General Software

Visualize this!

15 Aug, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

Software to take your designs to the next level.

Although I've reported on this industry for a number of years, I'm still fascinated by being able to turn an idea into a photorealistic image complete with textures, fabrics, and reflections and share it with someone else. This type of communication, made possible by the PC, has revolutionized the way we design, develop, and market products and projects. Apparently I'm not alone in this fascination, as rendering and visualization software capable of producing exquisitely detailed images has become popular far beyond the domain of those who produce such work professionally.

These days it's typical for CAD applications to incorporate rudimentary shading and visualization tools in their basic feature sets. You can add more powerful visualization tools via software plug-ins. Once you get into the more extensive design applications, the sophistication of the visualization tools either included or available as add-ons increases significantly, with the distinction between design and visualization often blurring.

Some applications generally thought of as rendering and visualization tools are quite adept at creating models, and some stand-alone rendering applications are designed strictly for the visualization process.

Beyond the rendering process, this roundup includes postrendering tools such as Informatix's Piranesi that remove the hyper-realistic and sometimes hard-edged computerized look and mimic the subtlety of traditional artistic media.

Rendering applications are, it seems, never fast enough. Just when computer systems increase in horsepower and should theoretically be able to cut the times involved in creating these highly detailed images, applications implement new features, effectively canceling any performance gains that the hardware might have provided. I guess we can't complain too much, because even though the process never seems to get any faster, the images produced are more breathtaking and realistic.

New features often include an assortment of rendering options—ray-tracing, Gouraud shading, and radiosity among them. Support is increasing for HDRI (high dynamic range images). You can use these to create an image that contains more color information than traditional photographic processes. In conjunction with radiosity rendering solutions, they produce more realistic environmental lighting.

The world of rendering and visualization software is healthy and continually evolving, providing us with tools to communicate design ideas and concepts to others. At the deadline for this article, we received announcements for two new applications—ArchVision Composer and CAD Render Studio. See p 20 and 25, respectively, for more information.



Price: ImageStudio 1.0, $3,999; StudioTools 11, starts at $7,500

Alias is known for its 3D graphics technology, which includes both software and custom development and training for the film, video, game development, interactive media, industrial design, and visualization markets. Perhaps the most famous Alias product is its Maya software, which is widely used in the entertainment industry. Lord of the Rings and The Mummy are two of the recent films that used Maya's capabilities.

 Alias StudioTools and ImageStudio create dynamic industrial design renderings. Image credit: RayBan.
Alias StudioTools and ImageStudio create dynamic industrial design renderings. Image credit: RayBan.

Other Alias applications include Alias SketchBook Pro, a sketching, annotation, and presentation application for the Wacom Tablet and the Tablet PC. For the design industry, Alias produces such applications as StudioTools and PortfolioWall.

StudioTools is a scalable software line that starts with DesignStudio as the entry-level design system, progressing to Alias Studio, and finally to AutoStudio, its top-of-the-line product that includes all options. StudioTools offers both 2D and 3D design tools and supports a number of file formats for importing and exporting. See the feature table on p. 24 and online for more details.

Alias ImageStudio is a relatively new rendering application that transforms 3D models into high-quality visual images. ImageStudio has an easy-to-use interface and customizable preset assets that, in combination with scene preparation tools and superb output, let you focus more on designing and less on preparing 3D images.

ImageStudio uses the mental ray renderer and includes an image-based lighting environment that supports HDRI for enhanced realism. Visualizations produced in ImageStudio are of high quality without entangling you in the myriad details and subtleties of lighting.

At the top end of the spectrum for advanced visualization, Alias released Maya 6, which includes many features for the creation of design visualizations. This includes integration with tools such as AutoCAD, StudioTools, Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator. Maya's rendering options can create a myriad of image styles, from a Flash or line drawing to a photorealistic image using the integrated mental ray renderer. Animation and special effects can be added to visualize both form and function and create compelling presentations.

Bill Fane reviewed Alias StudioTools and ImageStudio in the February 2004 issue of Cadalyst (p. 20) and gave the products a deserved five-star Highly Recommended rating. That review noted that StudioTools offers powerful 2D conceptualization tools and excellent 3D surface modeling. As you might expect of an application that is available for multiple platforms, the interface doesn't always adhere to standard Windows conventions.

It's not possible to cover even a fraction of the features and capabilities here, but you can read Bill's review online at . Alias provides demo versions of most of its applications, including StudioTools and Maya, at its Web site ( ). Here you'll also find forums, user groups, customer stories, and a wealth of information and tools for visualization.



Price: $1,895; $445 upgrade from 2004/3.x

Autodesk VIZ 2005 has many changes when compared with previous versions—some immediately visible, others not. With the release of Autodesk VIZ 2005, the development of VIZ moved from Autodesk's discreet division back to Autodesk. Autodesk VIZ has often been viewed as a stripped-down version of discreet's 3ds max, and in the best sense that is true. Take away the ability to create particles, deformable models, and the reactor system, and the underlying core is essentially the same.

 Autodesk VIZ 2005 now supports radiosity rendering.
Autodesk VIZ 2005 now supports radiosity rendering.

As soon as you see the new VIZ menu, you'll know that there are changes. The Draft option, Tab panel, and orientation toolbars are gone. New here are a resizable, modeless Layer Manager dialog box—this feature will make many VIZ users very happy—and a light list that shows all the lights in a scene and is easy to modify. Light assemblies, with associated dimmers, make this a truly useful modification.

For realistic results, you can simply position lights in a scene the way you would in the real world. You can use luminaire photometric data or even complete 3D luminaire models from manufacturer Web sites. With the enhanced daylight system in this new release, you can specify location, date, time, and cloud cover conditions.

The previous release of VIZ introduced global illumination technology, which simulates the real-world behavior of light bouncing off multiple surfaces. VIZ 2005 expands its rendering repertoire with mental ray rendering technology to incorporate the most subtle lighting effects.

VIZ now fully supports HDRI. You now have the option of rendering to texture so that you can create custom textures that contain color depths beyond what is available in traditional rendering. Rendering presets are new in this release, as is command-line rendering. An Isoline display option displays easy-to-understand meshes on-screen. This is particularly useful for complex or crowded scenes.

 Archvision Composer is a stand-alone application that lets you add RPC images to 2D renderings and photographs.
Archvision Composer is a stand-alone application that lets you add RPC images to 2D renderings and photographs.

VIZ 2005's new high-quality, physically based architectural materials reflect the physical characteristics of real-world materials and work well with the lighting and rendering system.

You can effectively manage schematic views as animated assemblies. Schematic view presents a single diagrammatic view of all related moving parts for effective analysis and modification of linkages.

Autodesk notes that this release of VIZ is more stable overall. This, combined with the extensive usability improvements and new features, makes it an even more flexible and powerful tool than previous iterations.

The enhanced interoperability between VIZ 2005 and other Autodesk applications will ease workflow considerations. This release of VIZ is a significant one that brings both depth and a degree of maturity to a popular visualization product.

VIZ 2005 offers more significant features than I can possibly touch on in this limited space—and that's a good thing for you.

FORM•Z 4.5


Price: $1,495-$2,390

form•Z is available in many versions for a variety of operating systems—great news if you're in a mixed computing environment or work with service bureaus that use different equipment. form•Z is a solid and surface modeler with an extensive set of 2D and 3D form manipulating and sculpting tools. The basic feature set makes form•Z suitable for architects, landscape architects, engineers, animators, illustrators, and industrial and interior designers.

 Created using form•Z RadioZity v4.1.4, this image shows a rendered window view using a lens flare.
Created using form•Z RadioZity v4.1.4, this image shows a rendered window view using a lens flare.

auto•des•sys has an active user base for its line of visualization products. The form•Z graphical interface is very flexible, featuring multiple windows, tear-off tool palettes, and virtually unlimited Undo and Redo functions. Key shortcuts are customizable, and integrated 2D and 3D operation modes let you work in either 2D or 3D space.

You can move meshes symmetrically according to a predefined profile, randomly, or according to a mathematical formula. You can apply deformation operations to bend and twist meshed objects, and you can use image-based displacements to imprint a shape on both flat and previously meshed surfaces.

With various versions available, you can find the specific set of capabilities that you need. form•Z RenderZone includes photorealistic rendering based on the LightWorks rendering engine. This version offers seven levels of rendering: flat, Gouraud, Phong, preview and full z-buffer, and preview and full raytrace. Soft (bit-mapped) and hard (ray-traced) shadows are produced by all rendering levels above Phong.

RenderZone uses state-of-the-art shaders to render surfaces and other effects. You can attach as many as 32 decals on top of other surface styles to produce a variety of rendering effects.

form•Z RadioZity includes the features of RenderZone and radiosity-based rendering driven by the LightWorks radiosity engine. Using form•Z RadioZity, you can accurately simulate light distribution in an environment. Once radiosity solutions are generated in form•Z RadioZity, you can render them using one of the rendering modes available in form•Z RenderZone. Generated radiosity solutions can also be rendered using OpenGL (Windows) or QD3D (Macintosh) to provide real-time interactive manipulation of the accurately shaded images.

In addition to the light types included in the base version of form•Z, RadioZity incorporates area and custom light types that you can use to produce radiosity solutions and renderings.

auto•des•sys has a reputation for being responsive to customer needs, and many features in form•Z originated from customer requests. Online forums, regular updates on the Web sites, and the easy availability of online product updates all contribute to the strength of the form•Z user base. The company's online gallery of user visualizations serves as inspiration and as a very good advertisement of form•Z's capabilities.


Informatix Software International

Price: $750

Cadalyst has reviewed Piranesi 3 in past years, and it continues to be an important product for visualizers. Piranesi 3 differs from all the other applications included here because it's a post-rendering application in which you apply effects once you render your basic model.

Support for Piranesi is built into an ever-increasing variety of applications. Programs that generate Piranesi's EPIX file format, natively or via plug-ins, include 3ds max, VIZ, ArchiCAD, Architectural Desktop, Art*lantis, Autodesk Building Systems, Cinema 4D R8, form•Z, LightWave, MicroStation, MicroGDS, NavisWorks, RenderWorks, and SketchUp. You can find a list of updated plug-ins and availability on the Informatix Web site.

The primary design for this building was first created in AutoCAD and Rhino, and then rendered using Piranesi 3. Image credit: Richard Carnaggio, Cohen & Company.
The primary design for this building was first created in AutoCAD and Rhino, and then rendered using Piranesi 3. Image credit: Richard Carnaggio, Cohen & Company.

The Windows version of Piranesi now supports ArchVision's RPC (rich photorealistic content) cutouts. You can choose the viewing angle that you want from the individual RPC file, and shadows are automatically cast. The ability to use RPC images within Piranesi makes it easy to add people and items to your illustrations without increasing the file size too much.

Piranesi includes Vedute, an important tool for anyone working with a modeler or renderer that doesn't directly generate Piranesi EPIX files. Vedute is significantly improved for Piranesi 3 and is available only with Piranesi 3, not as a free download. The Vedute viewer is supplied with all versions of Piranesi on both Windows and Mac and can produce Piranesi EPIX and EPIX panorama images from DXF and AutoCAD 3DS files.

IMSIs CAD Render Studio provides photorealistic rendering, animation, and publishing for those without 3D visual modeling functionality.
IMSIs CAD Render Studio provides photorealistic rendering, animation, and publishing for those without 3D visual modeling functionality.

One cool capability is Piranesi's ability to produce the remarkable effect of a Quicktime Panorama that lets you pan or move around inside, for example, a watercolor visualization—certainly a striking and memorable effect. This is possible because Piranesi 3 can paint cubic panoramas, in which a point is surrounded by an imaginary cube. Each face of the cube contains an image with color, depth, and material values. You can then export these views as MOV (movie) files and display them on free players such as Apple's QuickTime. These movie files let you pan up, down, and around a particular spot in real time.

You can use all of the effects with panoramas. Piranesi automatically manages distortions caused by projection to and from the faces of a cube, so rendering a panoramic scene is just as easy as rendering a normal flat image. Two new effects, linear direction fades and cube textures, are introduced for specific use with panoramas.

 Table 1 Visualization Software Features*
Table 1 Visualization Software Features*

Informatix has built each new version of Piranesi on the original application and hasn't added features simply for features' sake. This clarity of concept, along with Piranesi's compatibility with a broad range of applications, has made it a very popular visualization tool. Piranesi is designed for those who want to avoid hyper-realistic, sharp-edged visualizations that scream "computer generated."

Piranesi 4 is scheduled to debut in September. According to the company, the new version extends 2D cutout capabilities to 3D models. It also comes with new brushes, filters, and more than 300 new cutout and texture images.

Table 1  Visualization Software Features, continued*
Table 1 Visualization Software Features, continued*


Okino Computer Graphics

Price: $495

The NuGraf Rendering System is a complete design solution. A speedy and capable renderer, it comes with top-quality converters and optimization tools for a broad range of graphic file formats. It handles all forms of geometry, including NURBS and meshes. These characteristics are complemented by a well-designed interface and the ability to process and render huge files quickly and with minimal memory. An extensive Help system is available for when you do have questions.

The NuGraf Rendering System is solid and reliable. Okino is well-known for its conversion capabilities, which are truly outstanding. New since we reviewed the system last year is a free IRIT Modeler exporter module from Technion University, a free Leveller height field exporter by Daylon Graphics, and certification for Autodesk Inventor v8 compliance. PolyTrans and NuGraf v4.1 customers can now download the Houdini Geo import converter and a new MilkShape-3D import converter that bridges the gap between the most popular 3D gaming file formats.

Okinos NuGraf imports assemblies, such as this one from Pro/ENGINEER, for rendering. Image credit: Genexis Design.
Okinos NuGraf imports assemblies, such as this one from Pro/ENGINEER, for rendering. Image credit: Genexis Design.

At the source level, there are really no differences between PolyTrans and NuGraf. At the functional level, NuGraf is the full-blown application and PolyTrans is a simpler version. PolyTrans doesn't include the full ray-tracing functionality or advanced rendering features such as lens flares, perspective match, and ray tracing. It also doesn't offer interactive texture projections, polygon level picking, material assignments, or horizontal toolbars. PolyTrans plug-ins are available for Maya, 3ds max, XSI, and Macromedia Director.

The current release of the NuGraf Rendering System supports 18 major CAD formats in addition to formats from animation packages such as Lightwave, Softimage, 3ds max, Maya, and others. A listing of all its major new features and new 3D/2D file formats is online at .

Okino focuses on the quality and accuracy of its translation capabilities. After some sixteen years dedicated to creating a seamless and cost-effective bridge to move CAD assemblies from the CAD world into animation and visual simulation, Okino has definite ideas of what does and does not constitute a quality product. This eye for detail and quality is reflected in its products.

You can download demos of PolyTrans and NuGraf for Windows. There's also an optional download of the Okino Plug-Ins Super Installer to install native import and export converters in 3ds max, Maya, Softimage-XSI, and Macromedia Director (import). A command-line demo of PolyTrans is available for Silicon Graphics IRIX (UNIX).


Price: $495


Price: $1,195


Price: $1,195

PENGUIN (with AutoCAD or Rhino)

Price: $195

Robert McNeel and Associates

Robert McNeel & Associates produces a broad range of visualization products. Its current lineup includes AccuRender 3 and 4 (beta version), Rhino 3 (NURBS modeler), Flamingo (for rendering within Rhino), and Penguin 3D (a conceptual, sketch, and cartoon nonphotometric scan line renderer for creating stylized images in Rhino and AutoCAD). Among these products are several adept and flexible rendering applications.

Arguably the best-known product from Robert McNeel & Associates is also one of its first: AccuRender. AccuRender creates photorealistic images from 3D models inside AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, Mechanical Desktop, and Revit. The basic technology behind AccuRender is also used within Flamingo, which provides the same functions inside Rhino.

The top-level AccuRender 4 (beta) menu provides access to its various functions. You can also use a basic AccuRender toolbar for this purpose so you can bypass this screen.
The top-level AccuRender 4 (beta) menu provides access to its various functions. You can also use a basic AccuRender toolbar for this purpose so you can bypass this screen.

AccuRender uses ray-tracing and radiosity technologies to create realistic stills, panoramas, and animations. AccuRender 3 supports multiprocessors and background processing and is fairly speedy in its production of images.

If, during the process of watching a rendering appear, you see something you must correct or change, you can interrupt AccuRender while processing to revise material assignments and lighting. AccuRender 4 is currently in beta. It offers more than 25 major new features—among them a global illumination light dome with HDRI support, an enhanced user interface, and network distributed rendering.

As we go to press with this article, most of the major new features in AccuRender 4 are complete and the final bug fixing and refinement process is well underway. As with other products from Robert McNeel & Associates, the AccuRender 4 beta is an open beta, free for all to participate and provide input.

AutoCAD 2005 with the basic AccuRender 4 "top level" menu, the AccuRender toolbar, and an open dialog box for the plant libraries.
AutoCAD 2005 with the basic AccuRender 4 "top level" menu, the AccuRender toolbar, and an open dialog box for the plant libraries.

AccuRender supports AutoCAD 2002-2005 as well as Architectural Desktop and Mechanical Desktop. Once you load AccuRender 4, type AR4 at the command line to load the new interface or AR3 to retain the old interface.

Among the other features currently included in the AccuRender 4 beta are a content browser with drag-and-drop support and Windows Explorer integration of materials, plants, light, and RPC content. Architectural Desktop support is improved, and materials and plants are now saved in the DWF file for easy pack-and-go operations.

AccuRender 4 now includes an Environment Manager with support for multiple environments and templates. AutoCAD Property Manager integration for AccuRender object properties is included. Floor Elevations Manager is also new, as is a batch-rendering manager. Rendering changes include support for the Piranesi EPIX file format, a nonphotometric raytracer, sun and parallel light soft shadows, and a globally reflected environment option.

Expected, but not yet implemented, features include coMOTION animations, distributed rendering for single frames and animations, polygonal groundcover, and more materials, plants and objects. Among the new post-render, real-time capabilities are depth of field, glare, and haze. Check for the latest service packs and beta versions of AccuRender.


About the Author: Ron LaFon

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