IN-DEPTH: Director 8.5 details

Macromedia has added an extra dimension to its latest Director upgrade – literally. Director 8.5 now includes Intel Internet 3D graphics software, bringing interactive 3D modelling and animation capabilities to the multimedia package. 3D content created in Director 8.5 can be played back using Macromedia’s free Shockwave Player. Aimed at professional Web designers, multimedia producers, and 3D content creators, Director’s new 3D graphics features include multi-resolution meshes that optimize playback through advanced streaming and compression. Other bandwidth-friendly additions include subdivision surfaces, bones and keyframe animation, particle system effects, and non-realistic cartoon rendering that delivers a more traditional, cel-like look. Macromedia says a high-speed rendering engine will scale to provide optimized playback on a variety of platforms. Content will playback on both Windows and Mac OS systems. And, unlike other Web 3D solutions, Macromedia says that models and 3D environments created with Director 8.5 can be freely distributed without the need to pay royalty fees. Most other Web 3D systems demand payment based on the number of users viewing the model. Web 3D new battleground Macromedia is pushing Director’s new 3D capabilities hard, with many pundits predicting that Web 3D will be the battleground of 2001. The release follows Adobe’s announcement last month of its Web 3D authoring package Atmosphere. Director 8.5 includes a swath of 3D tools – many which are designed to speed the delivery of 3D objects over modem-speed connections. A multi-resolution mesh feature lets designers create a single, high-resolution model, plus parameters that remove vertices from the model as needed. Model complexity can be altered depending on CPU power of the client machine, distance from the camera, and targeted frame-rate for animation playback. Macromedia also says that the feature allows for progressive downloads of 3D objects, with the lowest resolution model downloaded first, then the resolution is progressively increased as more data is downloaded. The company says the result is a smoother, more realistic model that can scale according to the client’s CPU specification and available bandwidth. Director 8.5 includes sub-division surfaces, which lets the user create a low-resolution model and the playback client intelligently fills in the gaps by adding more detail. The result is a smoother mesh, ideal for organic objects and terrains, says the company. Character animation Character animation features are high on the agenda. Pitched at creatives looking to produce Web-based 3D episodes, the package can build character-based animation that uses bones animation, motion-blending, and cartoon rendering. Bones animation lets developers put a skeleton inside a character and create real-time animation by transmitting just the bones data points – as opposed to the data points for the entire model. The model then moves according to the internal skeleton movement, which the company says provides not only realistic deformation effects, but improves deliver over slow bandwidth, and reduces development time. Also included are motion-blending tools, which let developers create smooth and realistic transitions in an animation from once complex sequence of moves to another. In a demo for Digit, the feature was used to create a fully interactive character that could walk, run, and jump with seamless transitions between the actions. Designers can also render 3D models in various drawing styles, says Macromedia. Rendering styles include comic-book and pencil sketches. What is impressive is the addition of a comprehensive particle system, which Macromedia says is essential for the creation of 3D games, product simulations, and ecommerce. Particle system effects include the ability to recreate behaviours such as smoke, fire, water, dust, sparks, and explosions. Macromedia says that several thousand particles can be animated at once in real-time, and can be affected by gravity and wind. Hardware acceleration, including rendering through OpenGL and DirectX, is included. Physics lessons A physics modelling facility debuts, with Director 8.5 including Havok’s real-time interactive physics features. In a demo for Digit, the physics engine was shown off in Director as a set of 3D packing cases that could be knocked over, tumbling about as they fell. Macromedia is also touting its live-updating prowess – including the live update of 3D models. The update includes the ability to create dynamic Web pages using XML to read live content, which can then affect a 3D model, such as a 3D stock-market graphic that updates in real-time. Director 8.5 does create models, however. For that, you’ll need to build the model in a 3D modelling application, such as Discreet 3DS Max 4, and then import the model data into Director. The application then outputs the interactive model as a Shockwave 3D file – a proprietary file that can be read by Shockwave Player. Macromedia claims that nearly 80 per cent of major 3D modelling package makers have signed up to support the new format. Understand the Lingo The update isn’t solely 3D-centric. New to Director is the ability to stream RealAudio and RealVideo within Director content, with the application able to use its Lingo scripting language to control and alter the RealMedia stream. Features include the ability to add panning and sound controls, as well as effects such as quad modification and imaging effects. Also new is an update to the Shockwave Multiuser Server – which lets numerous users interact with Director content and other users. Support has been added so that sites can host up to 2,000 simultaneous users, plus UDP support has been integrated. The company says the UDP addition will enable faster communication between multiuser Shockwave content for projects such as real-time gaming. Server-side scripting also debuts, which lets designers add logic and control functions to content. Macromedia’s flagship Web application Flash has influenced the features of Director 8.5. Flash 5 assets can be added to Shockwave 3D content and RealVideo streams – and Flash content can be tightly integrated with Director. Finally, Director’s scripting language, which provides the interactive power behind the multimedia power of Director, has been overhauled. More than 300 new Lingo keywords have been added, aimed at giving control over interactive 3D animation, streaming RealVideo and RealAudio, and Flash 5. Director 8.5 now includes over 800 commands, and provides the ability to control cameras, lighting, and objects, plus conduct real-time manipulation of model vertex positions, colours, and texture mappings. Director 8.5 costs £949. Upgrades from version 8.0 cost £149, and from earlier versions, £299. All are available from Computers Unlimited. It runs on both Mac OS and Windows.

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