Electric Image Universe is a 3D package with quite a pedigree, and Universe 4 builds on that reputation. The package is split into two programs – the Modeller, and the Animator. The idea is you produce objects in the Modeller, then load them into the Animator to arrange into a scene.
The Modeller uses an innovative mix of surface and solid-object modelling, as well as effective subdivision-surface modelling, using what the package calls Uber-NURBs. The usual primitives and 3D-modelling tools are in evidence, but the real advantage is that it’s resolution independent. You can change the number of polygons used to create models at any time, so you can scale the complexity of a scene depending on how it’s rendered.
This kind of approach has its downside, though, and communication between Universe Modeller and other 3D applications is limited. You can, however, import several common formats into the Animator section of the package. NURBs have been improved with a range of new features – mainly designed to make NURBs surfaces simpler and smoother, and to work effectively with weights. One neat addition is the ability to a replace a complex surface with a simpler one. Collision detection is another useful feature – you can position objects without worrying that they will intersect with other surfaces.
The Animation program is more developed than the Modeller – with a wide selection of features, and a strong rendering engine that produces high-quality images quickly. Materials are covered well, with a good range of procedural shaders, and all the lighting, camera and atmospheric effects you’d expect are preset. OpenGL support has been updated, so you can now see fog and lens flares in the viewports.
Universe Animator features an excellent bones and IK system that’s similar to that of Discreet 3DS Max and Alias|Wavefront Maya. Hierarchies of bones are controlled with IK chains – you only need to animate the end of the chain to manipulate an object. This system retains maximum flexibility by allowing you to mix forward and inverse kinematics in a single bone structure. Attaching models to bones is easier too, with vertex weight-painting to help with problem areas, such as a character’s shoulders and knees.
Camera Projection mapping has also been improved. Camera projection is a great way to combine shot footage with 3D elements, by wrapping parts of a video or still backdrop around simple 3D shapes. With it, you can easily have CG elements move between objects in a shot, cast shadows on them, or otherwise interact with them. You can now see your camera projection in the viewports.
The particle system comes in the form of a plug-in called Power Particles Basic – but, they’re really not that powerful, being a cut-down version of Power Particles Pro. Most 3D packages around this price ship with a better basic system, and you only have to go up a little in price to find LightWave with its powerful particle system.
Universe 4 has a strong IK system, good network rendering, resolution-independent modelling, and camera-projection mapping. This is a solid modeller, animator, and renderer – and it’s cheaper than most of its rivals.