Electric Rain Swift 3D 4

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Swift 3D is transforming itself into a full-fledged 3D modeler - but it could be overkill for the average user.

With its massive browser penetration and excellent handling of vectors, bitmaps, audio and video, Flash is the designer’s choice for maximum-impact web publishing, but there’s one medium it doesn’t support: 3D. That’s where Swift 3D comes in.

The secret of the program’s success has always been its ability to take 3D objects and animations and to output them out as high quality Flash movies (Illustrator AI/EPS and SVG formats are also supported). The key to this is the program’s RAViX III rendering engine (unchanged in this release) which takes both the scene’s geometry and lighting into account as it recreates the scene as vector-based frames. It’s a delicate balancing act between output quality and file size but, with fill options varying from a single averaged colour per object through to linear gradients for every polygon, all bases are covered. And with advanced features, such as support for shadows, reflections, transparency and highlights, and the ability to export these as separate layers for import into Macromedia Flash, Swift 3D’s results and workflow integration are excellent.

High quality vector rendering remains central.

Swift 3D’s output capabilities aren’t in doubt, but first you need a 3D model or animation to output. Originally the program’s aspirations here were basic – providing everything you needed to create a spinning logo for example, but little more. Over time though, Electric Rain has gradually enhanced Swift 3D’s capabilities with features such as extrusion and lathe-based modeling, support for advanced materials, camera-based animation and bitmap-based rendering. With version 4, Electric Rain is looking to turn Swift 3D into a full-fledged 3D modeling application.

However it still recognizes that its users aren’t 3D modeling experts, and don’t want to be, so as a first step has sensibly enhanced the range of drag-and-drop presets available from Swift 3D’s Gallery. In particular new categories have been added containing a few high-quality models, common 2D shapes for extruding and lathing and the five most common bevel types. You can also save your own models, shapes, animations, materials and lights directly to the Gallery for future re-use.

Building blocks like these can be useful, but they are no replacement for direct hands-on modeling power and this is the area where Swift 3D 4 has seen most improvement. The existing Extrusion Editor and Lathe Editor have both been given minor tweaks but the biggest change is the addition of an entirely new editing tool: the Advanced Modeler. This presents an existing object, or a primitive that you add from scratch such as a sphere or plane, as an editable polygonal mesh. You then select the vertices, edges or faces that you want to work with and transform them using a combination of the interactive Move, Scale, Rotate and Extrude tools along with a range of commands for aligning, mirroring, flattening, welding, subdividing and so on. Particularly powerful are the soft selection capability and the ability to smooth and round surfaces both of which are important for creating more organic and natural shapes.

The focus in version 4 is on advanced modeling.

As well as controlling the form of your objects, the Advanced Modeler has another important role to play when it comes to controlling their formatting. By defining a surface group, you can then set whether lines should be rendered in that area or not. You can also apply separate materials and bitmaps to these surface groups, say to produce a cube with different coloured faces. And when applying bitmaps you can use the Move, Scale and Rotate tools to precisely control your texture mapping. In fact Swift 3D 4’s bitmap handling is generally better all round and now includes support for importing textured 3DS files as well as textured display in the viewports. It’s important to remember though that for most Flash output you’ll end up converting these bitmap textures to vectors so the final appearance will only be a very crude approximation.

With modeling and formatting taken care of, it’s time to bring your scene to life. Again Electric Rain has enhanced the presets available in Swift 3D 4’s Gallery providing a range of professionally-designed lighting schemes and new fly-by, deformation and path-based animations to drop onto your model. For more animation control you can also now animate objects along a custom Bezier path and easily set a camera to follow the object.

Of course all new power is welcome and Swift 3D 4 is a stronger program than version 3, but I’m not convinced that the average user will actually take advantage of such advanced functionality. In fact I can’t help feeling that many will actually end up making more regular use of the currently bundled version of Swift 3D Xpress. This offers all the rendering power of the RAViX III engine along with basic extrusion and drag-and-drop based bevels, materials, lighting and even animations and it does so directly from the Macromedia Flash MX/2004’s stage returning the results as an embedded movie clip.

More to the point, those users that do invest their time and effort in trying to get to grips with Swift 3D’s more advanced functionality will still keep hitting basic limitations, such as the difficulty of trying to arrange a scene involving more than a couple of objects. Ultimately Swift 3D 4 demonstrates that trying to graft an advanced 3D modeling application onto a dedicated vector renderer is a much harder task than starting off with a dedicated modeler and grafting on vector rendering (and that way of course you aren’t so tied to Flash). In fact Electric Rain recognizes as much by producing its own RAViX-based rendering plug-ins for 3ds max and Lightwave and licencing the technology to other 3D developers such as Eovia.

Having said that, each plug-in costs considerably more than Swift 3D 4 itself let alone the cost of the dedicated 3D app so, with little competition in the budget 3D arena and especially if Swift 3D XPress is part of the deal (standalone price $99), there’s no question that Swift 3D 4 represents seriously good value for money.

Features
4
Ease of Use
4
Value for Money
5
Overall
4

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: Pentium III 800MHz, 128MB of RAM , 25MB of hard disk space, Windows 98, NT, 2000 or XP, 1024x768 display.

Tom Arah

September 2004

 

       
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