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

Merlin 3D

By George Maestri

Digital Immersion's Merlin 3D is a basic modeling, rendering, and animation package for Windows users that supports a number of advanced features, such as subdivision surfaces and radiosity rendering. At $595, it is priced for users on a modest budget, and as such it competes with packages such as Caligari's TrueSpace and NewTek's Inspire3D.

Digital Immersion sells Merlin 3D as a standalone package, but you also can purchase it as a bundle with the company's Nav 3D navigation device. Nav 3D is a controller that provides six degrees of freedom, enabling you to manipulate objects in 3D. The Nav 3D device connects to your computer via a standard serial port or USB connection, and operates in tandem with other input devices such as a mouse or tablet.

To use the Nav 3D, you grab the puck-shaped handle on top of the device and move it around. This works pretty well, but it took me a long time to get used to it. The main problem was getting the cursor to move in sync with my hand. With a mouse, you can physically move the cursor at any speed. With the Nav 3D, you push the puck in one direction and the cursor moves at a preset speed. The speed can be varied, but I still found myself going too fast and overshooting my targets or going too slowly and waiting for the cursor to catch up.
Merlin 3D's radiosity rendering enables realistic lighting for a wide variety of scenes.

Interfaces are a personal choice. Some modelers will love the Nav 3D, but others will stick to the mouse. To its credit, the Nav 3D is the better choice for those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. Perhaps users would be best served to follow Digital Immersion's suggestion, which is to employ the Nav 3D primarily to navigate through your scenes, and to use the mouse for fine-motor control tasks such as sculpting.

Merlin 3D works just fine with or without the Nav 3D device. The interface is clean and utilitarian. The software opens with one large perspective viewport, with toolbars along the left and top of the screen. You can configure the viewport for orthographic views, such as top, front, left, and right, and you can switch it to other layouts, such as a four-pane view.

Modeling in Merlin 3D is polygon-based. The software can import objects from a wide variety of formats, including 3DS, OBJ, IGES, and TrueSpace COB. You can export models to 3DS or to Merlin's own format. If you're modeling from scratch, you start off with basic primitives, such as cubes and spheres, and modify them. One nice little feature is the addition of a Profile Editor, which pops up when you create an object such as a sphere, and enables you to modify the shape of the object.

Polygonal modeling tools enable you to sculpt polygons by manipulating vertices or adding detail by extruding faces. You can then smooth these polygons using a fairly robust subdivision surface algorithm. Merlin 3D also supports Booleans so that you can add and subtract complex shapes.

Animation in Merlin 3D is pretty basic. The software offers object and camera animation, but does not support sophisticated deformations, so it is probably best suited to designers and architects rather than character animators or special effects artists. Although inverse kinematics is also part of the software, Merlin 3D is not a character animation package. The IK is simply for solid objects, and will not deform a mesh.

On the rendering side, the software supports radiosity, which enables you to create realistic lighting within a scene. It also supports raytracing for realistic reflections. The lighting models are fairly good, with point, spot, projector, and area lights. Plus, you can add effects such as depth-of-field, volumetric lighting, and lens flares.

You build shaders in Merlin 3D using a simple materials editor, which allows bitmaps and procedural textures to be used. The shaders support reflection, displacement, and transparency. Control over such attributes as diffuse and specularity happens in the Reflectance section, which offers a nice anisotropic shader. The nicest shading algorithm is multi-layer paint, which is great for shiny objects such as cars. Texture mapping is pretty much automatic, and it seemed to work pretty well. Still, I would like to see more tools for fine-tuning the mapping of bitmaps to surfaces.

Merlin 3D is a good package for product designers, architects, and anyone interested in creating still images or simple walkthroughs. Although modeling is utilitarian and the radiosity renderer works well, texturing and animation still need a bit of work. For a first version, Merlin 3D seems to be on the right track. But it still needs to mature before it is truly competitive with other similarly priced packages, such as TrueSpace and Inspire3D.

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

Price: $595; with Nav 3D, $795
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 95/98/2000; Pentium II/III or AMD K6/K7 or compatible; 32MB of RAM
Digital Immersion Software Corp.