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TrueSpace 5
Publisher: Caligari 
Purchasing: Caligari Online Shop $395 UK Distributor 225 (ex. VAT)
Reviewed: 18th June 2002

Introduction

Those of you who have explored the depths of Direct3D will by now (or if not, pretty soon) realize that you can only get so far using built-in object types. Sooner or later you're going to have to make your own models/objects in another program. You can get so-far by downloading free samples off many websites - but even then you'll still eventually end up in the same place...

This is where this review comes in: TrueSpace 5 has always been one of the cheaper 3D graphics packages on the market, therefore you aren't likely to need a new bank-loan just to purchase a copy. Will this program cover all of the features and functions that you need as part of a multimedia team?

The User Interface
The user interface for TrueSpace has always been very different to its rivals - where they've opted for toolbars, menu-bars and control-windows TrueSpace opted for a more dynamic system of icon bars. Take a look at these next two screen shots:


Screenshot 01


Screenshot 02

Screenshot 01 shows TrueSpace in it's most simple view - I've intentionally hidden all of the icon bars. As you can see, it gives for a fairly no-nonsense approach to 3D modeling which make for a change from other packages. Alternatively, Screenshot 02 shows TrueSpace with all the main icon bars extended fully - bare in mind that this is not showing every possible icon - left clicking on some icons will produce additional menu's - but it's difficult to show all of these in one screenshot.

It's sometimes quite difficult to see - and probably increasingly difficult if you use a smaller monitor/resolution - but many of the icons in the toolbars have red and/or green triangles in the top left/right corners. Right clicking on these icons will display a small toolbox related to the tool(s), left-clicking on these icons will display an extended menu (similar to those shown in Screenshot 02).

Using this system makes for a very quick-start to most projects, you can get straight into the action without too much hassle. Once you get familiar with it (it does take quite a while) you'll learn which toolbars you need extended/visible at what times. However, until this point you can find yourself searching through endless lists of icons wondering if it's the tool you've been looking for, tooltips/information is good - but it somewhat lacks the information you might get by using a traditional menu system instead.

When you actually get down to editing an object with a specific tool you can avoid some of the frustration of finding icons by the context-sensitive toolbars that will appear next to the object once you start editing. These start off hidden, but hovering the mouse over them will display a selection of tools specifically for the current task.

For those familiar with other 3D rendering packaged, the interface can be configured to the standard Front/Top/Left/Perspective style viewport layout. Indeed, it goes one step further and allows for an almost unlimited number of different viewport arrangements. Take these next two screenshots for example:


Screenshot 03


Screenshot 04

In Screenshot 03, I've set TrueSpace to use a standard 4-part display, although I've resized it such that the perspective view (top right) is larger than the other three (you can drag/scale these windows as you see fit). In Screenshot 04 I've added two new windows, this is a very powerful feature in TrueSpace. Most of your work will probably be done in one view - in my case usually the perspective view (hence I've left it as the main window), but it is still useful to pay cursory glances to other views, and at times switch to these views to do more precise editing. Using additional view windows rather than the traditional 4-part display allows you to make these windows fairly small and leave them in the corner (for example) and then use them as appropriate - without having them as a major part of the current interface. You are however, limited to only 4 display windows.

The final part of the user interface to pay particular attention to - camera/view movement. As you can see in Screenshot's 3,4 and 5 there is a small set of colored arrows/shapes present in the bottom-right corner of each display window.

This small control system is a very intuitive method for manipulating each view in TrueSpace. Hovering the mouse over one of the arrows/shapes will highlight it, holding the mouse down and dragging will proceed to move the view in that particular direction/rotate it etc... In the main perspective viewport the Red up-arrow will spin the camera around it's target, the Green arrow will roll the camera and the blue arrow will change the pitch. The larger green shape will do all of these at the same time (depending on how you move your mouse). This control is the best way to move the views around, but it's not the only - you can use one of the toolbars to individually rotate/move/zoom the camera - but once you get used to using this feature you'll probably prefer not to use the individual tools. The only difficulty comes when you forget which bar/shape to click on to get the correct response.

Geometry Manipulation
TrueSpace has a fairly complete set of geometry manipulation tools - simple box modeling (of most use to realtime multimedia work) through to full NURBS (Non Uniform Rational B-Splines) surfaces.

NURBS surfaces have been improved over previous versions, and are now fairly easy to get to grips with, making it pretty easy to generate smooth/organic looking geometry with minimum hassle. However, NURBS surfaces are still not incredibly useful when it comes down to exporting 3D geometry for use in realtime applications - very few modeling formats export the necessary NURBS data such that Direct3D/OpenGL can fully make use of it, in the worst cases the formats triangulate/tessellate the surfaces before exporting them.

Creating any of the standard geometrical objects (sphere, cube, torus etc...) hinges on your use of a new tool called the "Magic Ring", As shown in the next three images:

The first picture shows a simple cube (wireframe with semi-transparent faces), the magic ring is the Red/Green square "ring" forming a cross-section of the cube. By pulling at the corners/edges of the magic ring you can alter the parameters from which the cube is created - creating some very un-cube like objects, as shown in the second picture. The final picture is after the geometry is created - a simple solid/shaded "thing"!

Manipulation after this point works in a similar way - a box/square will appear around the selected object with a set of handles to pull/push. These will either move the given edge (effectively scaling/moving vertices) or rotate the edge (rotating/twisting vertices). A typical example of this editing method is shown in the following picture:

One of the more important features of any 3D modeler interested in realtime multimedia work is box modeling (or its derivatives), using these methods you can usually guarantee very low polygon counts and have direct control over the geometry that makes up the final model. In TrueSpace this follows the pattern set by the magic-ring and the manipulation boxes. Once you've created a box you can select a face and subdivide it (if you need), you can then switch to face/edge/vertex level, select part of the mesh and then edit as usual - dragging the vertices around in world space. This lacks some punch as found in other products - a few tools for adding specific triangles/extruding/exploding individual faces would have been nice, technically these are still possible just a little more difficult to do.

Textures/Materials
Texturing and creating materials for meshes is absolutely key to creating believable meshes/worlds. A low-quality mesh can be completely transformed by clever usage of textures and material settings, in realtime situations this is now especially true using methods of layered rendering (specular/per-pixel diffuse lighting for example).

Generating materials is fairly easy in TrueSpace - upon opening the material window you can attach individual colour/specular/bump mapped layers (amongst others), and even preview it in realtime using the IIR viewer (very clever that is!).


click to enlarge

Shown above is one of the stock materials, as you can see it's made up of several different layers (Color, Bump and Reflectance in this case). You can choose to hide any of the individual layers by clicking the gadgets in the windows caption bar. Using the Area-IIR vewer you can toggle the sliders/make changes to the material and watch it get updated in real-time to check your changes (although this can be a bit slow if you have a complex material).

Texturing is the only area where the software is really let down in my opinion, particularly with respect to box-modeled/realtime model generation. As previously mentioned - these situations often require an artist to boost an otherwise simple model with excellent usage of textures. From a programmers point of view, it is often useful to store as many textures for a single mesh on one "palette" (ie, many 32x64 textures on a larger 256x256 texture), in which case UV unwrapping/editing becomes an almost essential tool. A tool that is missing in TrueSpace.

It is still possible to do the job - as shown in the first 4 screenshots I managed to make a cube and apply a different part of the same texture to each face. This took a lot of time-and-effort, and is no where near as precise as I'd like (it's only as accurate as I could see it in the viewport). For any mesh more complicated than a cube, particularly game-related characters, this method of applying textures would be horrendously time consuming and difficult. The other irritating part is that once you get it wrong it's not very easy to undo what you did without getting into a considerable mess.

The only consolation comes in the provision of a "UV Tools" plugin for the program, whilst this allows you to get much more precise results it creates considerably more work. Basically, this plugin will map outlines of all the faces/triangles onto a 2D texture map (based on the UV coordinate system) for you to then export as a file. You can then load this template up into your favorite paint package (such as the excellent PaintShop Pro 7) where you can fill in the areas with the correct portions of the texture, load it back into TrueSpace and see the final result. This straight off creates one annoying error - stretching/rotating, should you have any obscurely shaped faces exported in the UV template you'll need to (in your 2D package) crop/rotate/manipulate your original texture so it covers the whole new face. This is quite difficult to do, and even when done, can cause a noticeable degradation in texture quality.

It does appear however, that TrueSpace 6 has/will correct these issues with a proper UV-space mapping tool.

Rendering
Rendering is fairly efficient both in time and resources. Obviously, as your scene gets more complicated and you employ more special effects the render times will quickly go through the roof (unless you happen to have a super computer to hand). Using my 700mhz Athlon I was able to render most sample scenes (even complex radiosity based ones) in a matter of minutes. Obviously, try to make an animation from such a scene and you'll be needing to leave your system running for several days!

TrueSpace offers several methods for rendering - you can render the entire scene, a single object or an area of the screen. The latter two are of particular interest as far as time saving goes, it is particularly irritating if you're working on a large scene and need to quickly check how some small alterations look only to have a 5-minute wait while it renders the whole scene.

Fortunately, unless you're rendering cut-scenes, backgrounds or other pre-rendered multimedia material, you probably won't make huge use of the renderer. 


One of the sample scenes, properly rendered

One particularly clever piece of technology that has really made TrueSpace's name is it's inclusion (in previous versions as well) of radiosity solutions for lighting. Radiosity is the really complex, but highly-accurate lighting algorithms now being employed as a pre-processing step for lighting in computer games. TrueSpace was one of the first 3D renderers to add support for this technique as a standard part of the feature set, and version 5 continues with this. You'll only get any advantage from Radiosity if you're doing still/movie rendering - it has absolutely no bearing on exported models (for use in your own programs), and unfortunately you can't tap into it's radiosity engine as a quick-fix solution for your own lightmapping!

Supporting Tools
TrueSpace provides supporting tools in the form of plugins mostly, of which there are 100's available online (although only a limited number are free). It would be impossible to list the many different forms of plugins available - for any major feature not included by standard you'll probably be able to find the plugin somewhere online.

One particularly useful feature to Direct3D programmers is the native support for exporting/importing 'X file' objects (the native D3D file format for those who don't know). Traditionally it's been necessary to export objects to an intermediary format and then run a converter to generate the final, usable, data. TrueSpace also supports the very common .3ds format (for 3D Studio Max), which is definitely useful when downloading/sharing models over the internet.

The other important aspect for any program as complicated as this is help files. The manual can be found in electronic form as well as a proper book in the box. Luckily it is very very good - many key features and techniques are covered in both a short piece of theory/description and then a simple step-by-step guide to using/recreating the effect. The only area where it really lacks is describing some basic fundamental theory - even something as simple as a glossary would be nice. If you're willing to pay for a product like this you'll probably know what a vertex is, but should you not (and any other simple terms) there is no definition except in passing throughout the entire manual.

Support online for TrueSpace is generally good, it was fairly easy to find forums, websites, tutorials and downloadable samples fairly easily. However, it pales in comparison to some of the more industry-standard packages (3DSMax in particular) which is a shame.

Conclusion
TrueSpace has it's limitations, particularly in the texturing tools, but for it's price it's got an awful lot of features for it's price. The professional side of 3D modeling/rendering is very specialized field - thus the software involved is also very specialized. Because of this it's also very expensive (Lightwave and 3DSMax ask up to $5000 a unit), TrueSpace is an exception - at $395 (~265) a piece it's an absolute bargain.

I strongly suggest that you download the 14 day trial of this software before purchasing it - pay particular attention to the interface. As I discussed before, the interface is very intuitive and very clever IF you get used to it.

Purchasing: from Caligari Directly, UK Distibutor (GuildSoft)

Good Points Bad Points
Original Interface Poor support for precision texture mapping
Fast and intuitive interface once you get used to it Interface may not be for everyone
Customizable viewports / view window arrangements Sometimes a bit difficult to use the Magic-Ring / Manipulation techniques properly.
Clever geometry creation methods (the Magic-Ring) Online support and communities are more focused on rival software.
For all its weaknesses, very good feature:price ratio
Trial Version Available for download
Many of the features you'd expect from a more expensive package.
DirectX 4 VB 2000 Jack Hoxley. All rights reserved.
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