Animation packages deliver the message with graphics, images

As the government perceived even then, animation sometimes is the only way to make a
point succinctly.


What explains a structure better than an animated walk-through? How else could you
train workers to maintain aircraft that's still in the design stage?


We're not talking about World Wide Web animation but about animated sequences that
enliven presentations, help engineers visualize their work, and train workers for tasks
that couldn't be described in a million words, let alone a thousand.


For this kind of midlevel animation, the Apple Macintosh is still the dominant
platform. The top end still belongs to Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations, but SG1 has
growing competition from PCs running Microsoft Windows NT.


To animate, you must first capture or create images. Business animators often start
from scanned photographs, mechanical and architectural drawings, or business charts and
graphs. Others start with original bitmapped or vector graphics.


Bitmapped graphics, output by conventional paint programs, are elemental images that
can be played back as animations. For example, 3D Animator from Autodesk Inc. is great for
showing how a machine works or for making a repetitive process dynamic. It's probably your
best choice for noninteractive, working images with cutaways that show internal processes.


A subset of bitmapped animation is morphing, or smoothly blending an image into
another. Morphing is useful for presentations more than for training, but fits anywhere
you need to grab audience attention or insert a bit of humor.


Vector graphics programs are more flexible and require more powerful computers than
bitmapped programs. They have processing algorithms to draw the visuals as often as you
view them. If you need an animation that can be modified by user interaction, look to a
vector graphics program.


Some programs have run-time modules that you can distribute with the animations. Others
require more sophisticated distribution processes. The easiest way to publish animations
is with multiple-image GIF files integrated into Hypertext Markup Language documents or as
documents sent over an intranet.


GIF file animation is a flip-book or fast slide show in which a simple sequence of
images plays back rapidly. This is a good way to animate things such as agency logos. GIF
animation software is widely available in low-cost commercial packages or as shareware.


But when people think of animation, they think of movies. For example, Apple Computer
Inc.'s QuickTime offers real motion as well as sound--a dimension that GIF animation
lacks. It's easy to produce QuickTime movies, and again the software is relatively
low-cost.


GIF animation and QuickTime both play back sequences of stored images. The viewer's
only interaction is to start or stop the sequence, either via direct button control or by
exiting a window.


Users can download brower plug-ins to run advanced animation, video and sound programs.


Before you decide to post plug-in animations on your agency's Web site, however, there
is something you should remember. Most people won't take the time to install the plug-in,
so your animation work will be wasted on them.


The situation is very different for plug-ins on your office's intranet, because you
know what tools are available to users there.


The big gun today in Internet animation is the Java language. Java animations are
applets, operating system-independent programs that are transferred from the server to the
viewer's computer for playback.


Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator browsers come ready to play Java
applets, which is why some Web sites display animations automatically.


But Java applications are complex to create, and you may need them only for interactive
animations, which can be different for every user or each playback depending on inputs.


Java has failed to live up to its early hype as a universal language. Some developers
complain that implementing cross-platform applets causes system crashes. These could be
from browser problems rather than Java, but the result is the same.


Many agencies worry about security breaches from distributed applets, which are
platform-independent programs that could hide destructive code. Such concerns may
influence users to block rather than view your Java animations.


Graphics users often dream of creating images as lifelike as those in high-budget
movies.


It's easy to make realistic water, sky and landscape backgrounds with specialized
packages such as Bryce from MetaTools Inc.or WorldBuilder from AnimaTek Inc., but they
come at a high cost in software and processing time.


Agencies get the results they need with more general-purpose tools such as 3D Studio
Max, LightWave 3D, Softimage and Electric Image, all of which can make photorealistic,
animated images of machinery or buildings. But no one would mistake them for photographs
because they lack background detail.


Agencies that deal with water resources might want to look at Arete Image Software's
RenderWorld rendering engine and related tools.


The Sherman Oaks, Calif., company uses scientifically exact formulas to create
realistic oceans, lakes, rivers and clouds.


Arete's Digital Nature Tools--$5,000 for the software plus several hours for each
photolike and scientifically realistic image--do not render dirt, grass or trees, however.


Windows NT animators have several excellent 3-D programs to choose from: 3D Studio Max,
the $1,000 LightWave 3D from Autodesk Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s recently acquired $8,000
Softimage 3D.


These tools call for fully loaded, high-end Pentium systems with gobs of memory.
They're considered serious alternatives to Silicon Graphics' animation tools, especially
for offices that do only occasional animations.


NT is emerging as a platform for exotic virtual reality rendering, which is in about
the same position as animation was five years ago.


Networks aren't necessary for VR. But networked VR is getting the most attention now,
because developers have found they can share images easily over the Internet or intranet.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.


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