Design Visualization

Visualization 2005-Virtual visions

31 Jul, 2005 By: Ron LaFon

Creating a precise, detailed CAD drawing is often only part of the design process.

Creating a precise, detailed CAD drawing is often only part of the design process. There's an increasing need to produce a visualization of one kind or another—be it an artistic rendering to display to clients or use for publicity purposes, or a walkthrough to troubleshoot a design or guide a client through a structure. Not everyone can look at a CAD drawing and visualize what the final physical version will look like. Visualization software can make the designer's or architect's ideas become much more tangible and accessible. This capability is one of the truly valuable resources made possible by powerful modern computers and sophisticated visualization software.

A visualization can take many forms, depending on the software used to create it. This survey looks at some of the applications currently available, but doesn't do a nuts-and-bolts comparison. Such a treatise would be more suitable for a book, given the depth and complexity of contemporary visualization applications. The current crop reflects a range of approaches and concepts—everything from hyper-real and exquisitely detailed renderings to renderings that rely on the "hand-drawn" look of traditional tools to create a softer and more artistic approach.

 Kitchen rendered in Autodesk VIZ. Image (c) Juan Altieri / Estudio A2T.
Kitchen rendered in Autodesk VIZ. Image (c) Juan Altieri / Estudio A2T.

Which is best? That really depends on your ideas and what you want to represent. The good news is that the tools to do either type of rendering or even a blending of the two are readily available.

Though some vendors did not have new versions of their software ready for us to review (see "Additional Options"), we found a wealth of applications to cover, a strong indication of how vital this type of software has become to the design industry, regardless of which segment you look at. We also came across two promising new accessory applications: ArchVision's RPC Creator for creating your own 3D RPC files for use in rendering applications, and the remarkably good NPR (nonphotorealistic rendering) content from Entourage Arts, suitable for use in a variety of visualization applications to achieve the look and feel of more traditional artistic media.

As an indicator of how ingrained visualization has become in the design industry, 3D content and animations can now be included in the popular PDF files created by the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Professional. Whatever your idea of how you want your visualization to appear, chances are very good that you'll find just the right application or combination of applications here to make it all happen.

VIZ 2006

Autodesk, Inc.
Price: $1,995

Autodesk recently released VIZ 2006, its 3D modeling, rendering, and presentation software. The VIZ application has its genesis in Autodesk 3D Studio Max, now 3ds Max. The original idea was that 3ds Max would contain game and animation tools, with VIZ oriented more as an application for still images. Tools such as walls and other architecturally-oriented components were added to VIZ, making it an ideal tool for architectural visualization. But some users of 3ds Max also needed to create architectural facades , so some of the VIZ tools were then ported to 3ds Max as an add-on pack.

Kheang Chrun designed and modeled this car in Caligari trueSpace. Image© Kheang Chrun.
Kheang Chrun designed and modeled this car in Caligari trueSpace. Image© Kheang Chrun.

Design professionals use VIZ to develop and explore concepts and alternatives, validate design accuracy and communicate design intent to clients, colleagues, and consultants. VIZ accommodates whatever level of visual representation you need—from real-time studies to photo-realistic virtual prototypes to multimedia presentations.

Light is central to defining the character of space and form. With global illumination rendering technology, users can capture subtle lighting effects such as indirect illumin-ation, soft shadowing, and color bounce that provide renderings with realistic lighting effects.

VIZ 2006 features DWG File Link, which connects Autodesk VIZ directly to DWG source files in AutoCAD-based products. Although the source file may change many times, the visualization is created only once. VIZ 2006 also provides enhanced support for Revit Building files. Revit Building users can import or link a Revit model via the DWG format and have scene objects correspond directly to individual Revit Building objects. And because File Link Reload is fully supported, users can continue to update designs in Revit Building while maintaining the link to VIZ.

With the enhanced DWG File Link and import capabilities, data created in any AutoCAD 2004, 2005, or 2006–based design application, such as AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop and AutoCAD Mechanical, can be used in VIZ and vice versa, maintaining data integrity throughout the design process.

Autodesk's Inventor file format is now one of the default file type options in VIZ's Import tool, with the ability to import both IPT and IAM files. The Inventor Import feature now supports materials and texture maps.

Other new features in VIZ 2006 include sweep modifier (quickly lofts a selected shape or profile along lines or polylines), tool palettes (providing instant drag-and-drop access to frequently used objects), material exchange capabilities with Architectural Desktop, real-world UVs, and batch rendering functionality. VIZ 2006 remains a nimble, flexible and capable application.

trueSpace 6.6

Price: $595

Caligari Corp. was founded in 1986 with the mission to develop the easiest and most powerful tools for 3D authoring. Today, the company focuses on developing affordable 3D solutions that enable designers to create visual communication quickly and easily within immersive 3D environments.

Rendering created with Piranesi. Image© WangWang, Shanghai, <a The nonphotorealistic people and plants in this scene are available from"/>
Rendering created with Piranesi. Image© WangWang, Shanghai, The nonphotorealistic people and plants in this scene are available from

Though many will find the trueSpace interface different from the norm, it has remained essentially unchanged throughout the evolution of the product.

The immersive real-time interface allows users to directly manipulate objects in a fully rendered 3D perspective space. Users soon become accustomed to the interface, which offers quite a range of easily accessible design tools.

Caligari is working on a new version of trueSpace, due out in the near future, but opted to go ahead with this review. The current release of trueSpace (v6.6) builds heavily on trueSpace 6.0, but features greater control with selective subdivision surfaces, easier animating from nonlinear animation using clips, more accurate physical simulation with new local environments, and tools to enhance scene-building with geometry paint and global replace. Particle functionality is also included.

trueSpace's ease of use, superior modeling capabilities and high-end features make it a powerful 3D solution for product designers, illustrators, interactive media developers and animators. Plug-ins supply compatibility with industry-standard CAD/CAM formats as well as Flash, Shockwave3D, and Viewpoint output.

Caligari trueSpace offers extensive tools for both designing and visualizing models. It supports polyhedra, NURBS, subdivision surfaces, particle surfaces (plastiform and surface deform) and metaballs together with an extensive set of modeling tools.

Once the model is created, trueSpace's lighting and rendering options, including hybrid radiosity and ray-tracing, make it possible to have superb realism, soft shadows and convincing daylight. Advanced surfacing and UV editing means users can texture objects with a high degree of control.

Those interested in making movies will find a wealth of animation tools. IK (inverse kinematics) and Bones animate jointed models or single-skin meshes, with function curve and keyframe editing to adjust and fine-tune all aspects of an animation, including synchronized audio.

As an adjunct, Caligari also offers trueSpace proTeam, an all-inclusive subscription-based program that features training, extended support, moderated forums, extensive content libraries and all product updates for twelve months.

Piranesi 4

Price: $750

Since its introduction, Piranesi has been in a class by itself as a nonphotorealistic renderer. It's proved to be extremely popular in many disciplines, perhaps most notably architectural visualization. Each new version builds on the previous one with well-considered additions and enhancements that retain the ease of use and elegance of the original.

RPC Creator Pro
RPC Creator Pro

Piranesi is a specialized 3D painting tool. Users start with a simple rendering of a 3D model and develop it into a high-quality image ready for client presentations. The 3D model can be generated from a variety of applications either directly or via plug-in support. Piranesi can be used to develop photorealistic images by painting in textures and scenery with automatic perspective and masking. Piranesi's wealth of effects also help generate nonphotorealistic images that have a more subtle, hand-rendered feel to focus the client's mind on what is important in the design. Piranesi can also be used with a 2D plan or elevation image and to generate panoramas.

Informatix notes that one of the most popular features of Piranesi is its ability to place cutouts (elements of scenery, such as people or vegetation), into a scene with perspective and masking taken care of automatically. Piranesi 3 introduced support for RPC cutouts from Archvision, which can be viewed from any angle. With Piranesi 4, Informatix goes further—any model in 3DS, SketchUp, MicroGDS, and DXF format can be inserted into a scene. Such models are readily available, and many are free on the Internet—for example, from furniture manufacturers.

New options allow users to choose how colors and materials are assigned to 3D cutouts and whether smoothing is applied to curved surfaces. While we're on the topic of cutouts for Piranesi, be sure to see Entourage Arts' latest offerings.

Those familiar with previous versions will immediately notice the new tool manager in Piranesi 4. The tool manager helps users quickly find desired controls while maximizing the area of the screen available for painting work. It does this by organizing windows into three palettes that can be scrolled and individually expanded and collapsed.

Piranesi 4 is available for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. An upgrade from Piranesi 4.0 to 4.0.1 for Windows is available on the Informatix Web site. This upgrade contains a number of fixes as well as some enhancements, such as the ability to create hotspots in Piranesi panorama scenes.

modo 1.02

Luxology, LLC
Price: $695

First launced at SIGGRAPH 2004, modo is a relative newcomer to the design market. It initially targeted 3D artists in the special effects industry, but is also being adopted in the CAD world for architectural and other design previews.

Rendering created in modo. Image © Takumi (Japan).
Rendering created in modo. Image © Takumi (Japan).

Modo combines an advanced real-time subdivision surface engine, an innovative user interface and fast, flexible and extensible modeling tools. The program can create models of any type, from organics to hard surfaces, from high-resolution film models to low-resolution real-time meshes.

Many applications offer basic tools for creating geometry, such as Bevel, Smooth Shift and Extrude. modo offers these tools and a wealth of others. For example, modo provides a unique tool called Sketch Extrude, which allows you to extrude selected polygons simply by drawing the extrude path in the viewport.

A key element within modo is its advanced subdivision surfaces support. modo's native subdivision surfaces support n-gons (polygons with more than four vertices), edge creasing via subdivision weights, and very smooth resolution of complex topology. Users can also elect to work in subpatch mode, which is faster but less accurate. modo also supports triangles and quads.

NavisWorks JetStream provides access for all users to navigate, communicate and collaborate on 3D design models regardless of file size or format. This illustration is from NavisWorks Presenter.
NavisWorks JetStream provides access for all users to navigate, communicate and collaborate on 3D design models regardless of file size or format. This illustration is from NavisWorks Presenter.

The program offers special selection methods such as Select Connected, which selects all elements that connect to what you've already chosen, and Select More and Select Less, which expand or reduce your selection based on a pattern you've defined with your current selections.

Installation is straightforward, with an optional (and large) set of support media available for download separately. modo comes in versions for Mac OS X and Windows. Luxology announced an enhanced version of modo's end-user license agreement, which gives users the right to both Mac and Windows versions. We looked at modo v.1.02 for Windows.

A time-limited evaluation version is available from the Luxology Web site. It provides complete access to modo as well as two hours of integrated video training materials.


NavisWorks Inc.
Price: Roamer JS+Presenter JS, $1,900; full suite, $8,000

NavisWorks is shipping the fourth generation of its NavisWorks design review solution. This latest JetStream version introduces technology for improved 3D model handling with enhanced navigation, better process integration and new features that support the streaming of large models across the Internet.

Assemblies imported natively from Pro/ENGINEER and rendered with Okino's NuGraf software. Image© Genexis Design.
Assemblies imported natively from Pro/ENGINEER and rendered with Okino's NuGraf software. Image© Genexis Design.

The NavisWorks JetStream solution is made up of five components: Roamer JS, Publisher JS, Presenter JS, Clash Detective JS and TimeLiner JS. Roamer JS is the dynamic hub at the core of JetStream. It delivers interactive visualization and smooth real-time walkthrough and review of even the largest and most complex 3D models.

Publisher JS creates compressed, secure and streamable NavisWorks JetStream NWD review files that are faithful to the original native 3D data from which they are created. Presenter JS enables textures, materials and lights to be quickly applied to or, where compatible, read from existing 3D models. It's ideal for fast-moving collaborative review at every stage of the creative process.

Clash Detective JS eliminates tedious manual checking to reduce the consequences of incomplete, inaccurate and poorly coordinated production information. Finally, TimeLiner JS links 3D model data to project software for 4D visualization of construction schedules. Users can identify risk and reduce waste as a result of better planning control.

Though an installation of the entire NavisWorks solution costs $8,000, the Roamer + Presenter package provides visualization for $1,900. Components may be added as needed in any combination with the core Roamer JS.

NavisWorks JetStream provides access to all users to navigate, communicate and collaborate on 3D design models regardless of file size or format. NavisWorks products are designed to be easy to deploy and work with a variety of CAD software formats, including neutral formats STEP and IGES as well as native files from AutoCAD, MicroStation, Inventor, Solid Edge and SolidWorks.

An API (application programming interface) allows NavisWorks JetStream users to adapt, extend and integrate functionality into business processes and offers the opportunity to link to external data or expose information while navigating. For network use, NavisWorks JetStream NetWorker is an enterprise-wide solution that is easy to set up, administer and expand when needed.

NavisWorks offers a time-limited evaluation version that you can use with your own models. Those who have not yet seen or tried NavisWorks can download demonstration software for NavisWorks Roamer, Presenter, Clash Detective and TimeLiner that comes with already-created NWD models.


Okino Computer Graphics
Price: $495 (NuGraf), $395 (PolyTrans)

Okino Computer Graphics offers two popular applications—NuGraf and PolyTrans. Both are based on the same core technology and source code, but offer different user interfaces. NuGraf is Okino's full-blown application. PolyTrans offers a simpler interface for those people primarily interested in data translation and optimization. PolyTrans lacks full ray-tracer functionality, horizontal toolbars and advanced rendering features. Also missing from PolyTrans are interactive texture projections and polygon-level picking and material assignments.

NPR Trees & Plants Volume 1 NPR Trees & Plants Volume 1 – The WANG WANG Collection •  NPR People Volume 1
NPR Trees & Plants Volume 1 NPR Trees & Plants Volume 1 – The WANG WANG Collection • NPR People Volume 1

Over several years we've watched the features of Okino's applications evolve to accommodate the latest versions of popular design and graphic applications. Noted for its solid and accurate file conversions, NuGraf also offers many visualization tools. Okino notes that people generally don't buy its software to visualize and render models, but rather as a general-purpose tool that performs dozens of major tasks, from data optimization to rendering to conversion and viewing.

The feature sets in NuGraf and PolyTrans are not only well considered, they also have what seems to be an elusive quality these days—great depth. Many features go beyond what you'd expect. Okino writes its own complex plug-in modules such as lens flare systems, perspective match modules, Photoshop clone multimedia viewer/editor and so forth.

In addition to the extensive file format support directly incorporated into NuGraf (outlined in the online feature table at several optional add-on modules are available.

CAD/Pack ($245) includes Autodesk Inventor importer, DWG importer, IGES 5.3 import/export (surface-based IGES (144/142/128), Solid Edge import and SolidWorks import.

DCC/Pack ($245) includes Kaydara FBX importer, OpenFlight import/export, PolyTrans-for-Maya native plug-in system, PolyTrans-for-Softimage|XSI native plug-in system, Softimage|3D HRC and DSC import/export and Soft-image|XSI import/export.

Finally, the Granite/Pack PTC ($395) includes Granite importer licenses: ACIS, IGES (solids), Parasolids, Pro/ENGINEER native parts and assemblies, Pro/DESKTOP, STEP and VDA-FS. It also includes Okino's surface-based IGES importer as a complement to the solids-based PTC IGES importer. Native CATIA V4, CATIA V5 and JT converters are also available.

I'd highly recommend visiting the Okino Web site to get a broader idea of just what you'll find in these applications. You get a lot of product for a very reasonable price.

AccuRender 3.1 Flamingo

Robert McNeel & Associates
Price: $495
Price: $495

Fast and economical, AccuRender from Robert McNeel & Associates has been around for quite some time, with steady development and improvement throughout its history. AccuRender creates lifelike images from 3D models inside AutoCAD 2000–2006, Architectural Desktop and Mechanical Desktop. AccuRender technology is included in the latest release of Autodesk Revit.

Douglasville Davis Park Recreation Center, rendered in AccuRender. Design: Mayes, Sudderth & Etheredge, Inc.
Douglasville Davis Park Recreation Center, rendered in AccuRender. Design: Mayes, Sudderth & Etheredge, Inc.

AccuRender uses ray-tracing and radiosity technologies to create high-quality, photorealistic still, panorama, and animation image files. It provides accurate indirect lighting calculation, soft shadows, color bleeding and lighting analysis tools. Ray-tracing offers accurate reflection, refraction, shadows and more to create realistic visualizations.

AccuRender 3 supports multiprocessors and background processing. Scenes in AccuRender can be set up in one-tenth the time needed for most other renderers, says the developer, and unlike other renderers, it can be interrupted while processing to revise material assignments or lighting. Users are not forced to wait for the entire process to complete before they can view the image.

Other radiosity-based renderers require users to start over and reapply materials and lighting when they change their model. With AccuRender, everything is saved with the model, and any changes to the model can be immediately rendered in AccuRender.

Additional options
Additional options

We looked at AccuRender v3.1 Service Build 268, the latest formally released version. An extended beta period is the norm for all McNeel applications, with lots of tweaking and time for customer input. A not-ready-for-production-work version of AccuRender 4 is available to registered users on the McNeel Web site.

Speaking of user input, the AccuRender forums at Robert McNeel & Associates are active with user input, sharing of custom components and models, and a healthy air of helpfulness. This strong community is, without a doubt, one of the reasons why applications from this vendor are of such high quality.

The quality of AccuRender's documentation and training materials is excellent. The program ships with extensive libraries that contain more than 5,000 materials, 500 plants, and 300 light fixtures. Around 500 species of mathematically generated 3D plants with seasonal variation are included. Realistic 3D trees and plants are "grown" in memory at the time of rendering to produce lifelike results.

Saleen S281 Mustang was rendered in Flamingo. Designed and modeled by Phil Frank (<a, and rendered by Toru Kosaka ("/>
Saleen S281 Mustang was rendered in Flamingo. Designed and modeled by Phil Frank (, and rendered by Toru Kosaka (

A materials editor enables users to create their own specialized materials from bit-maps or procedural patterns. While most renderers rely entirely on bit-mapped materials that must be tediously mapped onto each object, AccuRender supports bit-map and procedural materials, such as marble, granite, tile and wood, that can be assigned to objects, blocks or layers. Procedural materials penetrate through the part instead of wrapping around it.

The Flamingo plug-in brings AccuRender rendering and visualization technology into Rhinoceros, another McNeel product. Rhino creates, edits, analyzes and translates NURBS curves, surfaces and solids with no limits on complexity, degree or size.

Flamingo is available in versions for Rhino 2.0 and 3.0. Rhino with Flamingo runs on Windows 95/98/NT/ME/2000/XP. Robert McNeel & Associates notes that Rhino and Flamingo will not be ported to any other operating system. Rhino also supports dual processors and background processing.

Flamingo uses both ray-tracing and radiosity to create sophisticated single-frame images and animations. It automatically calculates indirect light, hard and soft shadows, color bleeding, reflections, translucency, transparency, refraction, highlight, depth of field and depth attenuation.

You can render changes to your Rhino model immediately, without the need to export or start over. A quick ray-trace rendering option is available, with reflections, transparency and shadows. Progressive-refinement rendering algorithms are incorporated, with an on-screen preview. Viewpoint animation assists with walking through and flying around models. A real time-saver is the ability to render a partial window or selection to check lighting and configurations before starting a "final" render. Radiosity solutions can be saved and restored with the model, further saving time.

Flamingo's excellent online, context-sensitive help is complemented by a full-color manual that is well-written, well planned and logically arranged. The Flamingo manual includes lots of color, a further bonus for a visualization tool.

Flamingo is a good fit with Rhino. For a moderate price, it offers much in terms of ease of use and speed. Flamingo is a useful and capable adjunct to Rhino, which is also moderately priced, nimble and capable.

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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