Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

Viz 4

By Jerry Laiserin

Architectural design demands a lot from graphics software. Construction drawings that communicate architects' intentions to building contractors form the basis of the contracts and municipal approvals needed to build a building. Whether these drawings are created directly in 2D digital form, or derived from a 3D computer model or virtual building, architectural CAD programs capable of accurately producing them are complex and specialized. Architects also need realistic pre-construction simulations of building appearance, whether for internal design analyses, sharing with clients or others on the design team, or presenting to audiences of potential investors or donors, future occupants and tenants, or the general public. However, the working methods and output media of CAD and of visualization programs capable of realistic rendering and animation are so different that these functions rarely coexist in the same software package.

Autodesk, with a 60 percent market share in design software for architects, has long recognized and catered to architects' diverse requirements. Alongside its flagship AutoCAD, originally introduced in 1982, Auto desk established a multimedia division in 1990 and launched a rendering and animation program called 3D Studio. By 1996, the multimedia division had become Kinetix, which split the 3D Studio product line into a cinematic effects program called Max, and a less expensive version called Viz, targeted at the specific needs of architects. At a price savings of more than 40 percent, Viz traded off the advanced character animation and sub-object animation of Max for increased CAD compatibility (through CAD-like features such as object snaps).

From its beginning, Viz has been a fully capable, customizable, integrated 3D modeling, rendering, and animation package able to handle architecture-specific content and NURBS modeling with equal aplomb. By Version 2, Viz had supplanted Autodesk's Autovision as the preferred visualization package linked to then-current AutoCAD r14 (most of Autovision's rendering functions were absorbed into AutoCAD itself at that time). Viz 2's enhancements for architecture also included the SmoothMove 360-degree panoramic viewing technology licensed from Infinite Pictures, since replaced by QuickTime-compatible panoramas from RealViz. After Autodesk's 1998 acquisition of Discreet Logic, makers of cinema effects flame, flint, fire, frost, and so on, Kinetix and Discreet were merged as the Discreet division of Autodesk. Viz 3 came out as a Discreet division product, with the previously used RadioRay rendering plug-in (licensed from UK-based Lightworks) replaced by Lightscape, a product Discreet picked up in its late-1997 acquisition of Lightscape Technologies (the latter firm itself among the fruits of rendering research at the seminal Cornell Program in Com puter Graphics). Viz 3 also introduced the Asset Browser, an innovative interface for searching and downloading architecture-specific object content from the Internet. The ability to click and drag such content into Viz, originally called Vizable, was soon renamed i-Drop and is now becoming pervasive across all Autodesk products. A directory of Viz content, originally on the Web at Vizonline, is now integrated with Autodesk's Point A portal, itself part of the default startup screen for Autodesk's entire family of architectural products such as Architectural Desktop (ADT), Viz, and the forthcoming Architectural Studio (See "Autodesk Architectural Studio: The Pen is Mightier than the Mouse," September 2001, pg. 54).
Viz 4's interface inherits resizable viewports and customizable tool palettes from its sibling 3ds max. Courtesy of MBT Architecture

There are several lessons in this corporate/product history that bear directly on the functionality of Viz 4. First, Viz is a tremendous value, jam-packed with multiple (but well integrated) streams of technology from AutoCAD, from Max, from RealViz, and from the developers of Light scape. Other than character animation (such as the famous Dancing Baby), there's not much an architect might wish to do in Max that can't be done faster and cheaper in Viz. Second, the rebranded Autodesk Viz 4 continues the ever-tighter integration of the visualization process into overall architectural design and documentation workflow. Third, the latest global illumination rendering technology in Viz advances the product's steady progression in this area from RadioRay to Lightscape (still available in a standalone version 3.2 from Discreet).

The current version of Viz inherits the latest features of big sibling max, such as resizable viewports and customizable tool palettes, as well as a polygon modeler that replaces the previous triangular mesh modeling tool (although Viz's terrain modeler still supports conversion of contour maps to triangular meshes). Other Viz 4 enhancements include the Vecta plug-in that generates hidden-line vector output direct to Macro media Flash or Adobe Illustrator files. AutoCAD file linking, introduced in Viz 3, has been enhanced with layer management and support for blocks that allow round-trip compatibility with AutoCAD 2002 and ADT 3.3. Viz's section tool can slice through any part of a massing model and export the cut as a polyline for further drawing development in AutoCAD or ADT, and changes made to Viz geometry imported into ADT can be updated from ADT back to the Viz original.

Global illumination rendering technology in Viz 4 uses stochastic (statistical, predictive) techniques to converge on lighting solutions up to 50 times faster than in Viz 3, typically without the image preprocessing required by Lightscape. The result is simulation of the physics of light that is 95 to 99 percent accurate (the remaining untapped frontiers in light simulation involve perceptual issues such as color constancy and tone mapping).
Lighting simulation in Viz 4 is now 95 to 99 percent accurate. Courtesy of MBT Architecture

There are competing modeling programs, such as ArchiCAD, Vec tor Works, or formZ, available to architects. Competent stand-alone renderers include products like Accurender and Artlantis. Some of these alternatives to Viz are compatible with each other or with production CAD, but no single software package can match Viz 4's balance of modeling, physically accurate lighting and rendering, advanced animation, and integration with mainstream CAD workflow.

Architect Jerry Laiserin, FAIA, provides strategic consulting services to architects and their technology providers. He can be reached at

Viz 4
Price: $1995, including global illumination and Vecta plug-in
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 98/NT/2000; Pentium II; 128MB of RAM (512MB recommended, including swap file; 1GB to 2GB of RAM preferred).