capsule review

Cosmic Blobs 1.1

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Every kid is an artist. Kids are encouraged to explore their creativity through painting, drawing, and sculpting from an early age in the classroom and at home, with watercolors, pastels, and modeling clay. Increasingly, they can also play with computer programs that let them paint and draw virtually. But there wasn’t a fun way for them to sculpt with digital clay-until SolidWorks’ Cosmic Blobs 1.1 came along.

Cosmic Blobs is targeted at elementary and junior-high kids who are interested in 3-D design, but aren’t anywhere near ready for intricate and pricey 3-D software such as Alias’ Maya. Cosmic Blobs’ main interface has a central main stage for showing a kid’s creations, and around the outside of the stage is a fun, factory-like interface with tools and other options. Along with offering common painting tools for drawing, color, shapes, and lines, Cosmic Blobs allows the budding designer to tug and stretch putty-like 3-D objects. This doughy metaphor works well, allowing a young designer to quickly spin and rotate simple elastic objects (spheres, cones, and cubes, for example) as a start, and then select from a menu of different types of simulated pulls and stretches to mold these into the desired shape. They can then effortlessly add other prebuilt elements to their work (eyes, mouths, and other body parts) as well as different textures and colors to create an almost limitless number of people and things.

Once the 3-D objects are in place, it’s time to set the stage and start the action. Cosmic Blobs allows kids to choose from a list of predefined backgrounds or music, or to use a simple animation menu to create some interesting movements. Unfortunately, the list of backgrounds and music is limited and there’s no way to add your own or import them from iPhoto or iTunes. Cosmic Blobs does provide a Dashboard widget (available from the company’s Web site) to alert to updates and new resources, including backgrounds, directly from the Cosmic Blobs Web site. However, that you can’t bring your own photos and music into this software is its most glaring defect.

Beyond the features, there is always a price to pay when it comes to 3-D modeling: time. It takes a lot of time to render 3-D shapes, and this means that the slower your computer, the more you will be twiddling your thumbs waiting for the pixels to fall into place. Cosmic Blobs requires at least a 1.25GHz G4 processor to work, but you will really need at least a 1.8GHz G5 chip to avoid bored kids waiting for their images to render. This rules out iMac and iBooks that are more than a couple years old, which is what a lot of kids and schools are using. You can run Cosmic Blobs on a machine that’s slower than 1.25GHz, but when we tried running it on a 500MHz PowerBook G4, it was frustratingly slow and parts of the interface dropped out, and Mac OS X crashed.

Another limitation of Cosmic Blobs is what you can and can’t do with the drawings after they are created. You can print to paper and save the animations to several video formats, but what then? Cosmic Blobs would be a natural for letting kids create their own stories if the company added features, such as word balloons and panel grids, to help make comic books or even record sound to help make animated movies.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you have the Mac horsepower and kids who want to begin exploring 3-D modeling or just play with virtual clay, Cosmic Blobs provides an enjoyable introduction without having to get bogged down in the complexities of wireframes and polygons.

[ Jason Cranford Teague and his daughter Jocelyn live near Washington D.C., where Jason is a senior user interface designer at AOL , and Jocelyn is in second grade. Jocelyn wants to be a punk rocker when she grows up and Jason regularly rants about technology and culture on his blog, webbedENVIRONMENTS.]

Choose from a cast of characters (such as the lab-coated scientist shown here) or make your own by adding mouths, eyes, and hair to your blobs.
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