If you already create 3D content for Web pages, you're not only a rare commodity, you're clearly a designer of great patience. For there's little doubt that the main hurdle towards the adoption of 3D on the Internet has been the labour-intensive and expensive authoring process involved. However, this is all about to change, and soon there will be no excuse not to test the waters of this growing medium thanks to the arrival of Discreet Plasma. Plasma lets you create and export 3D directly to popular Flash and Director Shockwave formats without requiring skills in multiple applications.
Although Plasma is Discreet's first offering targeted specifically at 3D Web content creators, its interface and features are more than a nod towards the company's existing high-end 3D Studio Max 4.0 software. Scenes created in 3D Studio Max can even be opened in Plasma, although the reverse isn't yet possible. Studio Max users -- and the majority of 3D authors -- will be most comfortable with the way the program works, but even beginners won't be overwhelmed.
Plasma includes a range of standard and extended geometric primitives as a starting point for your artwork, although you can also base your design on imported AutoCAD, VRML and even Adobe Illustrator files. Modifiers, including basic deforms and mesh and spline editing, are applied to these from a basic panel at the window's side. When it comes to animating your objects, the powerful Track view gives you excellent control over your animation settings, using a familiar timeline display to track and edit keyframes over the course of the animation. It allows you to include other multimedia elements, such as sound too. The Track view is also home to the Function Curve Editor, which lets you adjust the way an object changes its value over time in a realistic manner.
Plasma supports standard 3D animation techniques, including forward and inverse kinematic animation, so you can establish the position of a linked object in relation to the angles of other joints. There's also support for 'skin and bones' functionality, which alters the behaviour of an object's skin according to the position of the bones beneath it.
Discreet Plasma includes a Havok dynamics plug-in that lets you add realistic behaviour to your animations. As skinning and Havok dynamics are exportable to Macromedia's Shockwave Studio, this allows for the creation of powerful interactive productions.
We were most impressed with Plasma's built-in Flash rendering engine. It's surprisingly powerful, offering a choice between Flash and bitmap rendering, and supporting cartoon, gradient and flat vector shading styles. It's also pleasingly fast, although it occasionally choked on more complex animations. The price of the package, though hardly dropping into the budget range, compares well with other 3D applications -- for example, it's less than a fifth of the cost of 3D Studio Max. But its relative value for money doesn't exclude one significant drawback: its dire documentation. Aside from the flimsy installation guide, the only printed material is a 150-page tutorial guide, which doesn't explain the range of the program's features adequately. Another limitation is that it only supports Windows 2000 and 98, although in testing it worked fine under Windows XP.
Although hindered by poor documentation, Discreet Plasma is both intuitive and powerful. It provides the best method yet for Flash and Shockwave authors to add quality 3D content to their sites.
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