Macromedia Director Shockwave Studio 8.5

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A ground-breaking release which adds impressive Web 3D to Shockwave's existing multimedia strengths.

The Web is a fast changing place and this month's favourite technology is always under threat. In spite of this for over five years Macromedia's Shockwave format has reigned supreme, providing the richest available multimedia Web experience with Director as its authoring environment. With the recent launch of the powerful and programmable Flash 5 though, it looked as if Macromedia was in danger of cutting its own throat. Why use the Director/Shockwave combination when Flash can produce a similar experience for an even wider audience?

The launch of Director 8.5 is Macromedia's answer. It's only a half point release because very little has changed internally with Macromedia instead taking advantage of the program's extensibility to add Xtras and add-ons. They might only be add-ons but the end result represents a quantum leap in Director's core functionality.

To begin with the Flash Asset Xtra has been updated so that Director users can take full advantage of the advances in the latest Flash 5. Flash 5 objects, animations and interfaces can now not only be embedded in your Shockwave movie, they can also be controlled. There are new Lingo commands for controlling print and XML-based exchange of data, but the most useful is the Call command which lets you run any Flash ActionScript by calling its associated frame. Rather than working in competition, Flash and Shockwave can now work hand in hand.

Director now supports movies created with Flash 5.

As well as vector support, the Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio improves its bitmap support with the bundling of Fireworks 4. Integration has also been improved with the ability to quickly launch just the Fireworks' Optimization module when all you want to do is minimize file size. In terms of video and audio the big news is the added support for the streaming Real formats. Previously Director's video capability was limited to AVI and QuickTime so support for the cross-platform market leader is a big advance. Again files can not only be incorporated they can also be controlled so that those proficient in Imaging Lingo will be able to create effects such as Real Video streams on the face of a rotating cube.

Also brought up to date is Director's support for multi-user games, chat rooms and forums. This is handled through the bundled Multi-User Server which has been upgraded to version 3. The number of concurrent users that can be handled at any time has doubled to 2,000 so we're talking about pretty large online communities. Performance has also been improved with support for the UDP protocol while new server-side scripting has been added. A nice example of this is the ability to set up an automated forum supervisor able to take action based on trigger words used in an online chat room.

The improved vector, bitmap, video and multi-user support are all welcome but there's absolutely no question about the star of the show: Director 8.5's support for an entirely new category of content - 3D. Or to be rather more precise, Director's new support for 3D content based on Intel Internet 3D Graphics Software. Of course there have been plenty of other attempts to provide 3D content over the Web in the past, so the obvious question is why has Macromedia chosen this implementation? The answer is that the Intel technology offers a whole host of features with just one aim in mind: maximize the experience while minimizing the download.

To begin with the Intel format is built on the first Web implementation of Multi-Resolution Mesh technology (MRM) which ensures that the 3D information sent down the line is optimized to the end user's system. While a fast connection might handle 10,000 polygons a second, for example, a slow connection might only manage 2,000. MRM ensures that the 2,000 polygons sent are the best ones to convey as much detail as possible. In other words the content itself scales the level of 3D quality based on the end user's system. Even better the author can control exactly how this happens taking factors such as the distance from camera into consideration.

The Intel 3D format has been optimized for Web delivery.

As well as sending optimised data, the Intel format enables the most to be made of all data that is sent. Using Subdivision Surfaces (SDS) for example the author can mark out areas of a model that can be sent at low resolution and then smoothed by the user's system - ideal for objects like spheres. Keyframe Animation and Bones-based Deformation means that only the core information needed to animate a model's skeleton needs to be sent leaving the client to animate the full model accordingly. Motion Blending works in a similar way to automatically interpolate between animation states, for example to produce a smooth shift between walking and running. Finally an in-built Particle System shifts the processor-heavy generation of features such as rain and fog to the end user's system.

Throw in sophisticated compression, streaming and a software rendering system that is also able to take advantage of any hardware acceleration through OpenGL or DirectX 5.2 or later and you begin to see the strength of the Intel-based system. And there's one more trick up the format's sleeve. With Non Photo-Realistic Rendering you can avoid the over-computerized feel of most 3D modeling to produce animated and interactive cartoons. This not only provides variety while cutting down on processing, the results often fit better in otherwise 2D Web presentations.

The advantages of the Intel format are clearly compelling, so what does Macromedia bring to the party? In particular how does it handle 3D? Perhaps the most common use of simple 3D is to make text more eye-catching. To produce 3D text in Director all you need to do is select 3D Mode in the Display pop-up in the Property Inspector's Text tab. You can then set depth and bevel along with a few set lighting set-ups from the Inspector's new 3D Model tab.

Text can be quickly converted to 3D.

But what about the shapes necessary to create realistic models and scenes? The Lingo programming language can be used to create basic primitives client-side, but otherwise Director doesn't provide any 3D tools of its own. Instead all 3D models must be imported in the new Shockwave Web 3D format, W3D. The immediate problem this raises is that none of today's 3D packages currently supports W3D output. However that's set to change very quickly with over 40 developers, including all the major players, promising to produce free export modules in the near future. Whether the system will be quite as painless as Macromedia suggests remains to be seen, but the decision to work with the industry and not to try and reinvent the wheel is definitely the right one.

3D capabilities are based on support for the new Shockwave 3D format.

While Director is not heavily involved in the creation of your 3D work then it comes into its own for controlling it. Again using the Property Inspector you can set up basic lighting for any imported object, but as always with Director the real power is programmatic. For core tasks this is easier than it sounds thanks to Director's use of Behaviours. Using the Library panel you can simply drag one of a range of pre-supplied 3D Action behaviours onto your model or any named hieararchical element of the model. The actions supplied cover basic requirements such as object rotation and camera movement along with control over features of the Intel format such as MRM, SDS, cartoon rendering and so on. Where relevant you can also set up triggers so that, for example, left-clicking pans to the left while right-clicking pans to the right.

Director provides a range of pre-supplied 3D behaviours.

Using behaviours as building blocks even non-experts can soon knock up a simple spinning logo or even an e-commerce site where models can be inspected in 3D space. For more advanced projects like games, however, you'll need more advanced control and this is where Director's programming language Lingo comes in. Over 300 new commands have now been added to deal with everything from dynamic creation of textures at run time through to collision detection right down to the individual polygon. This provides absolute control but can be fiendish to set up. A useful middle option comes in the form of Director's extensibility which allows third-party behaviours to be added such as the bundled Havok Rigid Body Dynamic Xtra which enables instant and realistic physics-based control of factors such as gravity.

Complete control is only available to Lingo experts.

Director's programmatic control is impressive but the real strength that the application brings is playback. According to Macromedia the Shockwave player is installed on over 200 million systems with 250,000 more being added each day. By comparison the leading alternative Web 3D plug-ins will be doing well to offer 1% of that total. In fact the comparison is slightly misleading as no existing users will be able to view 3D material without upgrading their Shockwave plug-in. However, thanks to automatic update prompting and bundling deals, there's little question that the Shockwave format will soon dominate Web 3D as it currently does Web multimedia.

The real reason that this isn't in doubt is simple - the end-user experience. A spinning photo-realistic logo takes up around 5K - smaller than the average banner ad - while a stunning all-action arcade-style animation of around 30 seconds can be compressed into just 500K. As multimedia authors have discovered in the past trying to squeeze their projects though the bandwidth bottleneck of the Web certainly isn't easy, especially when compared to the luxury of working to CD-based delivery. The crucial point though is that Director is the only package that can do it and these days Web delivery is no longer a desirable option, it's a prerequisite.

Ultimately Director is about end results - and 8.5 takes them onto a new level.

Ultimately it might look like the new Director has little to offer those existing users that aren't interested in 3D - but after seeing what 8.5 can do there won't be many of these. And for all existing high-end 3D modelers keen to showcase their work on the Web, Director 8.5 has just become a must-have buy. The Web is still a fast-changing place but Macromedia has once again moved quicker than anyone else and successfully secured Shockwave's position. Director looks set to provide the Web's richest experience for some time to come.

Features
6
Ease of Use
3
Value for Money
5
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Director
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System Requirements : Pentium II 300MHz, 64MB RAM, 100MB disk space, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM, Windows 95 or later, Netscape or Explorer 4.x

Tom Arah

April 2001


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