3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 11: Today's 3-D Workstation
Lesson 11 - Today's 3-D Workstation - Part 1
The PC Revolution
We've talked before (see Lesson 6) of the massive shift now taking place in the professional 3-D world to affordable platforms, and its special significance to that vast audience now seeking to enter this exciting field. The point merits repeating here in the clearest possible terms.
In the past, barely more than a year ago, true professional level 3-D graphics and animation was confined almost exclusively to very expensive workstations produced by Silicon Graphics Incorporated. The most important and most sophisticated professional-level packages used in Hollywood film effects--Alias and Softimage--were available only for SGI machines. There were exceptions. Autodesk, makers of AutoCAD, produced their original 3D Studio for Intel machines. Electric Image produced a rendering and animation package (without modeling) for the Macintosh. These products developed a strong professional following, but there remained a clear distinction between these "PC" or "desktop" products, and the true workstation applications used on SGI. Given the price of both the workstations and the software, professional level 3-D was largely out of reach for the vast majority of otherwise interested people.
Today, as these words are being written, fully professional 3-D has moved irrevocably to a PC platform that is already affordable to those with a serious interest. Affordable means a complete system running from $4,000 to about $10,000. And professional means professional. These are machines that run 3D Studio MAX, Lightwave, and Softimage, all using Windows NT as an operating system. With a set-up like this, and the skills to use this software, the committed individual will find his or her way into professional 3-D graphics and animation.
A Couple of Caveats
Many readers of this column will be satisfied to enter and explore 3-D graphics through inexpensive (and far less difficult) applications such as Ray Dream Studio or Caligari True Space. Packages like these run perfectly well on standard PC's and Macs costing far less than $4,000. I give these readers every encouragement to get started in this way, for that is the way I got started myself and fell in love with 3-D. But even these readers will benefit from a clear understanding of the emerging professional-level workstation, both to encourage them that the next step is within reach, and because prices are certain to drop so substantially in the next year or so that there will soon be little need to compromise on hardware in any case.
Another preliminary word is necessary for Mac people. The overwhelming thrust of developments in 3-D today is taking place in the PC world. This is an undeniable fact--just as undeniable as the dominance the Macintosh once held in 2-D desktop graphics. The Power Mac is fully capable of supporting the demands of professional 3-D, as Electric Image has proven. But market realities (some of which Apple itself must own responsibility for) have shifted the center of gravity to the Intel machines running Windows NT. This may well change in the future, but we must be concerned here with the present.
Our purpose in this tutorial is to give the reader a strong general understanding of the standard professional-level PC workstation that is taking the 3-D world by storm. Fortunately for us all, I was able to turn to the people at XERT Computing in Berkeley, California, one of very few companies at present with true expertise in assembling Windows NT systems specialized for 3-D graphics and animation. XERT is in the trenches of the 3-D revolution and they not only know their stuff technically--they know where the market is at and where it is headed in a way that few others can match. Allow me to share what I learned in an afternoon talking to the folks at XERT.
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Created: June 2, 1997
Revised: June 2, 1997