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AECbytes Product Review (November 30, 2006)

form•Z 6.0

Product Summary

form•Z is a full-fledged 3D modeling, rendering, and animation application that can be used to create highly detailed and accurate models across a variety of design fields, including architecture, interior design, product design, automotive design, mechanical design, movies and gaming, etc.

Pros: Ease of use remains unmatched compared to other high-end 3D modeling and visualization applications, despite the continued addition of new features; new object animation capability makes it possible to create complex animations with multiple attribute changes to multiple objects, lights, and the camera in a single sequence; support for 3D color printing with textures; several additional new tools and enhancements in the latest release; includes support for network rendering and multiprocessing to speed up rendering and animation; includes an API for writing plugins and scripts; cross-platform, with both Windows and Mac versions; relatively modest system requirements.

Cons: Does not provide an efficient way to generate 2D plans and sections of a building model, making its use inefficient for architectural design in comparison to BIM applications; limited component libraries for creating building models, requiring the user to model even commonly used objects such as doors and windows from scratch.

Price: $1495 for form•Z; an additional $500 for RenderZone that adds photorealistic rendering capabilities; and an additional $395 for RadioZity that adds radiosity-based rendering.

At the AIA National Convention in June, auto•des•sys Inc. formally released the next version of its modeling, rendering, and animation application, form•Z 6.0, a sneak peak of which had been given earlier in the year at the Macworld show. Coming close to 18 months after its last major release, form•Z 5.0, the new version marks the introduction of object animation and support for 3D printing with color and textures, along with a number of modeling enhancements including skinned lofting, controlled deformations, and morphing. This review takes a detailed look at the new features in form•Z 6.0. For a comprehensive overview of the application for those not familiar with it, please see my earlier review of form•Z, version 5.0, that was published in February 2005.

New Object Animation Capabilities

Previous versions of form•Z provided the traditional walkthrough or fly-by type of animation, which involved setting up camera views and animating them to simulate a viewer moving through or around a scene. The animation capability has been significantly enhanced in form•Z 6.0 with the ability to also animate objects and lights. The animation capability extends to most parameters of an entity that are user controllable. So for objects, this includes movement, rotation, and scaling in the X, Y, and Z directions; attributes such as visibility, surface style (color of texture), casting shadows, receiving shadows, and so on; as well as modifications such as revolution, sweep, deformations, and so on that can be applied to entities. In the case of lights, their intensity can be animated as well as their location and center of interest. It is also possible to animate multiple objects, lights, and the camera in a single animation sequence, with multiple attribute changes for each entity in the course of the animation. Thus, you can create a walkthrough animation in which objects and lights are not static as in previous versions of form•Z but are themselves being transformed in various ways, creating very dynamic scenes. A very compelling example of this was demonstrated at Macworld in the form of a slick animation (see Figure 1) that had attendees riveted to their seats during the presentation.


Figure 1. An object animation sequence created in form•Z 6.0 that was demonstrated at Macworld. (Courtesy: auto•des•sys Inc.)

While the ability to transform multiple parameters of multiple entities within the course of a single animation might seem like a very complex undertaking, it is relatively simple to set it up in form•Z. You first define the basic settings of the animation such as the duration, number of frames, and so on and create the scene in the expected starting position. This would be Frame 1 of the animation, at a time of 0.00. Subsequently, you would apply the Keyframe tool to those entities in the scene that you want to animate. You would then use the Animation TimeLine palette to move to the first keyframe of the animation, say at 1 or 2 seconds, and then modify all those entities to which you applied the Keyframe tool such that they have the desired attributes, configuration, and position at that point of the animation. An Auto Keyframe feature allows the program to interpolate between Frame 1 and this keyframe to derive the in-between frames. You would simply repeat this process for each keyframe of the animation to create all the frames, which you could then subsequently render and save as an animation file. Figure 2 shows a simple example of a door, for which the swing was animated by applying the Rotate tool about the Z axis. Prior to applying the rotation, the axis of the door object from moved from its default position at the center of the door down to the front, left corner using the new Transform Object Axes tool.


Figure 2. Using the new object animation feature to animate the swing of a door. The animation is being previewed by using the Animation Time Line palette.

The animation process in form•Z is supported by several additional tools and palettes, which provide alternative ways of animating entities and modifying the animation parameters. In addition to the Keyframe tool method that was just described, three other methods are available to convert static entities to animated entities. An Animate Along Path tool can be used to animate an object along a specified path object, while an Animate Entities tool allows a single animated entity to be created from a set of multiple static entities. The final method is to drag the entities to be animated from their respective palettes—Objects, Lights, Views, or Surface Styles—into a new Animation Score palette, shown in Figure 2. This is an interface for viewing all the animated entities and how they are arranged hierarchically, along with all of their tracks and controllers. A track here refers to each parameter or piece of information about an entity that can be animated. Typically, an animated entity has a number of tracks. A controller refers to the change in the value of a track during the animation; there can be more than one controller associated with a track. Essentially, the controllers define the key values for a track at specific points in time and define the method for interpolating the time between the key values. An Animation Manager allows entities to be collected into animation groups and new tracks and controllers to be created. A separate Animation Editor palette allows the controllers for a track to be graphically edited for creating complex and sophisticated animation effects (see Figure 3). It is possible to create animation settings for simple objects and then transfer them to more complex objects.


Figure 3. Modifying the animation curve for the door created in Figure 2 (shown in the top image) for a more complex animated effect of the door swinging, such as realistic movement during a breeze (the animation curve for which is shown in the lower image).

While the object animation capability is undoubtedly more useful in some of the other industries that form•Z caters to such as movies, gaming, industrial design, and so on, it can also be used for creating some special effects in architectural animations, for example, opening and closing doors as demonstrated above, simulating the movement of people, showing the construction sequence of a building, and so on. It can also be used to better visualize "dynamic" or "responsive" architecture where parts of a building move in response to certain conditions, for example, sun-shading devices that adjust their angle according to the position of the sun to minimize heat gain in the building and reduce the cooling load. An example of this kind of animation of a building is shown in Figure 4. While this kind of dynamic architecture is not yet commonplace, the rapid advances in both computing and building technology certainly make it more possible going forward. (The recent Dec 2 issue of The Economist featured a brief article in its Technology section entitled "Buildings with minds of their own," which described various responsive buildings, capable of changing shape and responding to their users' needs, that were being planned.)


Figure 4. An example of object animation applied to dynamic architectural design. Two different frames of the animation are illustrated, showing how the fins at the roof of this structure swing like wings. (Courtesy: Etienne Otero and John Pollard of auto•des•sys Inc.)

Modeling and Other Enhancements

form•Z 6.0 introduces several new modeling tools and enhancements to existing tools, some of which are illustrated in Figure 5. A new Skinned Loft tool allows objects to be constructed by fitting a surface through a series of source shapes, with the optional use of paths and guides to further define the shape of the object (see Figure 5-a). Also new is a Morph tool that allows you to pick two objects and have the shape of the first object change to the shape of the second object by a certain percent (see Figure 5-b). The operation can be executed dynamically by varying the morphing percentage or in one step. The morphing can also be animated with the new animation features to show dynamic transitions between objects. A new Cap tool allows you to pick a set of segments that form a closed loop in 3D space and create a surface from them. Also very convenient is a new Transform tool that combines the use of all the other transformation tools by allowing the position, rotation, and scale of an object to all be edited graphically, facilitating the process of making multiple changes to an object without needing to change tools (see Figure 5-c). The Disturb and Deformation tools have been drastically revised, allowing multiple operations to be applied and producing controlled objects, whose deformation parameters are retained in a sequential format and can be reordered and edited at any time to modify the shape of the object (see Figure 5-d).


Figure 5. The use of various new modeling tools and enhancements. (a) The use of the Skinned Loft tool, showing the branched form derived from the source shapes on the left. (b) The Morph tool being used to derive a form that is halfway between a cylinder and a sphere. (c) Using the Transform tool to make multiple modifications to an object. (d) The expanded range of options for the Deform tool that allows multiple deformations to be saved and edited.

Other modeling enhancements include the extension of the Attach, Extend, and Unfold tools to work with smooth objects in addition to facetted objects. Additionally, the transformation tools (Translate, Rotate, Independent Scale, Uniform Scale, and Mirror) have been extended to work with smooth topology (smooth points, segments, outlines, faces, and holes). The Trim/Split tool can now be applied to multiple objects and/or use multiple cutters in one operation. The Reconstruct Curve and Reconstruct Nurbz tools include the new option to display the differences between the original and the new curves, while the range of levels of geodesic spheres produced by the Spherical Object tool has been extended. Also new is the Text Search and Replace tool that can search all objects in a project or only selected objects and match a specified string for replacement of the text or the format.

On the rendering front, a new tool called Render Textures has been introduced which renders RenderZone procedural textures so that they may be exported to applications that do not recognize the procedural textures. Also new is the support for LWA files (Lightwave Scene files) in the Predefined Materials dialog. Interface enhancements include a new contextual menu containing the most frequently used commands that can be invoked by right-clicking or by pressing the Ctrl key when clicking in the window or on an element. The Help functionality has been improved by closer integration of the form•Z User's Manual with the application. A new command is available in the Help menu to open the manual from the application; you can now also directly access the relevant section of the manual directly from a tool or palette.

Last but not the least, a significant improvement form•Z 6.0 is support of the PLY and ZPR file formats for 3D printing and prototyping, including the coloring of objects. This means that you can now directly print a 3D model from form•Z in full color including textures, as shown in Figure 6. This capability is accompanied by a new Print Prep tool that can be used to diagnose imperfections in the model that may cause a 3D Printer to stall.


Figure 6. An example of a 3D color model with textures, printed from form•Z. (Courtesy: auto•des•sys Inc.)

Analysis and Conclusions

With the release of version 6.0, form•Z has taken a giant leap forward in its animation capabilities. While modeling has been the forte of the application ever it made its debut in 1991—it continues to be a hands-down winner when it comes to precise, dimensionally accurate, geometric modeling across different design domains—its animation capabilities have now caught up with those of other sophisticated visualization and animation capabilities, allowing its users to continue their animation tasks within form•Z rather than use form•Z for modeling alone and then export the model to another application for animation. Its ease of use remains unmatched in comparison with other high-end 3D modeling and visualization applications; even a complex task like setting up an object animation is relatively simple to execute in form•Z. The new modeling tools and other enhancements continue to expand the form-making repertoire of the application and the new 3D color printing capabilities are right on target, considering the growing use of rapid prototyping and 3D printing in all the design disciplines, including architecture. While the documentation still lacks video tutorials that would have made the application easier to learn, it is greatly improved since the last release by being more closely integrated with the application.

While form•Z continues to make significant improvements as a general-purpose 3D application that can be used across a variety of design fields, its long-term future in architectural design remains uncertain, given the growing momentum of building information modeling (BIM) and the increasing popularity of SketchUp, which now has a free version after being acquired by Google. The ability of BIM applications to automatically generate coordinated drawings and reports from the model give them a significant edge over an application like form•Z, which still provides little help for deriving 2D drawings from the 3D model. Thus, even though form•Z has an ease and fluency of modeling that BIM applications lack, it will be increasingly difficult for architectural users to justify the use of form•Z given that they will have to revert to the inefficient CAD-based workflow of redrawing plans, sections, and elevations and keeping them coordinated manually. form•Z also lacks another important feature that even its non-BIM competitor, SketchUp, provides—component libraries of common building objects such as doors and windows that automatically cut walls when placed, as well as furniture, people, and so on. In form•Z, creating a door or window in a wall still has to modeled from scratch.

Going forward, unless form•Z makes a significant effort to adapt to the changing AEC technology landscape by providing competitive features such as automatic drawing generation and object libraries of components that interact intelligently with the model, it is likely to continue to be marginalized in architectural design. But its overall excellence as a general-purpose 3D modeling, rendering, and animation tool that combines power and sophistication with unmatched ease of use will continue to ensure its success in the other design fields that deal with the articulation of 3D spaces and forms, such as computing gaming, animated movies, creation of virtual worlds, industrial design, and interior design.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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