Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio: Is It Ready for a Close-Up?

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It's a tricky business to describe accurately what specific applications do. Quark's QuarkXPress or Adobe's InDesign, for example, are not necessarily illustration, manipulation, or word processing applications, but rather vehicles to present and disseminate images, illustrations, and content. Of course, those layout programs do their best to include the most basic image and word processing tools--but they focus mainly on acting as the clay pot, not the potter's wheel.

Such is the case with Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio. The latest update to Director introduces several new features, and Macromedia is loudly touting its 3-D interactivity, support, and authoring capabilities. But Director 8.5 isn't really a 3-D authoring application. Instead, think of it as a platform to display and interact with 3-D objects made using other applications.

Compare that to Adobe's most recent 3-D offering, Atmosphere which lets developers produce totally immersive and interactive 3-D Web environments. In contrast, Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio doesn't redefine the 3-D paradigm. Rather, it builds upon the existing Shockwave authoring environment.

To that end, version 8.5 focuses on enhancing 3-D interactivity. It isn't a replacement for true 3-D authoring tools such as Amorphium, Strata 3D, Poser, Dimensions, or Bryce. Macromedia's promotional material for Director 8.5 claims that all widely used 3-D apps "have committed to providing exporters for their applications to Director's new 3-D file format, W3D."

Macromedia is relying on the popularity of its Shockwave Player browser plug-in as the foundation for this newest feature's potential success. The near ubiquity of Macromedia's Flash underscores the company's confidence.

Adobe Atmosphere, on the other hand, will require a new plug-in, and as a result a completely new introduction into the marketplace and the mindset of Web developers. Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio has less of a steep climb. No new plug-in other than the Shockwave Player is required to see the new 3-D features.

Director 8.5 employs a proprietary 3-D Internet-graphics technology developed by Intel, which enables multiple resolution geometry, or Multi-Resolution Mesh (MRM). The specific resolution of 3-D objects varies according to the delivery system you choose. You can create Shockwave presentations in a CD-based format as well as for Web-based environments, in which Shockwave's built-in streaming allows you to download large files at low resolutions so they don't tie up your computer.

Digital Sleight of Hand

Rather than using multiple versions of a 3-D object, each in a specific resolution, MRM allows the Director author to use just one high-resolution object. When you put the object on the Web, the server first sends it as a low-resolution version, then sends higher resolutions on an as-needed basis. Viewers who zoom in for a close-up of an object get streaming data for that particular facet. This is along the lines of the older progressive-download model in traditional static Web pages, where a pixelated version appears first and becomes finer and finer, like a picture gradually coming into focus.

Bandwidth and processor power can also directly affect a 3-D image viewed through a browser. The new version of Director does allow you to set minimal file sizes as well, without having a high-res source at all. This level of rendering is mainly used for backgrounds, terrain, and curved surfaces.

Addressing model movement and animation, Director 8.5 avoids detailed data-point modeling, instead using a special set of algorithms. Rather than trying to calculate polygons and mapped surfaces from where the light hits them exteriorly, the Director update now calculates character and object animation from the inside out. It uses a set of "bones" data points, as if a skeleton or armature resides inside each model, letting the outside simply follow movements from within accordingly. This inside-out method promises to reduce object deformation while speeding up throughput, since the data relies on math instead of image downloads.

Much of this technology is invisible to the user. What you do see is a new set of options in the Property Inspector palette. You can directly import 3-D models that you output to Director's new W3D format. Once imported, the 3-D object becomes an Internal Cast Member.

As Director users well know, the Property Inspector is object sensitive; once you choose the imported 3-D object, the palette shows a new set of options. You can set the type of renderer the movie will use to display its 3-D objects--OpenGL, DirectX, Auto, or Software. Macromedia says you can also set these parameters through Lingo, Director's own scripting language.

Take Control

Users can set parameters and control behaviors as well as access to certain movements from Director's Library palette. Inside the Library is an array of commands and settings. Under the 3-D Actions subset, you can assign the Drag Model To Rotate or Fly Through actions to an object or a set of objects. What's more, you can assign triggers such as keyboard combinations and mouse clicks to specific behaviors--you could program the up and down arrows, for example, to move the perspective in and out, or up and down.

All these actions and triggers remain within Director's established vocabulary, familiar to veteran users. Neophytes, however, face a difficult learning curve--not as a result of the 3-D features, but because Director is not an easy application to just dive in and start using.

Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio, which is now available, sells for $1,199. Director 8 users can update for $199. Users of earlier versions can update for $399.

Since Shockwave has an installed base and Director developers won't find this upgrade completely foreign, Director 8.5's 3-D features will undoubtedly become a much-used asset for existing Shockwave sites.

Still, 3-D is not the be-all and end-all reason for a Web site's existence. As an added feature--one you can easily employ through a familiar interface--3-D will certainly make inroads into our normal expectations of what the Web has to offer. But QuickTime VR has been around for some time, and it still hasn't swept tornadolike through our consciousness. Availability of 3-D object manipulation affords a nice showcase, and e-commerce sites might benefit from using 3-D objects to showcase real-world wares.

With this upgrade, the Shockwave development team has kept its sights somewhat lower than reinventing the whole Web-browsing experience. It remains to be seen whether developers and viewers will clamor for even more 3-D enhancements to the Web environment, or will dismiss the latest 3-D hoopla as a passing fad, soon to fade.

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