Saturday, April 02, 2005

3D Tools for the Casual 3D Artist

Every few months, I get the urge to learn how to do rudimentary 3d art, so I do a quick tour of 3d tools available for casual users, and I always come back disappointed. For casual users, it's important that tools be cheap, not require users to have artistic talent in order to create simple objects, and be easy to use.

Immediately, the big, mainstream 3d modelling packages can be ruled out because they're too expensive. Of course, it's possible to use illegal copies of these programs, but I prefer not to do that. Then there are the mid-tier tools, but I'm always hesitant to shell out several hundred dollars for little-known tools from little-known companies that may or may not be any good.

This pretty much leaves low-cost and open source tools. The tool with the most mindshare currently is Blender. Unfortunately, Blender is a good example of a software application where little or no attention has been paid to the user-interface. If you read the development docs, this was an intentional decision on the part of the developers. For example, up until a couple of months ago, Blender proudly touted the fact that it had no undo functionality (telling you to save often instead). Personally, I'm tempted to use terms like "amateur-hour" here, but honestly, if I were a professional 3d artist who had just shelled out thousands of dollars for this tool, I would probably be ok with learning all of the weird UI quirks and hotkeys needed to be productive with the tool. Since I'm not a professional 3d artist and the tool is free, it's probably unfair of me to apply my standards on the tool. I have made a few honest attempts at trying to learn Blender, but all the hotkeys made my head spin and it seemed to crash quite often for me. Plus, based on the tutorials, it seems like users need powerful 3d visualisation skills to make effective use of Blender--skills that I don't possess. There's no way I can think in terms of "take a sphere, extrude this section while rotating it like so, perform a lathe on that object, and then edit the mesh." At best, I can look at a 3d object and play with the vertices a bit to get the shape that I'm looking for.

Milkshape3d is another popular 3d tool, and I've been tempted on many occasions to shell out the cash to go buy it. Milkshape3D is nice because it does only a few small things, but it does those things reasonably well. Unfortunately, every time I'm about to mail away my money to Switzerland, I start to think about the tedium of clicking in multiple windows everytime I want to add a single point to the model, and how I always get confused when I have to keep looking at different windows to know where I am, and I decide to wait for something better. I'm probably being hopelessly optimistic because manipulating 3d geometry on a 2d screen with a 2d input system (the mouse) is, by definition, hopelessly complex. But still, when I've used scaled back versions of professional tools (e.g. GMAX), they always provide nice facilities for manipulating polygon vertices without much hassle, so maybe that's what I'm looking for.

Art of Illusion seems to be reasonably powerful, but I think its 3d graphics isn't hardware accelerated, so it always seems a little sluggish to me. Plus, I can never figure out what the icons mean and the tooltips take too long to show up, so I spend much of my time holding my mouse pointer over icons to figure out which one does what I want.

Recently, I tried Wings 3D, and I really liked it. It's possible to perform lots of complex operations with complete ease. Pretty much all of the UI is self-explanatory and mouseable. The main advantage of the UI is that since everything is explained on-screen, you only have to memorize five things to be productive--namely what G, L, Q, space bar, and the middle mouse button do. With everything else, all you need is a general idea of what you want to do, and you'll probably be able to find it in the menus somewhere. The only problem with Wings 3d is that it doesn't work with many graphics cards. I tried it on an ATI Rage card, and an Intel integrated Extreme Graphics, and the UIs ended up being too horribly mangled to be usable. Finally, on an ATI 7500, the UI still didn't quite render correctly, but it was enough to be usable, and it was a joy to use. I was tempted to dig into the code and see if I could find any workarounds for my problems, but Wings 3D is coded in Erlang, so...yeah.

So in conclusion, if you want to dip your toe into 3d graphics on the cheap, try Wings 3D, and if it doesn't work, give up. Of course, I may be the only person who finds xfig to be an easy-to-learn program that one can quickly become productive in, so perhaps my experiences may differ from that of others.

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