Reviewed by Joe Bingley
Atmosphere as a publishing platform for multimedia-rich 3D content
Quick Summary for those of you who like to cut to the chase:
Adobe Atmosphere lets you import your 3D models from Max or Maya, enhance them with lighting, physics, and interactivity and then deliver them as interactive 3D over the web, or in the ubiquitous PDF format (yes - interactive 3D in a PDF!).
Why I came to change my view about Adobe Atmosphere
If you think of Adobe Atmosphere as a 3D design tool, you may or may not get excited. While it is easier to use than many other tools, there are other 3D creative options available to a user. For example, I've already invested in learning 3DS Max for my work. So from the perspective of modeling, Atmosphere seemed interesting, but lacked many of the tools I am familiar with.
However, I started to get excited is when it finally dawned on me that Atmosphere was not intended to be used so much as a 3D design tool, but rather as more of an assembly and layout tool for 3D, video, audio, and images. In other words, 3DS Max is a creative tool like my PhotoShop. But Atmosphere is much more a publishing tool like my InDesign/PageMaker or DreamWeaver. It allows me to publish my 3D work in a context and in a media where others (my paying clients) can more readily see and interact with it.
As 3D artists we all face the common dilemma of how to get our clients to experience our work. With Max (or Maya), you can really only show a rendering of what you've done, either as a series of still images or maybe a walkthrough turned into a QuickTime or AVI movie. Both of these are serial experiences and the client has no ability to interact with the scenario and experience the design in the way you or I do as the artist. (Other Max users can of course explore the model, but that is a really small group of people.) So our dilemma is how to make sure our clients pay attention to our designs.
For 2D images we have Dreamweaver and InDesign for layout, to add in text and then publish to the web or print and PDF respectively. Our clients are comfortable and familiar with these media. With 3D, our options have been more limited (sorry VRML doesn't count). This is where Atmosphere comes in for me.
Atmosphere lets you publish your 3D and 2D work in a contextually relevant environment, which others can explore and experience it in whatever manner they choose. Importantly you can also add a host of interactivity, superior lighting and combine it with other media such as audio and video. You also get delivery in two established and well accepted industry standard formats: HTML and PDF.
So how does it all work?
Creating environments with Atmosphere is relatively easy. The Builder program is more intuitive than most, but you will still need to work through some of the tutorials (available online at http://www.atmospherecentral.com/learn/manual/). I found the program quite easy to learn. I spent the first hour reading, and experimenting with the tutorials. From then it was my normal explore and see what happens approach.
If you are familiar with other Adobe products, you will feel completely comfortable with the Atmosphere interface. Everything is accessible through palettes, but like other Adobe products, this makes Atmosphere greedy for screen real estate. In the center of the screen is your project. Side palettes contain the Scene Hierarchy and Object Hierarchy panes to view all components of your 3D Scene. There is also the Lighting Controls, and the Inspector/History pallets, where you can adjust settings and undo previous actions. Paint and Object Preset pallets let you view thumbnails of imported 2D texture and video (avi) objects. These are all typical Adobe style pallets that can be moved around and nested within each other to suit your style of work.
3D Modeling and Positioning
The top menu bar holds context-sensitive tools, which become active as you toggle among the program's three editors.
The Solid Object Editor lets you edit and combine primitives. Click on a model to access the Solid Object Editor. Double Click on an area away from an object brings you back to Scene Editor.
These modeling tools are sufficient for creating simple, low-count polygon models, however for more complex scenes, you will almost certainly want to import 3D models. Atmosphere can natively import Viewpoint MTX/MTZ files. You can convert from Max, Maya, Poser and most other 3D modelers into Viewpoint format with several free tools. And of course Deep Exploration is a great conversion tool for any 3D developer.
The scene and solid objects editors let you assemble the basic geometry of the environment. The Appearance Editor is where you can add textures, color and lighting to create realism.
The workflow is simple;
1. Export from 3D Max (or your favorite 3D application) to Viewpoint format (or use another tool like Deep Exploration from Right Hemisphere)
2. Import into Atmosphere
3. Convert to Atmosphere Mesh and apply light using Radiosity
Physics - Giving your objects physical properties and reality
You can make animations follow a path, prevent user moveable objects from going through walls, or the ground for example, create realistic simulations of door hinges, etc.
What about 2D images?
Certainly you can apply any 2D image as a texture to any object in the environment. These 2D images can be photographs, Flash animations, or even live video streams. You could even create a whole 3D photo gallery to view these images. But with a little shift in how you think about 2D, you can begin to see that a 3D-enhanced publishing environment has some big advantage for displaying 2D photographs and rendering as well. I didn't come up with this myself, but came across some demos of using Atmosphere as a publishing tool for 2D. Two examples are PhotoCube (http://www.atmospherecentral.com/learn/slideshows/photocube/) and PhotoShow http://www.atmospherecentral.com/learn/slideshows/photoshow/. (to view you must first download the Atmosphere plug-in but it is worth it!).
Publishing - HTML or PDF
Publishing is the heart and soul of Atmosphere.
Publishing an Atmosphere environment and uploading it to a web server couldn't be any easier: Simply select Publish from the File menu. An HTML page is created and all files needed to display the project online are saved to the specified folder. Then modify the HTML as desired to add in text or graphics, upload to the Internet and your 3D project is online. You can use buttons on the HTML to control your environment, interact with flash objects on the page and completely control the level of user interaction on all the elements of the page.
More significantly, you can embed a a completely interactive Atmosphere 3D environment into a PDF document. People are accustomed to PDFs. PDFs are an accepted way of exchanging documents. With Atmosphere embedded in a PDF, you now can present a client with interactive 3D, but in a format they are comfortable with.
Imagine presenting a architectural proposal. The text in the PDF describes the document. A blueprint shows the layout in 2D. A Max-rendered image shows one view. Then you click on the rendered image and you are able to navigate inside - doing a tour of the house, or a fly-around. You can even have the sound of the outdoor fountain get louder as you pass nearby. Or by clicking on a palette of textures, you could change the house color or the interior furniture patterns. The beauty is that your client stays in their comfort zone of PDF, but they get the full experience of an interactive 3D presentation.
Another example of a PDF using 3D: Have you ever seen one of the little books with the acetate overlays that show the Parthenon as it is now, and with the overlay, as it was in ancient times? PDF lets you achieve something similar by using layers. However, in a PDF that contains Atmosphere content someone could tour the Parthenon in 3D as it is now and then switch views, to see how it was at it's glory. And read along with the accompanying text. This is a compelling application in a standard PDF document, that just can't be duplicated in video or in 3D still shots.
As a 3D designer, when you think about the implications of publishing interactive 3D to the web or in a PDF, you can get pretty excited! This is what makes me excited about Atmosphere.
1) No Mac version of the Player is yet available. This means your clients must have a PC. One can only hope Adobe changes this.
2) Publishing to PDF means you must have Acrobat 6 (but this is a good idea anyways)
3) Importing models needs to be easier. Currently Atmosphere imports only Viewpoint format, so it requires an extra step converting from other packages, into Viewpoint MTX.
4) With pretty hefty models, Atmosphere slows down and that interactive nature goes away. You can always optimize your models first, but it would be nice if Atmosphere did this automatically or at least had LOD controls.
5) The plug-in for viewing. This is an old chicken and egg issue. Atmosphere relies on a plug-in for viewing. This can be problematic because people don't like downloading plug-ins. For PDF this much is less of an issue.
I started out being pretty uninspired about Atmosphere. I felt like I already had my modeling tools so why would I want another 3D design tool. It is when I saw a demo at a tradeshow of an interactive 3D model embedded inside a PDF, that I realized that Atmosphere is not a 3D modeler, but a publishing tool. That got me really excited. Just as I own PhotoShop and Illustrator and publish finished documents using InDesign so I now can use Max, Poser, FinalCut and Sound Forge and publish finished interactive documents using Atmosphere. Clients get a better feel for the work, and the work gets a broader exposure. That is something every 3D artist needs.