As interactive 3-D Web graphics progress beyond the pioneering efforts of VRML, and as new Web-design software simplifies the authoring process, Web designers and 3-D artists–who want to showcase interactive 3-D scenes via a Web browser, for example–need a straightforward way to bridge the gap between their areas of expertise. Until now, successfully combining 3-D artistry and Web interactivity has challenged software companies competing in the arena of 3-D on the Web.
MindAvenue meets this challenge–the company has released two editions of Axel 1.5, the only OS X-native 3-D authoring tools for the Web (they also run on OS 9): Axelcore 1.5, the base application geared toward Web designers with little or no 3-D experience, and Axeledge 1.5, which builds on Axelcore’s foundation with a few advanced features for 3-D artists.
Axel 1.5 provides basic, well-designed polygon tools intuitive enough to be used by artists unaccustomed to working with 3-D. You can draw and edit curves using a standard pen tool; however, it lets you create only corner points (this is limiting if you are used to Bezier curves or control vertices). With a single menu selection, you then create 3-D surfaces by revolving or extruding curves. You make changes to surface attributes via a palette that describes the objects’ parameters; the program simultaneously updates layout views, giving you WYSIWYG control over 3-D models.
Axel includes a library of primitive shapes, as well as a text tool for generating extruded 3-D type from TrueType or PostScript fonts. Text options allow for embedding font outlines in Web files and converting characters to curves, ensuring that your text appears the same on any platform.
Another handy feature is a vertex push/pull tool. Artists uncomfortable with the technical aspects of 3-D modeling, or those who need to generate concepts quickly, will be pleased with this tool, which works as a virtual sculptor.
Although Axel supports the VRML 97 file format, to which most 3-D packages export, the absence of support for other 3-D formats limits traditional 3-D artists’ ability to repurpose existing content. (MindAvenue plans to release a LightWave importer, which should be available by the time you read this.)
Putting It in Motion
Axel’s motion tools will be familiar to content developers who compose keyframe animations in programs such as Adobe LiveMotion or Macromedia Flash. There is also a Record mode, which automatically generates keyframes when you move objects around in the layout views. It’s easy to use, but it creates a jumble of keyframes that needlessly bloats your Web file size.
Adding interactivity can be daunting for artists who are used to a traditional animation workflow. But Axel provides tools that present interactivity clearly: sensors handle all the ways a user can manipulate an object, such as mouse clicks, rollovers, and keyboard entries; each sensor’s reactions trigger a response, such as changing an object’s parameters or playing an animation, sound, or movie. An Interaction Editor window provides a visual schematic of all the sensor-reaction relationships in a scene, and you can edit each relationship easily by dragging connection handles between objects.
Pulling It Together
All the work that goes into creating 3-D Web content is pointless unless there’s an easy way to publish it, and Axel provides one. When you save your entire 3-D scene as an Axel stream file (with an .axs extension), the program automatically exports the correct HTML code to a new or existing HTML page.
The Axel software can also write the code necessary for rendering windowless 3-D content. Supported by certain browsers, windowless content allows plug-in elements to hover over a Web page’s text and graphics. It’s ideal for creating a Web site with a virtual human guide, for example–a 3-D animator can work on the character and then save it to render as a windowless element an HTML layout.
For a site visitor, watching the final scene in a browser requires downloading the free, 700K Axel Player plug-in. The plug-in supports a wide range of browsers available for both the Mac and PCs, including the latest OS X versions of Internet Explorer, Netscape 6, iCab, and OmniWeb, as well as Opera and AOL for OS 9.2. However, the added step of manually installing a player is inconvenient for Web-site visitors.
Axel provides valuable feedback about the final user experience. A Download Estimate Manager gives the approximate transfer times of your final file, at various connection speeds. Previewing in browsers is also convenient. Axel generates a customizable menu after scanning your hard drive for all installed versions of supported browsers. Selecting one from the menu automatically launches the browser and plays the Web file as the site visitor will see it.
A Choice of Features
While both Axel editions are essentially the same product, they are geared toward different audiences. Axelcore 1.5 is a great introductory 3-D tool for Web designers looking to add pizzazz to their sites, whereas Axeledge 1.5 offers experienced 3-D artists additional character-animation and scripting tools like those in NewTek’s LightWave 3D (see
The higher-end Axeledge’s character-animation tools offer forward and inverse kinematics, but only for a maximum of two bones, forcing you to animate longer bone hierarchies (such as those in a snake or a tree limb) with the more time-consuming forward kinematics.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
For 3-D artists seeking a new medium, and for Web-content developers looking to expand their content repertoire, Axel makes it easy to start creating interactive Web 3-D. Its straightforward implementation of 3-D concepts makes it a great learning tool for 3-D beginners. However, all users, even those with years of 3-D experience, will benefit from Axel’s intuitive, easily understandable interface for creating interactivity.