• Featured Product: Discreet plasma
    Leonard Teo , 26 July 2002
     Image: plasma fully supports Meshsmooth polygon modeling, bones/IK and skinning. This is not your average Web 3D app.

    In the past there hasn’t been a single application dedicated to generic Web 3D content creation as companies such as Discreet, Alias|Wavefront, Newtek and Softimage have had to rely on third party plug-ins and extensions to their 3D software for Flash, Shockwave 3D, Viewpoint or other Web 3D output capabilities. The problem associated with this is that most of Web 3D production is simply adding widgets or elements to spice up websites -- for Web designers who have little interest in 3D, buying an entire package actually built for highend 3D animation and visual effects is not only expensive, but overwhelmingly complex to learn. Discreet identified this issue and the result is plasma – the world’s first full-featured 3D animation package built specifically for Web 3D production.

    plasma is based on 3ds max technology in that it is actually a slimmed-down version of 3ds max (Discreet will have you believe otherwise). The interface is slightly different to reflect a more familiar “Photoshop” look with the floating toolbar on the left and the command tabbed panels on the right, though this is completely customizable. Feature-wise, it contains the more widely used tools in 3ds max such as polygonal modeling, Meshsmooth, bones/IK, Skin and Morpher. For rendering, plasma comes with an in-built Flash renderer as well as the Default Scanline Renderer (without advanced features such as motion blur).


    One of the biggest highlights of plasma is the capability to export high quality Flash animations. Options in the Render panel include the ability to choose various shading types such as Cartoon, Flat, Gradient and Wireframe shading. Lines can be rendered as outlines, intersections lines, detail lines and submaterial edges. Fills can also be flat or averaged depending on the look that you are after. The big thing going for the plasma Flash renderer is the ability to render shadows from multiple light sources.

    A huge workflow enhancement is the Flash MX plug-in that allows you to link plasma and Flash MX together. When exporting a Flash animation in plasma, the bridge plug-in will automatically update the Flash MX libraries so that you don’t need to repeatedly import SWF animations.

    At this time, Discreet’s Shockwave 3D exporter is the only solution that supports full character skinning, mesh deformations and weighted vertices. Other exporters only go as far as using rigid-jointed objects, limiting animations to “robotic” movements. Discreet has also included rigid-body Havok dynamics into plasma as Shockwave 3D is able to use the dynamics engine for real-time forces such as gravity and collisions.

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  • There were a few minor issues with plasma and granted, it is a version 1.0 product. For me personally, I am used to remembering colors in hexadecimal values (e.g. blue is “#0000FF”) as this is how RGB values are defined in HTML and Flash. plasma, however, still uses the default Windows color picker that uses integer RGB values. Not overly critical, but it stumbles the workflow as you’re suddenly required to do a conversion between integer and hexadecimal values (or do a Photoshop color picker and copy-paste the result values). Another minor issue is that the default framerate is set to NTSC and you will realistically never use this framerate for Web 3D.

    Very surprisingly, the SWF animation (208KB) exported from Plasma came out larger than a default scanline render subsequently compressed with Sorenson Squeeze for Flash MX (96KB). Click image above to view animation comparison (requires Flash 6 player).


    Image: The UI is customizable (like 3ds max). Here you can see the skinning envelopes when rigging a character.

    Granted, the exported Flash file sizes are quite small, but you have to ask yourself if you are using Flash for Flash’s sake or whether it is the best solution. A character animation test that we performed had a basic cartoon-rendered Flash animation export a file that was larger than a corresponding Sorenson Spark Pro compressed animation using the Default Scanline renderer. Two completely different mediums (one vector and one raster), but it was interesting to see that the Spark Pro compressed version actually came out smaller.

    Discreet has said that plasma is already a huge hit with many Web design firms snapping up the product like hotcakes. The price of US$650 is a big selling factor as web designers now have access to a fully featured Web 3D production tool at a sensible price.


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