3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 6: The Software Landscape | 2
Lesson 6 - The Software Landscape - Part 2
The High-End Revolution
3-D graphics was born in the computer science academic world in the 1970's, at a number of major universities. The technology moved into the commercial marketplace in the mid-1980's in three distinct directions--scientific visualization, industrial design, and entertainment. At this early stage of commercial development, all of the software was custom, and even today such large film effects houses as Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic and Pacific Data Images continue to use proprietary software that is written and maintained in-house. Even the very crudest 3-D graphics software was far too sophisticated and computationally demanding to run on the early personal computers, and so 3-D remained for many years exclusively in the preserve of the UNIX workstation.
The dominant force in the commercial growth of 3-D has been Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI). SGI developed a standard workstation for 3-D work using a high-powered RISC processor manufactured by MIPS. SGI created a specialized version of the UNIX operating system known as IRIX, and so SGI workstations are often called IRIX workstations. With this powerful hardware and operating system as a platform, companies began to develop standard 3-D graphical applications for design and entertainment. The most important of these companies were Alias, Wavefront, and Softimage. SGI subsequently acquired Alias and Wavefront and now Alias/Wavefront is a direct subsidiary of SGI.
Microsoft acquired Softimage, and this business transaction was of considerable significance to the world of 3-D graphics. Microsoft's purpose in acquiring this company was to move (port) its main product to the new Windows NT operating system, and it has done so. This was a watershed event because it demonstrated that even the most sophisticated and powerful 3-D applications so longer required an IRIX (or other UNIX) workstation. Fully professional 3-D work for film effects and scientific visualization can now be produced on a powerful personal computer using a standard, consumer operating system, and even the highest quality professional animations can be developed on relatively affordable platforms. The arrival of Windows NT as an alternative to the SGI workstation has revolutionized the availability of professional quality 3-D. A fully professional setup including both hardware and software is now in $10,000 range, down from at least five times that much a couple of years ago. In another year, the price could easily slip to half that, even as processing power increases.
The move to Windows NT has included a couple of other very significant players. NewTek's Lightwave 3d had long been a standard on the Amiga, and had a considerable following even on that unusual (but remarkably advanced) platform. By moving Lightwave 3D to Windows NT, interest in this product has exploded. Autodesk, the makers of AutoCAD first moved into 3-D graphics and animation with a product called 3D Studio, but completely redesigned the application for Windows NT under the name 3D Studio Max. This product is marketed by Autodesk's Kinetix division, and is probably the single most important tool in professional game development.
The Low-End Revolution
With the arrival of the Pentium, a couple of years ago, a large percentage of the personal computer base began to have the processing power necessary to introduce 3-D graphics and animation packages to a wide audience at a relatively low price. At first, it was clear that these products could not be used professionally, at least for animation. Neither the software or the hardware was powerful enough. Yet the chance to get involved with 3-D graphics attracted a considerable nonprofessional following. The arrival of 3-D animation on the personal computer, in any form, was very exciting.
Two developments have driven the low-end products upward in the market just as the high-end products have been coming down. One has been the very rapid decline in the cost of hardware. A very powerful personal computer costs half of what it did a year ago. The second, and perhaps more significant development, was the explosion of the World Wide Web. While the low-end applications are certainly not powerful enough to produce animations for motion picture and television purposes, the Web has created a whole new medium for animation--a medium limited for the present to very small animations for which the low-end products are more than satisfactory. Thus, the low-end products have become professional, and not merely hobbyist, tools.
A good example of the current trend is the evolution of Byte by Byte's Soft F/X to the new Soft F/X Pro. While the original product is still offered at a low price (around $300), the Pro version costs twice as much-- but still much less than the traditional high-end applications. Thus the traditional distinction between low and high-end products is becoming blurred.
A screen shot of the new F/X Pro interface demonstrate the basic look of a higher-end product. The screen contains multiple views--three wireframe views and a fully shaded perspective view. Simultaneous multiple views make placement and modeling much easier. This kind of interface requires at least a 20 inch monitor.
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Created: Apr. 1, 1997
Revised: Apr. 22, 1997