Design Visualization

Light It Up (Cadalyst Labs Review)

30 Jun, 2007 By: Ron LaFon

Visualization Software Adds Life to Your Designs

The ability to take a design—be it a car, house or cell phone—and render it as the final manufactured product is one of the best uses of increased computational horsepower. What better way to help a client visualize a design than being able to say, "Let me show you"? The ability to turn a design drawing into a visualization that mimics reality is an invaluable tool for troubleshooting a design, convincing a nervous client or helping to promote a design firm's capabilities. This segment of the CAD software industry continues to grow and evolve, with rendered visualizations becoming more sophisticated.

You only have to go as far as the movie screen to see how visualization has made an impact. Computer-driven animation and visualization has managed to make ideas visible in ways that affect us all in our day-to-day lives. It's amazing to have much of that technology available at the desktop level. Your design intent may not extend to enabling Spider-Man to swing through the manmade canyons of Manhattan or aiding Superman in leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but the available tools provide the means to convince, cajole and communicate ideas large and small.

Understanding and visualizing modern structures and products from an underlying CAD drawing can be difficult, even for those experienced in doing so. For those who haven't made that leap in such interpretations, it can be a daunting process. The ability to make ideas and concepts visible is one of the more remarkable abilities of modern computer systems and associated software development.

These days, the actual design process that results in a CAD drawing often is only one part of a process for a given project—though certainly an integral part. After a detailed and accurate drawing is produced, it's often necessary to produce visualizations. These can range from visualizations that are prepared for clients to ascertain that the design meets their needs to those used for publicity purposes or ad campaigns. Visualizations also can be used to troubleshoot for design flaws is early project phases, enabling designers to make modifications relatively inexpensively. The ability to see how a new building will look in its proposed setting, for example, is a great aid.

For this review of visualization software, Cadalyst requested the latest versions of software from several vendors that specialize in visualization applications, whether as stand-alone products or applications designed to run within another design application. Cadalyst received a variety of software, though some vendors who typically appear in this annual review article didn't have new product versions that were ready for public attention. Some vendors didn't respond or were unable to provide products within our deadline restraints.

The applications described in this article offer many different approaches to visualization software, with the form a specific visualization takes often being dependent upon the software resources that are used to create it. Because this article is a survey, I didn't do a nuts-and-bolts examination of every possible detail. The applications here aren't compared with one another, but the accompanying feature table ( lets you compare features to find the products that best suit your particular needs and style. This table is more complex, with the elaboration of features within individual categories; for example, the depth of support for radiosity is an area to consider for increased feature depth.

As might be expected with the broad array of applications, numerous approaches and concepts are available. You may want an application that provides the ability to produce a hyperrealistic, exquisitely detailed rendering that makes every perfectly lit detail visible. Or you may eschew the computer-generated look and choose an application that mimics traditional artists' tools for a more handmade result.

During the past year, 64-bit versions of several major visualization applications have shipped. Because both design and visualization applications have confronted memory constraints for some time, this development is good news for those whose work tends to make extreme demands on both their hardware and software. 64-Bit support for these applications offers access to larger stores of memory and more capable management of that memory. It will be interesting to see whether visualization software will be one of the driving forces behind making 64-bit computing more mainstream or if it will remain something of a niche market for those who need it most. As always, the growth and development in this segment of the industry is interesting to watch, and end users are the beneficiaries of this process.

Although faster and more capable microprocessors and improved software design speed the process somewhat, a lot of time and effort can go into creating visualizations. However, the payoff often is well worth the effort. Evolved technology makes the ability to go from a concept to an artistically created vision of that concept faster and more possible than ever before. Many design firms have found that a well-done visualization can be a deciding factor on whether a project ever reaches completion. In essence, design visualization software is about communicating ideas compellingly using visual media tools—tools such as those discussed below.

AliasStudio 2008

Price: $4,995

Autodesk has a variety of very capable design and visualization software products, so when Cadalyst sent out its invitation, I wasn't quite sure what would come. Autodesk elected to submit its new release of AliasStudio 2008, which is designed to address the creative requirements of the entire industrial design workflow. Autodesk AliasStudio is a scalable product line that includes DesignStudio, Studio, AutoStudio and SurfaceStudio, so users can select the product most appropriate for their needs.

Autodesk DesignStudio lets users develop and share design concepts and prototypes using sketches, illustrations, photorealistic renderings, animations and digital 3D models. Autodesk Studio provides features for precision surfacing with conceptual modeling and rendering tools. Finally, Autodesk SurfaceStudio provides a complete set of tools for surface model development, refinement and control, including interactive evaluation for verifying aesthetic and technical surface quality.

Autodesk AliasStudio 2008 offers a wealth of new features, including an interface for the popular Wacom graphics tablets; predictive strokes that allow you to draw straight lines, circles and ellipses easily while painting; a streamlined canvas layer editor that offers layer blending; and new interactive modeling capabilities that incorporate new and enhanced rigs. The changes and enhancements are so extensive in this release that Autodesk offers a PDF file on its Web site that delineates all of the new features. In short, AliasStudio is more capable than ever, and it offers remarkable capabilities with relatively modest minimum hardware requirements.

At present, AliasStudio 2008 runs under Windows XP Professional and Windows 2000 Professional, and minimum requirements include a system based on a 1GHz Intel Pentium III or an AMD Opteron processor with at least 512MB of RAM. You'll also need a graphics card with at least 64MB of texture memory that fully supports the OpenGL 2.0 specification to use the advanced hardware rendering features. Additionally, you'll need a CD-ROM drive, a three-button mouse and, if you plan to take advantage of the sketching capabilities, a graphics tablet.

 In Autodesk AliasStudio 2008, self-shadows boost the realism of a scene by adding more information about the spatial relationships of objects. They also provide information about the shape of an object as it casts shadows on itself.
In Autodesk AliasStudio 2008, self-shadows boost the realism of a scene by adding more information about the spatial relationships of objects. They also provide information about the shape of an object as it casts shadows on itself.

For more information about and specifications for the AliasStudio line of products, visit Here you can download a copy of AliasStudio Personal Learning Edition as well.

TrueSpace 7.5 with V-Ray 1.5

Price: $595, trueSpace 7.5;
$299, V-Ray render engine

As I was writing this article, Caligari was preparing to release trueSpace 7.5, the latest version of its innovative 3D design, visualization and collaboration application. When Cadalyst last looked at the then-new v7 release, there was much to like, and v7.5 is an enhanced and capable successor.

Caligari trueSpace7.5 includes a brand new, state-of-the-art character editor with full body IK/FK posing.
Caligari trueSpace7.5 includes a brand new, state-of-the-art character editor with full body IK/FK posing.

trueSpace 7.5 offers literally hundreds of modeling tools for organic or mechanical modeling, polygonal modeling, subdivision surfaces, NURBS, metaballs and implicit surfaces, all available via trueSpace's direct manipulation interface. Those who have worked with previous versions of trueSpace will find the interface in v7.x releases much easier to use and comprehend than those of the earlier versions (although trueSpace still reflects its origin on the Amiga). Version 7 introduced greatly enhanced communication capabilities that allow groups to work on a design process concurrently across the Internet, and this remains a remarkably useful feature in the newest release.

The list of features and enhancements found in trueSpace 7.5 is extensive, so I'll only touch on a few of the highlights. A new character design system, complete with a hair and fur editor, will be useful to illustrators. You can change every aspect of a character, as well as draw hair or a skeleton from scratch and save parts to a library for use in other characters.

Both 2D and 3D primitives are now fully parameterized to provide advanced, visual, real-time controls. The trueSpace 7.5 real-time renderer goes beyond trueSpace 7's supersampling and glows, adding realistic transparency, alpha shadows, real-time environment reflection, mirrors and video projectors, among other new features.

Caligari trueSpace is extensible via plug-ins, so new capabilities can be added as needed. Among the plug-ins for this new release is the popular V-Ray render engine v1.5, which provides photorealistic rendering capabilities with tools such as global illumination, caustics, HDRI (high dynamic range imaging) and subsurface scattering.

Caligari trueSpace 7.5 runs under Windows Vista, XP or XP Professional and requires a PC based on a Pentium 3 or equivalent AMD Athlon processor, although a Pentium 4 or equivalent AMD Athlon processor is recommended. You'll need at least 512MB of RAM on your system, with 1GB or more recommended, and 120MB of free hard disk space. A 3D graphics card with at least 64MB video memory is needed, although a card with 128MB or more that supports DirectX9 and full Pixel Shader 2.0 support is recommended for the best performance and use of available features.

For more information about the many new features in trueSpace 7.5, visit the Caligari Web site at, where you'll also find active user forums that provide a wealth of information and tips and tricks. Demo versions of older and current releases of Caligari trueSpace are available for download.

Piranesi 5

Informatix Software International
+44 (1223) 246777
Price: $795

No doubt Cadalyst readers will be familiar with Informatix's Piranesi, a 3D painting tool that allows users to start with a simple rendering of a 3D model and quickly develop it into high-quality images for client presentations. Users can create photorealistic images by painting in textures with automatic perspective and masking or by using a broad range of effects to generate nonphotorealistic images that have a hand-rendered feel. You can also use Piranesi with either 2D or elevation images, and you can create panoramas.

A rendering created using Piranesi for Informatix's Tenth Birthday Image Competition. Image courtesy of Charles T. Gaushell, AIA, Paradigm Productions.
A rendering created using Piranesi for Informatix's Tenth Birthday Image Competition. Image courtesy of Charles T. Gaushell, AIA, Paradigm Productions.

Piranesi has its own native file format, but an included utility converts DXF or 3DS files to this format for use in Piranesi. An ever-growing number of design applications are incorporating support for Piranesi's EPix format, so getting a design into the application for enhancement seldom is a problem.

The Piranesi design team seems to have a knack for adding and enhancing elements without obscuring the solid underlying product, and Piranesi 5 is no exception. In this release, you'll find a reorganized user interface designed to make it easier to learn and find your way around, without using up valuable screen space. Immediately apparent upon startup is the new Help Assistant, which tells you how the tool currently in use operates and provides tips about using it to the best advantage possible.

Many of what were called effects in Piranesi 4 have been promoted to tools in v5, making them easier to find on the Tools toolbar. As a result, the program now has specialized tools for text creation, edge detection, restore, smudge, construct and filter. Some other tools have been combined, and two new tools have been added—a Light Tool that makes it much easier to relight a scene and a Stamp Tool that allows you to paint with one or more raster images or use them as an alpha mask to the current color.

As with previous versions, Piranesi includes a stand-alone utility called Vedute. Vedute is a viewer that can produce Piranesi EPix and EPix panorama images from DXF and AutoCAD 3DS files. Vedute has been enhanced with this release, and parts of the model can be exported as 3D cutouts now.

Minimum system requirements for Piranesi 5 are a system with Micro-soft Windows 2000, XP Home, XP Professional or Vista and a graphics card/monitor combination that's capable of at least 1000x750 resolution and that can display at least 65,000 colors. For Macintosh, Piranesi 4 is available and requires at least a 400MHz PowerPC G4 system running OS X v.10.3.4 or later and a graphics card/monitor capable of displaying at least 65,000 colors.

A demo version is available for download from the Informatix Web site at, where you'll find extensive information about Piranesi's capabilities as well as some remarkable galleries of artwork created with the product. In addition, tutorial videos are available for viewing, as are plug-ins for a number of visualization and design applications that don't yet support Piranesi directly.

Modo 203

Price: $895

Since Cadalyst last reviewed Luxology's modo, development has proceeded through several updates of the application—including 203—which is currently available from Luxology's Web site. modo is updated fairly regularly with new features and enhancements along the way. By mid-summer, Luxology expects to be shipping a new version of modo with additional features, tentatively designated as modo 301.

As I've noted before, modo is a superbly integrated application that offers modeling, painting and rendering. Each part of modo was designed to improve the capabilities and workflow possibilities across the entire product. Taken individually, modo's modeler is a very fast and capable polygonal and subdivision surface modeler; the paint tools incorporate procedurals into the layering process of extensive creative options, and the renderer doesn't sacrifice quality for speed, so you get high-quality images quickly.

A visualization of an iron created in modo. Image courtesy of Chris Szetela, digital artist, <a href=www.geocities. com/"/>
A visualization of an iron created in modo. Image courtesy of Chris Szetela, digital artist, www.geocities. com/

Each of these components offers noteworthy features and characteristics, but it's how these components are integrated as a whole that makes modo shine. This is enhanced by the way that modo integrates into the workflow with other products often used by visualization professionals, such as Adobe Photoshop.

The general system requirements for modo 203 are a system with a minimum of 1GB of RAM and 100MB of available hard disk space—3GB if you install all content and integrated training materials. You'll also need an OpenGL-enabled graphics card and a monitor capable of 1024x768 resolution or better. A DVD-ROM drive is required for support materials, and an Internet connection is needed for product activation. If you intend to use modo ImageSynth, you'll need Adobe Photoshop CS or later. For the Macintosh version of modo, you'll need a Mac with a G3, G4, G5 or Intel processor, running Mac OS X 10.3.9 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 Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Vista is not yet supported.

Luxology's licensing philosophy is worth mentioning. Luxology licenses its products to individuals, not to their machines, so you are able to move back and forth between platforms as needed—the CD includes versions for both PC and Mac operating systems, with both licensed to the individual.

For more information about modo, visit You can download an evaluation version of either the Mac or PC version of modo 203, the full production version which will work for 30 days. Licenses can be extended. While you're at the Web site, be sure to check out the gallery of work created with modo and the new training division and online tutorial series.

LightWave 3D v9

Price: $795

NewTek's LightWave 3D can be used for a wide range of modeling and visualization pursuits that range from game development to big-budget motion picture production. While I reviewed LightWave 3D v9 (the version evaluated in the feature table), LightWave 3D v9.2 was released just a few days before Cadalyst's editorial deadline. As a result, I was unable to evaluate the newer version. If you're interested in learning more about v9.2, visit LightWave 3d's Web site.

LightWave 3D was rewritten from the ground up with v9, and it provides a base for future developments. This rewrite brought major increases in user-interface performance, dynamic systems improvements and render-speed enhancements. Both components of LightWave v9 added many new features and improved workflows.

A photorealistic rendering created with LightWave 9. Copyrighted image created by Douglas Brown.
A photorealistic rendering created with LightWave 9. Copyrighted image created by Douglas Brown.

Noted for its flexibility, LightWave 3D offers modeling, animation, dynamics, volumetric rendering, particle effects and a motion picture–quality rendering engine with unlimited render nodes. Little wonder that LightWave 3D is used for such a diverse range of applications throughout myriad industries.

Among the extensive list of major motion pictures that used LightWave 3D are Fantastic Four, Sin City, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Spider-Man 2, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Matrix Revolutions, X2: X-Men United, and Monsters, Inc.—an impressive, if only partial, listing.

The general requirements for NewTek's LightWave 3D are a system with at least 512MB of RAM (1GB recommended), 230MB of hard disk space (not including content) and a graphics card (NVIDIA FX 5200 series minimum or ATI FireGL V5100 minimum) with the latest driver from the manufacturer. The graphics card will need to have at least 64MB of dedicated video RAM per display, with 128MB per display recommended. This RAM will drive a monitor with a minimum screen resolution of 1024x768 (1280x1024 recommended). LightWave 3D supports the latest generations of dual-core and multicore processors.

Out of the box, LightWave 3D supports three different operating systems: Windows 32-bit, Windows 64-bit and Macintosh. For Windows 32-bit, you'll need Windows XP running on an Intel or AMD processor; the Windows 64-bit versions requires Windows XP Professional x64 Edition running on a system with an Intel EM64T or AMD64 processor and at least 1GB of system RAM. The Macintosh version requires a Mac with at least a PowerPC G4 (G5 recommended) running Mac OS X 10.3.9 Panther.

For more information about LightWave 3D or to find a reseller, visit the company's Web site at While you're there, be sure to visit the outstanding gallery of work created with LightWave3D, as well as the NewTek discussion forum.

IRender and IRender Plus

Render Plus Systems
Price: $189, IRender;
$449, IRender Plus

New to Cadalyst are IRender and IRender Plus, both fully integrated rendering solutions for SketchUp that allow users to create photorealistic renderings from SketchUp models. For those unfamiliar with Google SketchUp, it's an easy-to-use application that simplifies 3D design. GoogleSketchUp is available in two versions: a free version, Google SketchUp, and a more feature-rich, professionally supported version, Google SketchUp Pro, which is available for $495.

Render Plus Systems' IRender installs and integrates into either version of SketchUp to provide photorealistic renderings using the AccuRender rendering engine. All IRender functions are available while running SketchUp, and all settings are saved in your SketchUp model.

IRender is a new, fully integrated rendering solution for SketchUp that creates photo-realistic renderings from SketchUp models. Image courtesy of Haynes Architecture.
IRender is a new, fully integrated rendering solution for SketchUp that creates photo-realistic renderings from SketchUp models. Image courtesy of Haynes Architecture.

After you've created a model in SketchUp, you can create sophisticated renderings with attributes such as glows and spectacular reflections without having to resort to an external program. If you change your SketchUp model, you can render it again without having to redefine lights and materials.

With IRender, you can create lamp fixtures for customized floor lamps, table lamps and outdoor light fixtures. Lamp components can be created easily with any wattage, beam angle or field angle, and the lights glue to the faces in your model. You also have a Create Mirror function that lets you create reflective materials or define existing materials as being reflective. You can quickly render selected items in a model to get just the effect you desire.

The IRender Plus version offers a number of advanced features and capabilities, including the ability to add both plants and materials from material libraries containing more than 5,000 options. You can create SketchUp components from a library of more than 500 AccuRender plants, which will automatically render as fractal plants in IRender Plus. The AccuRender materials automatically render as high-quality materials in IRender Plus. Additionally, you can create flythrough animations of your SketchUp model with IRender Plus, complete with lights, materials, plants and reflections.

The system requirements for IRender and IRender Plus are fairly modest—a system running Windows XP and one of the versions of Google SketchUp. To learn more about IRender, visit Render Plus Systems' Web site at, where you can see examples of renderings created with the company's products and download a trial version. Tutorials are available as downloads, and forums offer a wealth of information. If you don't already have it, you can download Google SketchUp from

Combined with the easy-to-use and popular SketchUp, IRender and IRender Plus add the ability to create sophisticated renderings easily from SketchUp, extending the application in ways that will make it a capable visualization package that may prove to be the only tool that many users will need.

AccuRender 4

Robert McNeel & Associates
Price: $495

Accu-Render 4 is the latest version of the popular high-end rendering application that integrates into Autodesk's AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop or Mechanical Desktop programs. Accu-Render certainly has longevity—and deservedly so—and it doesn't require any special hardware requirements beyond those needed to run AutoCAD. AccuRender delivers exquisite renderings, animation, virtual reality panoramas, lighting analysis and network rendering.

AccuRender 4 is a high-end rendering application that can be integrated into AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop or Mechanical Desktop.
AccuRender 4 is a high-end rendering application that can be integrated into AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop or Mechanical Desktop.

Continually under development, new versions of AccuRender typically go through an extended open beta-testing stage that puts new versions into users' hands for input and problem assessment. The result, over time, is a visualization tool that works very well and has a lot of depth.

This new version of AccuRender has a host of new features including postprocessing, network rendering, HDRI lighting, an enhanced and easy-to-use-interface and numerous new materials and objects. Features of note include fractal trees, RPC (rich photorealistic content) support, postprocessing images and new soft shadows. Accu-Render can save images in the EPix file format used by the popular Piranesi paint program described in this round-up article.

AccuRender has great depth of features but remains easy to use, and you can access these visualization tools from within AutoCAD. This ability greatly simplifies the process of adjusting models while you're actually in the process of creating the visualization. AccuRender is designed by architects with architects in mind, though it is useful for a broad range of visualization needs.

The control and effects possible with AccuRender make for outstanding renderings. For example, you can adjust foliage density per plant to get the exact effect you want.

Entourage Arts Plan View Landscape, Volume 1
Entourage Arts Plan View Landscape, Volume 1

The system requirements for Accu-Render 4 are defined as a system that runs AutoCAD, without any additional requirements specific to the application. At the present time, AutoCAD 2008 will run under Vista, but Accu-Render runs under neither AutoCAD 2008 or Vista, though the developers expect to produce a patch in the near future to resolve this shortcoming. Autodesk has just released a patch that allows AutoCAD 2007 to run under Vista, and AccuRender will be tested with that configuration.

You can download a fully functional version of AccuRender (although it has limited materials, light fixture and plant libraries and thin black lines are drawn across the final rendered images) for evaluation at Check out the galleries of images that were created using AccuRender to get an idea of the quality possible. Find companion products that work with Accu-Render and information about active user newsgroups.

Rhinoceros 4

Robert McNeel & Associates
Price: $995

Rhinoceros 4, the latest and most significant upgrade of Robert McNeel & Associates' popular modeling tool, recently began shipping. Rhino lets you model any shape you can imagine with uninhibited, freeform 3D modeling tools similar to those found in breathtakingly expensive design products.

Start with a sketch, drawing, physical model, scan data or just an idea, and Rhino provides the tools to accurately model and document your designs for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis or manufacturing. Rhino offers one of the broadest ranges of geometry types and renderers available in any CAD platform and enables customers to customize their rendering tools to match their individual needs and preferences. Like Autodesk 3ds Max, you can use a broad array of rendering engines with Rhino, including such popular and capable renderers as Chaos Group's V-Ray, Next Limit Technologies' Maxwell Render and SputterFish's Brazil.

Robert McNeel's Rhino 4.0 is the most significant upgrade in the history of the application with hundreds of new features and enhancements.
Robert McNeel's Rhino 4.0 is the most significant upgrade in the history of the application with hundreds of new features and enhancements.

Robert McNeel & Associates also offers several rendering products that plug directly into Rhino, including Flamingo (which offers ray-tracing) and Radiosity and Penguin, which bring freehand sketching, watercolor painting and cartoon-like rendering to Rhino. Bongo brings professional animation capabilities into Rhino.

Rhino's moderate price, extremely capable tools and plug-in architecture has resulted in the application's use for design in a wide range of disciplines that include industrial, marine and jewelry design, as well as CAD/CAM, multimedia and graphic design. Rhino is used for rapid prototyping needs and reverse-engineering.

Rhino runs on ordinary Windows desktop and laptop computers with a Pentium, Celeron or higher processor and at least 512MB of RAM (1GB of RAM or more recommended). You'll need 200MB of hard disk space for the installation, and an OpenGL graphics card is recommended.

Rhino runs only on Windows 2000, XP Pro, XP Home and Vista, including an iMac with BootCamp or Parallels. Robert McNeel & Associates note that Rhino runs on Vista but is not currently recommended because of the lack of support for OpenGL—they plan to support DirectX on Vista in a future v4 service release. Rhino 4 will not run on Windows NT, 95, 98 or ME, and it runs as a 32-bit application on Windows x64.

To learn more about Rhino 4 as well as other products from McNeel, visit the company's Web site at, or go directly to the Rhino Web site at

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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