Curious Labs Poser 5

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New capabilities for producing realistic materials, cloth, hair and faces and a new rendering engine take Poser onto a more professional - but more demanding - level.

Poser is a unique application catering for an important area of image production - the creation of realistic three-dimensional people. The program took its early inspiration from the crude wooden mannequins that artists use to get a rough idea of how to draw a realistic pose. Poser's genius was to make the mannequin as realistic as possible and so turn the model into the final artwork. And with this latest release, Poser 5 moves onto entirely new levels of realism, control and quality.

The heart of Poser is the Pose room and its central figure. Each new release of the program has seen a significant improvement in the quality of the main male and female models but version 5 is no different - poseable toes at last! Previous figures are still available from the Library that runs down the right of the screen, along with a whole host of new content such as alternative models, props, preset poses and so on (and with more on the second CD). The Library is now arranged hierarchically which makes drilling down to the content more logical.

Posing your figures and scenes is now much easier and more accurate thanks to support for real world units such as inches, feet and centimeters rather the former grid units. There are also new posing tools available with the View Magnifier enabling you to zoom in on your work without having to reposition the camera while the Direct Manipulation tool lets you adjust an object's position, orientation and scale simultaneously. Much the most welcome change is the support for up to four views onto the current scene so that you can move the body part in the window that makes most sense.

Features such as the split window and Morph Putty tool boost hands-on posing power.

As well as configuring the pose of your model you can also customize it with the new tabbed Properties and Parameters palette. The main purpose of the  palette is to provide access to an unbelievable range of transformations and "morphs". It is these morphs which enable you to add a smile or frown, to make your model blink, to raise an eyebrow and so on. Previously these were presented as a single list but now, with many more options on offer, the parameters have been grouped into a much more navigable hierarchical list for each body part.

Alternatively you can use the new Morph Putty tool to change parameters interactively. Simply click on a vertex, say on the figure's nose, and the Morph Putty dialog appears in which you can select which of the relevant morphs you are interested in affecting. You can then drag to create a smile, frown or whatever, directly on the figure itself. To protect a change you then pin the morph in place.

These changes are fundamental but they are only the beginning. The major change in Poser 5 is that the Pose room is now only one of seven! The second room is the Material room which is where you can customize everything about the surface appearance of your model. The power on offer is extraordinary with separate and customizable controls over colour, lighting, texture, skin, hair, clouds, marble, granite, weaves and so on. You can even use animated materials.

The Material room is powerful but complex.

The power is amazing but it's certainly not intuitive. Each surface is determined by a "shader" which is made up of nodes and each node is determined by a whole host, sometimes dozens, of parameters. And each node doesn't stand alone but is affected by any number of other nodes! To add a highlight, for example, you create a connection to a new Specular node where you'd choose between the Anisotropic, Phong, Glossy and Blinn options each of which has up to seven attributes and which can in turn be affected by other nodes! Thankfully you can access a range of presets via the new Materials section in the Library but many users will be left horribly confused.

One of the most common use of materials is to make your model's clothing look naturalistic and Poser 5 offers dedicated shader nodes such as weave and velvet to help the process. To be fully realistic however clothing mustn't just look the part; it must act the part. That's where Poser 5's new Cloth room comes in - enabling you to create realistic cloth that drapes and falls naturally. Using the new category of Wind Force morph you can even create fabrics that ripple in the wind!

Again the power is impressive but the creation process isn't exactly child's play. First you must create a "simulation" which is effectively an envelope with behavioural properties. Then you turn the simulation into cloth with the "Clothify" window (I kid you not), then you specify which objects the cloth will use collision detection with, then you set parameters such as the collision offset and friction. You're still not home as next you need to break your cloth up into groups of polygons and finally you need to set up cloth dynamics for these groups to set factors such as fold resistance, cloth density and so on. It's not for the faint-hearted and most users will probably end up sticking with the supplied cloth props.

The new room in Poser 5 which is causing the most excitement is the Face room. What's caught so much attention is the ability to create your own recognisable faces based on photos. All you need are a couple of snaps - one face-on and one from the side. As you load these, Poser asks you to mark just four main features and then uses these to work out a texture map to match your photo to the head. You can then reposition points to improve the geometry and the accuracy of the texture mapping. Maybe I've got a particularly strange head but I have to say that, while the results I achieved looked like a face, I wouldn't have recognized it as mine.

The Face room lets you create customized faces for your models.

In fact this wasn't too much of a disappointment because the rest of the power in the Face room is so impressive. Using the main male or female model as your starting point you can change any number of core parameters, such as ethnicity, age, gender. Once these have been set you can use the Face Shaping tool and its dialog to interactively or precisely set any number of Facial Morphs to change any and every feature of the face. The process is powerful and the results varied and realistic - and it's also great fun, especially when you bring Poser's Random and Caricature options into play.

One thing you'll notice about the Face room is that it doesn't deal with hair. Previously you added hair as a solid prop, but in Poser 5 there's now a dedicated Hair room. The huge difference is that hair is now truly strand-based which goes a long way to bring your model to life. Again though you have to work hard to produce the results, creating polygon-based hair groups, growing guide hairs, populating and styling the hair with the styling controls and the interactive Hair Edit tool and finally, if you're producing an animation, setting dynamics. 

The next room, Setup, isn't entirely new as it was introduced in the Poser 4 Pro Pack. This is where you can control the underlying framework of your figure setting up the bones and determining their articulation. When put like this it sounds straightforward, but when you think about the work involved in setting up the bone structure for a hand and then setting up the IK (inverse kinematics) chains, limits and favoured angles to make it realistically poseable, you realize that the Setup room is an experts-only space.

In fact the real benefit of the Setup room is that it spreads the tools needed to create new models which can then be shared with the rest of the Poser community. And the best way to do this is via the last of Poser 5's new rooms, the Content room. This is designed to link to the Curious Labs website to present users with a choice of free and purchasable models and props that are automatically installed and added to the Library when downloaded. At the time of writing, the web interface wasn't up-and-running, but Curious Labs is right to recognize that easy access to as wide a range of content as possible is essential to Poser's success.

So too is the ability to successfully output the scenes that you produce. Poser has always enabled the export of work to a whole range of 3D formats including  3D Studio and Wavefront OBJ so that you can import your models into external 3D programs. Two web-oriented formats have now been added from version 4's Pro Pack. First up is Viewpoint's dedicated web 3D format which enables the end user to rotate models in 3D space and to load animation sets, say, to set the figure walking. Much more mainstream, and regularly useful, is the ability to export to Flash SWF format. To keep file sizes manageable you'll have to stick with simpler models and cartoon-style output but the results can be extremely eye-catching.

The new FireFly rendering engine produces more realistic results.

Ultimately though, the most common way to output your Poser scene is to render it, either to a single frame bitmap or to a multi-frame video. As such, the single most important new feature in Poser 5 is the introduction of a completely new rendering engine: FireFly. This provides both Draft and Production modes and, with its support for deformation maps and raytracing, can produce stunning results. At its best, the end results are of near-photographic quality and Poser even offers control over photographic effects, such as F-Stop, Focal Distance and Motion Blur, to make the illusion more complete. FireFly provides a major step forward in terms of quality and realism but the results take an age to produce and still tend to look computer-generated so I'm grateful that Curious Labs has also included version 4's rendering engine which is quicker and also provides the option of artistic sketch-based rendering.

Overall Poser 5 is a ground-breaking release that takes the program onto new levels on a whole host of fronts and, crucially, enables the production of dramatically better end results. My main concern - apart from the new release's price hike - is that, in its move up-market, the program's complexity has increased as much as its power. The simple poseable wooden mannequin certainly seems a distant memory - for good and bad.

System requirements: Pentium 700MHz, 128-256MB of RAM, 500MB of hard disk space, Windows 98se, ME, 2000 or XP (not NT), CD-ROM, 1024 x 768

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Tom Arah

December 2002

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