Adobe does 3D

It might seem as if Adobe has the entire arena of creative software covered. Creative Suite 3 (CS3) includes best-of-breed applications for bitmapped and vector graphics, print, web and interactive design, audio, video and post-production editing. It has one gap though: 3D graphics. This is doubly surprising because 3D has become so important to many designers – and because Adobe has been there before.

Adobe does 3D

In fact, one of Adobe’s earliest products was a groundbreaking 3D program called Adobe Dimensions, which pioneered features such as creating objects from path-based surfaces rather than polygonal meshes and the ability to render models as scalable, resolution-independent vectors as well as bitmaps. All the professional 3D packages now provide path-based NURBs, N-gon handling and vector rendering, but even today none of them can match Dimensions’ ability to map vector artwork on to object surfaces.

Dimensions had serious potential, but despite three full releases it never made the grade. Without path-based lofting or hulling, and with no real facility for arranging and combining elements, it was restricted to simple extrusions, bevels and lathe effects that made for neat logos but not much else. Worse still, despite its complete reliance on paths, Dimensions’ direct handling of them was rudimentary, in effect requiring you to import them from Illustrator. Dimensions became little more than a support program for Illustrator, so it was a relief when Adobe ceased development in 2004 – especially as Adobe incorporated most of its 3D features into Illustrator itself.

It’s still rather extraordinary to discover Dimensions’ full 3D power hosted within the 2D Illustrator application. Not that most users are likely to find it, as it’s hidden away in three unassuming dialog boxes under the Effects menu. Selecting any shape or path and then Effects | 3D | Rotate will let you rotate it in three dimensions and apply an accurate perspective effect. If it’s a filled shape, you can also apply flat Diffuse Shading, complete with control over the position and intensity of the lights – an effect that other rotated objects can then pick up automatically. This 3D rotation trick is very handy for, say, creating angled logo text that leaps out at the viewer, but the object itself remains flat and clearly two-dimensional.

Far more powerful are Illustrator’s other 3D live effects, Extrude and Bevel and Revolve. Extrude and Bevel lets you set an extrusion depth to create a truly 3D object, for example by converting a rectangle into a cube or a circle into a cylinder. You get full control over end caps and can choose from a range of preset bevels (or even load your own bevel path). There’s also a surprisingly realistic gradient-based Plastic Shading lighting effect and a wireframe display option. More impressive still is the Revolve effect, which rotates a selected object, lathe style, around its vertical axis to turn a circle into a sphere or a filled path into a candlestick or vase. These effects also offer a sub-dialog to map symbols on to each of the object surfaces, so Dimensions’ unique ability to apply resolution-independent, vector-based textures lives on.

Put all this together and you can quickly create accurate perspective effects, such as a room with paintings hanging on a wall, all from a few 3D-rotated and extruded rectangles. By using artwork mapping, you can even create a wine bottle, complete with realistic label, to put on a table in the room. To find such functionality in a 2D vector drawing program is astonishing, and it leaves Illustrator’s rivals looking feeble, but it really shouldn’t be that surprising since an illustration is, after all, a 2D representation of the 3D world. That’s equally true of a photograph, so it’s also no surprise that Adobe has been integrating 3D handling power directly into Photoshop.

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