review functionality, and Manage contains both Review and Simulate level functionality. The fourth product — Freedom — is a free viewer for files in the Autodesk NavisWorks NWD and 3D DWF file formats.

This visualization of British Airways Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport was created with Autodesk NavisWorks.
This visualization of British Airways Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport was created with Autodesk NavisWorks.

For this roundup, Autodesk submitted NavisWorks Simulate 2009, a very capable project review solution for design professionals who don't require the clash detection capabilities of NavisWorks Manage 2009.

Enabling shared reviews at every stage of the creative process, NavisWorks Simulate 2009 gives users a clear understanding of an entire project through photorealistic visualizations and 4D construction schedules that demonstrate and explain design and build options. You can quickly apply or read textures, materials, and lights to or from existing 3D models and also apply rich photorealistic content (RPC) to existing models. You can use the software to create interactive, realistic renderings and walkthroughs of a proposed project. 4D simulations and object animations can simulate design intent and offer avenues to explore every design possibility.

The suggested retail price for NavisWorks Simulate 2009 is $4,000. System requirements are a PC running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows Server 2003. The system must have an AMD Athlon running at 3.0 GHz or faster (minimum) or an Intel Pentium IV running at 3.0 GHz or faster (recommended), as well as at least 512 MB of RAM (2 GB or higher recommended). You'll need Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 with Service Pack 1 or later. The minimum display card requirements are 128 MB of RAM, capable of 1,024 x 768 VGA, true color, although the company recommends a video display adapter with 256 MB or more of onboard RAM that is capable of at least 1,280 x 1,024 32-bit (true-color) displays.

A DVD-ROM drive is required for software installation, along with 800 MB of hard disk space for a typical installation. A Microsoft-compliant pointing device is required. Optional hardware includes an OpenGL-compatible 3D graphics card, a printer or plotter, a modem (or access to an Internet connection), and a network-interface card.

For additional information about the Autodesk NavisWorks 2009 product family, visit Autodesk's NavisWorks Web site. You'll find extensive information on the individual products, a list of the numerous file formats supported, and a 30-day trial version of Autodesk NavisWorks Manage 2009.

Piranesi 5

Informatix Software International
+44 1223.246777
Price: $750

Piranesi is a 3D painting tool for architects, landscape architects, and interior designers. The software can quickly transform a 2D image file into high-quality images for client presentations. Users can create photorealistic images by painting in textures with automatic perspective and masking or use a broad range of effects to generate nonphotorealistic images that have a hand-created feel. They also can use Piranesi with 2D or elevation images or create distinctive QuickTime panoramas.

This visualization of a residence was created with Piranesi. (Image courtesy of David A. Walker of Dejong Design Associates)
This visualization of a residence was created with Piranesi. (Image courtesy of David A. Walker of Dejong Design Associates)

Many leading modeling applications — such as ArchiCAD, Cheetah3D, form Z, MicroGDS, MicroStation, NavisWorks, SketchUp Pro, and VectorWorks/RenderWorks — have built-in export capability for Piranesi's EPix file format. Plug-ins are available for many others — Autodesk 3DSOut, Cinema 4D, and LightWave — to help generate EPix files. Piranesi can work alongside other rendering tools to provide additional capabilities, so EPix export is available in rendering applications such as AccuRender and Artlantis. Vedute, an included utility, converts DXF or 3DS files to EPix, so getting a design into the application seldom presents a problem, particularly when combined with Piranesi's extensive third-party application support. Vedute also has been enhanced with this release, and parts of models now can be exported as 3D cutouts. 3D cutouts from other sources such as Google's 3D Warehouse also can be placed within Piranesi.

Many of what were called effects in Piranesi 4 have been promoted to tools in Piranesi 5 and are easier to find on the Tools toolbar. These include specialized tools for text creation, edge detection, restoration, smudging, construction, and filtering. Two new tools have been added: the Light tool, which makes it easier to relight a scene, and the Stamp tool, which allows you to paint with one or more raster images or use them as alpha masks to the current color. A new Help assistant guides you through the application.

The minimum system requirements for the Windows version of Piranesi 5 include Microsoft Windows 2000, XP Home, XP Professional, or Vista and a graphics card/monitor combination that is capable of at least 1,024 x 768 resolution and can display at least 65,000 colors. For the Macintosh, Piranesi 5.02 requires any system running OS X v10.4.10 or later and a graphics card/monitor capable of displaying at least 65,000 colors. A DVD drive also is required for PC or Mac installation

Piranesi 5 is priced at $750, with upgrade, multiuser, and educational pricing available. A demo version is available for download from the Piranesi Web site, where you'll also find extensive information about Piranesi's capabilities as well as some remarkable galleries of artwork created by users. Tutorial videos are available, as are plug-ins for a number of visualization and design applications that don't yet have built-in support for exporting EPix files.

A version 5.02 update for the Windows version of Piranesi can be downloaded, along with an update for Vedute. If you have the Macintosh version of the software, no update is necessary, as the original shipping version was v5.02.

modo 302

Price: $895

Luxology's modo 302 is a remarkably well-integrated application that offers modeling, painting, and rendering to deliver a uniquely fused workflow. Little wonder that modo has become so popular among professionals in industrial design, product and package design, AEC, game development, and film. If you take each part of modo independently, you'll find that the modeler is a fast and capable polygonal and subdivision surface modeler, the paint tools incorporate procedurals into the layering process with a broad range of creative options, and the renderer doesn't sacrifice quality for speed.

This visualization of a wristwatch was created in modo. (Image courtesy of Ryan Drue)
This visualization of a wristwatch was created in modo. (Image courtesy of Ryan Drue)

Although each of the components of modo taken individually is strong, it's how these components are integrated that make modo outstanding. Fortunately, modo also integrates with other products often used by visualization professionals, such as Adobe Photoshop, McNeel's Rhino, and Google SketchUp, so it fits smoothly into a wide variety of design and visualization workflows.

Among the new features in modo 302 are across-the-board improvements to the modeling, rendering, and animation capabilities. Modo 302 also introduced the File I/O Software Developer's Kit for creating loaders and savers for geometry and images inside the application. Support for Adobe layered PSD files is enhanced, and a new camera navigation method makes it easier to roam in world space. Additionally, modo can load MDD files to render animations created in other 3D applications or in Point Oven. For a full list of the new features, visit the company's Web site.

The general system requirements for modo 302 are a minimum of 1 GB of RAM and 100 MB of available hard disk space — 3 GB if you install all content and integrated training materials. You'll also need an OpenGL-accelerated graphics card and a monitor capable 1,024 x 768 resolution or greater. The product can be downloaded or purchased on DVD, and an Internet connection is required for product activation. For the Macintosh version of modo, you'll need a Mac with a G4, G5, or Intel processor that runs under Mac OS X 10.4 or later. The Windows version of modo requires a PC with an Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon processor (SSE instruction support is required) running under Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Microsoft Vista is not yet supported. Luxology has priced modo at $895, with upgrade pricing available for users of previous versions.

The modo 302 DVD includes versions for Mac and Windows operating systems. Both are licensed to the individual, not the machine, so you can move back and forth between platforms as needed. Mac or PC? Luxology notes that the easiest choice is not having to make one.

You can download 30-day full production version of the Mac or PC version of modo 302. (Licenses can be extended, as Luxology realizes that people get busy sometimes.) While you're at the Web site, be sure to check out the gallery of work created with modo and the downloadable video tutorials.

NuGraf and PolyTrans

Okino Computer Graphics
888.336.5466, 905.672.9328
Price: $495+ for NuGraf;
$395+ for PolyTrans

Now in the 20th year of development, Okino Computer Graphics' applications have evolved to accommodate the latest design and graphics applications. They work with the latest CAD and graphics applications and have remarkable depth. NuGraf is the company's primary application, and PolyTrans is a version of NuGraf without the full ray-tracing functionality, advanced rendering features (such as lens flares and perspective match), and interactive texture projections or polygon-level picking and material assignments.

This visualization of an HP-9 compressor was imported from Autodesk Inventor and rendered with Okino NuGraf by Ed Steinerts. (Copyrighted image courtesy of Gardner Denver Nash)
This visualization of an HP-9 compressor was imported from Autodesk Inventor and rendered with Okino NuGraf by Ed Steinerts. (Copyrighted image courtesy of Gardner Denver Nash)

NuGraf and PolyTrans share the same code base and offer the same add-on conversion package. Neither application supports modeling; Okino reports that it prefers to focus on developing ideal companion products for the modeling and animation applications currently available for product design and AEC professionals.

With that focus in mind, what you will find in Okino applications is full support for the import, export, display, and conversion of trimmed nonuniform rational B-spline (NURBS) data. In NuGraf, you'll also find radiosity rendering with three methods of global illumination and a multithreaded ray tracer that offers a number of rendering models, including procedural textures and full 2D bitmap texture mapping. The file-format conversion capabilities are particularly noteworthy. The company is not content with simple conversions, although both NuGraf and PolyTrans can do that with default settings. The real prize is how much control users have over the conversion process. They can convert the way they want to get the results and accuracy that they need.

At present, NuGraf runs under 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and Windows XP, as well as on Windows 2000 and Windows 2003. Pricing starts at $495 for NuGraf for Windows , and $395 for PolyTrans, depending on which translation packages you opt to include. Also available from Okino are PolyTrans for 3ds Max and PolyTrans for Maya. Together these two products offer exceptional bidirectional 3ds Max–Maya conversions, as well as native conversions for LightWave, SoftImage, and other design applications.

Of particular note is the 64-bit Windows support for all major Okino products, including NuGraf, PolyTrans, PolyTrans for 3ds Max, PolyTrans for Maya, and most 3D plug-in modules. This support is significant for those making the move to 64-bit versions of Windows for access, more memory, and better memory management for large 3D file-format conversions, geometry optimization processes, and, of course, rendering.

Okino's products offer a depth of features and functionality that are always well beyond the scope of a survey article. For a better idea of the capabilities of these applications and converters, visit the Okino Web site. The products are moderately priced for their extensive features and the remarkable amount of conversion control they provide.

Learn More about the Products

We've prepared an online table that compares the features of these visualization software products side by side. Visit to get detailed information about supported operating systems; modeling abilities; rendering methods; base, import, and export file formats; and included models and materials.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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