3D Space: Caligari trueSpace
Posted Feb 19, 2004

Caligari's trueSpace, a well-rounded, icon-driven 3D animation tool used by Rolls-Royce, NASA, and others, provides a useful prism for exploring the spectral range of 3D capabilities. In particular, a careful inspection of trueSpace's strengths lends insight into "stereo lithography," a facet of 3D design that's found in many of the products we'll explore in 3D Space.

The trueSpace user interface doesn't look like many of the wordy Windows programs with which we're all familiar. "It's designed to be intuitive," says Jeff Parrish, Caligari director of product management. "Since ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,' you access most tasks and tools through icons, supplemented by context menus and flyout menus."

This interface, Parrish says, is designed to "help you think like a designer. It's especially helpful in developing an idea," he argues. "The nested icons let you create faster than you can with drop-down menus."

If your first glance at all those icons looks daunting, trueSpace includes "Cool Tools" to learn quickly within the design environment. The first Cool Tool is the Icon Helper, which shows every icon and lists all their names. Configure the list alphabetically or by categories to see every feature of the program.

The second tool is the Icon Finder. Highlight the image of any icon in the Icon Helper (or type its name in the Search field), and an animated arrow guides you through the nested menus to the tool you selected. Create hot keys for any tool, or re-organize the icon flow to fit the way you work.

"You can design a concept in trueSpace, and render your drawing," says Parrish. "You can then use that drawing in a presentation—send the rendering to PowerPoint or place it on Web. Or render your concept as an animation, use it in a Web brochure. You can also export in Viewpoint"—VET format, included in the optional Conversion Pack—"which allows visitors to a Web site to interact with your project in 3D. Visitors can zoom in, move around, and see your complete design before going to production."

Using either VET or stereo lithography (STL), Parrish continues, "you can also send your rendered file to a ‘3D printer,' offered by many service bureaus, who take this file format and return a 3D model. Then use that model to make a mold for a project. Finally, export the same trueSpace file to a CAD program [with the optional Conversion Pack] to go right to manufacturing."

And your dad wanted you to study drafting.

trueSpace opens in a perspective view, but you can add up to three alternative views or use dual monitors. Each view can be moved, rotated, and scaled. An on-screen joystick lets you move, rotate, or zoom around your scene, making it easy to create a "walk-through" of your design.

The "camera view" displays what the current camera sees. Use the same command on a spotlight to pinpoint that light's center of focus, or use it on a character's eyes to see exactly where he is looking.

If you prefer, work in the TriPanel view. Its base panel is similar to the standard DrawPanel, while the two rear panels contain 2D projections of your object's profile curve (showing its vertices and splines). Edit the projections directly on the "workplanes" and see changes to your model's projections on all surfaces.

Direct3D (3D3), the default display, allows real-time preview of objects. Open GL is also available. You can draw as wire frame, solid figure, or outline. Select "global draw mode," or set alternative modes for each object to, say, manipulate a wireframe mesh over a painted backdrop.

Use layers in trueSpace to organize complex scenes. While layers in 2D applications act like stacked transparent slides, trueSpace layers group elements together without actually gluing them together. For example, you can logically group objects within a scene so that they can be hidden or revealed with a single click, as in a cut-away rendering of an automobile. Unlike layers in 2D applications, the layer number does not affect object placement or visibility.

2D Draw Tools
trueSpace surrounds each object with an Object Selector Box. Use handles on that box to move, rotate, or scale an object. Although trueSpace touts its "direct manipulation interface," you can also access a Settings Panel for most functions.

NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline) Curves
Draw with curves (remember that NURBS curves can have open or closed shapes, sharp or rounded corners) and then change them into NURBS surfaces, from which you construct NURBS objects. Transform any curve into a 3D object using one of the NURBS sweep tools.

Model one half of an object and let Mirror Modeler complete the other half. Draw one step, and Array quickly creates a circular staircase. Use Lathe for special shapes.

Not Very Primitive
trueSpace comes with a library of 3D shapes, called primitives, ranging from simple cubes to complex shapes. trueSpace also offers metaballs, which are special geometric primitives that join into a composite metaballs object, or even animations in which objects either blend together or separate, like the T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, who formed himself from blobs of metal rolling on the floor. You can even join metaball primitives into boned or inverse kinematic chains, and animate them.

You can assign physical attributes, such as mass and elasticity, to metaball primitives, or subject them to forces like wind and gravity until they collide. The program fully simulates physical interactions among real-world objects, including gravity, collisions, velocity, and wind. Set up complex animations with motion and physical interaction of even hundreds of objects, such as a cannonball hitting a stack of bricks.

Other Tools
Surface Healing closes gaps and trims curves between adjacent objects, to quickly smooth a chunky object. "Deformation tools" let you treat a wireframe mesh like a blob of clay. You mold and sculpt it, and trueSpace changes the vertex-level geometry so you can pull a mountain up from a flat surface or dig a grand canyon. "PlastiForm" lets you move a tool across a mesh to "engrave" its surface.

trueSpace can reproduce both surface materials, such as painted surfaces, and solid materials, such as stone and metal. You control color, reflection, shininess, transparency, translucency, and roughness using procedural shaders or bitmapped images. Of course, trueSpace uses bones and inverse kinematics to add skeletons to objects. Simply build the character, and then add a skeleton to get natural joints and muscle flex.

Facial Animator creates facial animations. Make heads speak desired text (using synthesized speech) or your own speech (from a previously recorded .wav file). Set emotions with the click of buttons, automatically add sound to rendered video, change head shapes or textures, or add custom poses. Visemes (mouth movements) are automatically animated during speech or set manually. Change expressions and gestures as your character talks.

To speed rendering, trueSpace can mix raytracing with radiosity (see "Animating Digital Video," October 2003) in any scene, computing diffuse components via radiosity and direct illumination by raytracing. Tonemapping distributes the tones in your scene to reduce "washouts" or "darkness."

Render Options include Area Render (a selected portion of a viewport) and Current Object. The Render Preview previews scenes with animation. The Post-Process Editor lets you see the effects of your changes, including Glows, Lens Effects, Depth of Field, and Tone Mapping, inside a real-time preview window.

trueSpace has an interface that you will either love or hate...and you will probably do both as you develop a feel for it. Unfortunately, the manual offers limited help. Although it's one of the best around at explaining 3D concepts, it does not walk you through the "icon flow," and so is of limited help in applying the techniques it discusses. So keep Icon Finder running as you read.

Also, since the online help lacks screen shots, use the online manual. It opens in your default browser, using Adobe Acrobat. Unfortunately, when you finish one topic and return to the Table of Contents, Acrobat closes and has to restart itself when you click on the next topic (hint: if your browser permits, right-click on your topic and select "Open in New Tab").

Finally, although you can create objects quickly in trueSpace by clicking and dragging, if you accidentally right-click during creation, trueSpace "sets" your object, and you can't undo or continue creating. Still, these are small quibbles with a great product. Make regular visits to www.caligari.com to see trueSpace's monthly gallery of rendered drawings and animations, plus free samples of courseware.

System Requirements
Minimum: Windows 95 or higher; 120mHz Pentium, 64MB RAM, 3D video card with 16MB video memory and D3D or OGL drivers
Recommended: P4 or AMD-K7, 128MB RAM

Ins and Outs of trueSpace
3D Input Formats: DXF, PostScript (EPS, .PS, and .AI), DirectX, VRML, Amiga Caligari, 3D Studio Binary, Imagine, LightWave, VideoScape; DWG Import via the Conversion Pack, sold separately.
3D Export Formats: trueSpace 4.3 and 5.x formats, iSpace, DirectX (limited because DirectX does not support material animation), VRML 1.0 and 2.0, DXF, 3D Studio ASCII; Viewpoint Export and DWG Export feature are part of the Conversion Pack, available separately.
2D Rendering Formats: AVI, Bitmap, Flic, JPEG, Targa, PNG, DDS, TIFF