Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 8 (August 2001)

Electric Image Universe

By George Maestri

Electric Image is one of the oldest companies in the 3D arena. It was formed in 1987 as an effects studio, but soon got into the software business and released the Electric Image Animation System (EIAS) for the Mac almost a decade ago. That software was the de facto Mac standard for many years, but development slowed after Electric Image merged with Play a while back. Recently, Electric Image was repurchased and is now once again an independent company. And, it has finally released a long-awaited up date to EIAS: EI Universe.
EI Universe's modeler features NURBS, polygonal, and solid surface modeling in one package.

EIAS was originally an animation and rendering package. The new EI Universe adds a full-featured modeler that is implemented as a separate application called Universe Modeler. The modeler is unique in that it is a hybrid solid/surface package; it includes a full-featured NURBS surface modeler as well as a polygonal modeler with subdivision surfaces that EI dubs UberNURBS.

The modeler is well organized, and, with its left-hand toolbar, reminds me a little of Alias|Wavefront's PowerAnimator. The software opens with a standard four-viewport arrangement. Each viewport, however, is an independent window, which you can resize and reposition to your heart's content.

The NURBS modeler is robust, and offers the necessary tools for creating primitives, skinning curves, editing surfaces, and so on. Some of the more advanced features in the modeler include the ability to do NURBS blends, as well as some useful surface continuity tools to help keep your NURBS models together. You also can import and export NURBS to other packages. In fact, I'm considering using EI Universe as my main NURBS modeler.

The polygonal modeler is also full featured, and I found it easy to use. The polygonal modeler is built around subdivision surfaces, and includes a number of advanced features, such as the ability to create and manage edge loops with a few mouse clicks. Most packages simply ignore the concept of loops, but they come in handy for creating complex shapes quickly. This is one of the better polygonal modelers I've used.

The big bonus of the modeler in EI Universe is the integration between its surface modeling and solid modeling tools. For example, you can convert a polygonal mesh surface into an ACIS solid. This allows you to perform high-quality Boolean models with beveled edges. One nice solids-based tool in the modeler is the knife, which allows you to cut and carve objects as though they're made of putty, all the while retaining their edges.

The other half of EI Universe is Animator. This part should be familiar ground to those who have used previous versions of EIAS. Animator enables you to import models, add lights and materials, and animate objects. Electric Image has updated the interface somewhat with support for OpenGL features such as fog and lens flares.

In addition, the inverse kinematics (IK) system in EI Universe has been rewritten. IK is implemented through skeletons, which can have IK handles applied to them to control how the chain underneath will be have. I found the IK solvers to be stable, and it was hard to find a situation in which joints would flip. The IK chains can be connected into skeletons; you can then use the skeletons to deform a solid mesh via Animator's Bones deformer. For facial animation, the software supports multi-target morphing, which enables you to combine multiple facial poses.

I found the Animator module capable, but it could use some updating. Support for expressions or parameter wiring is needed, for instance, as well as the ability to create custom sliders that you can use to rig characters.

EI Universe's renderer, dubbed Uni verse Camera, will also seem familiar to previous users of EIAS, but it boasts a few updates, including the addition of raytracing. Like those in several other packages, EI's raytracer is adaptive, which means that it raytraces only those objects that need it, a feature I especially like.

Electric Image claims that EI Universe has the fastest renderer on the market. This might be true, but with memory and 1ghz processors selling at bargain-basement prices these days, it's not the big issue it was a few years ago. The real test of any renderer is the quality of the image it produces, and EI Universe produces excellent renders.

Overall, I like this package. It offers excellent modeling and rendering capabilities and a fairly complete and quite useful Animator module (although it still could use a bit more updating). The great thing about the package is the price. At $1995, it offers a pretty big bang for the buck, particularly considering the quality of the software.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $1995
Minimum System Requirements: PC: Windows NT/2000; 266MHz Pentium III; 128MB of RAM.
Mac: OS 9.X; PowerPC processor; CarbonLib 1.1.1
Electric Image