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Design Product Review | Fast 3D Worlds: Adobe Atmosphere (Web Techniques, July 2

Design Product Review | Fast 3D Worlds: Adobe Atmosphere (Web Techniques, July 2001)

If you've been looking for a quick and easy way to publish 3D content on the Web, Adobe may have the answer. Its new product, Atmosphere, provides the necessary tools for building 3D environments for a wide range of uses. Atmosphere is well suited for community building with its built-in support for chat features. Using a proprietary Web browser plug-in, called Atmosphere Browser, users can explore 3D worlds and view representations of other users. The plug-in is currently limited to use with Internet Explorer 4.01 and later versions, and Netscape Navigator 4.6 and 4.7.

When you start Atmosphere Builder for the first time, you'll notice its simple user interface with a menu bar and a variety of palettes—very similar to those of other Adobe products. The menus at the top of the screen provide access to standard commands, while the palettes contain tools such as 3D objects and options for designing a 3D world.

The largest window in the interface is a document window that's used to arrange objects in the 3D world. It displays a view of the objects in one of two options: wireframe or browser. Wireframe is similar to the view you'd get in a vector drawing or CAD package, like a blueprint of your world. The browser option lets you view the world with the objects' textures and is an accurate depiction of how your world will appear on the Web.

Adobe Atmosphere
cost: Contact Vendor for Pricing.
Pros: Easy to use interface means it won't take long to learn. Cons: Documentation is lacking, perhaps because of beta status.

3D Objects

To construct a 3D world, you arrange 3D objects in the document window. By connecting, resizing, or otherwise transforming the individual objects, you can design almost any type of environment. Atmosphere doesn't offer any 3D modeling tools of its own, and is limited by its inability to import formats other than the Viewpoint 3D format. There are some 3D packages like TrueSpace that let you export models directly to the Viewpoint format. However, for most 3D modeling packages, you'll need an application such as Polytrans to convert your models. Atmosphere does let you apply 2D images as textures so that you can control the way the world will look. For instance, if you were creating an accurate depiction of a museum, you could use textures that represent the bricks in a wall. On the other hand, were you creating a chat room for children, you might design a 3D world that appears to have emerged from the pages of a comic book.

You'll probably want to apply textures to the objects in most scenes. Atmosphere lets you import textures from several standard 2D formats including GIF, JPG, and PNG. Another option is to copy a texture that has been applied to another object. You can also alter the objects' appearance by using the Inspector palette, which lets you change their RGB values.


Along with the 2D textures and RGB colors, lighting is the final process that determines how your scene appears. Lighting, one of Atmosphere's strongest features, lets you create very realistic 3D environments. It uses the principle of radiosity to calculate the amount of lighting in a scene.

The individual 3D objects that make up a world have surfaces. Atmosphere lets any surface give off or receive light (the terms "luminous" and "lit" are used in the documentation). Atmosphere determines the amount of light a surface receives based on the position of luminous surfaces in the environment. A luminous surface casts light on the surfaces that surround it. In addition to being able to place lights in particular areas, you can also control the quality of the light that's emitted by editing its color and brightness. Like a real-world environment, surfaces that are farther away from a light source receive less light than those that are closer. Lighting is assigned to surfaces using a light map, an RGB image of the lighting value for each unit of surface area in a world. Once the lighting value is calculated, the light map is imposed over the surfaces to simulate the appearance of light and shadows.

JavaScript API

Atmosphere lets you programmatically access elements in the 3D environment. Using JavaScript, you can add effects to your world with the Atmosphere API. The API references weren't complete in the beta version I used for this review, but according to the available documentation, you can perform a variety of functions including creating sounds and moving objects around the scene. You can also create scripts and attach them to objects, groups of objects, or an entire world. When you publish your world for viewing, Atmosphere Builder creates a single JavaScript file by combining all of the individual scripts.

Web Viewing

To view a 3D world, users must first enter through a gateway, which consists of an entry point and a portal or exit location. These positions are established in Atmosphere Builder. When you publish an environment, Atmosphere establishes a default entry point based on your position and orientation in the browser view. For instance, if you're looking at a ball in the browser view, and then publish that scene, a user will enter your world looking at the ball in the same manner.

Along with the default entry point, you can create additional entry points into the world by using the entry point tool. Each entry point appears as a square and a red line in the document window. The square represents the user's position in the world, and the line represents the initial direction in which the user will be looking. This approach makes it very easy to create views at any position and angle in your world.

Using JavaScript, you can embed hypertext links into the environment. For example, you could create a 3D mailbox in your world and add a link to it such that it would open the user's default email client.

The Real World

A nice feature of Atmosphere is that it will run on a wider range of platforms, even though output quality seems very hardware dependent. For instance, if you have a high-end machine with a good video card, fast processor, and large amounts of RAM, the output is good. On an older machine or a machine without a high-quality video card, the output is choppy and unimpressive.

Adobe Atmosphere makes it relatively easy to create 3D worlds that can be published on the Web. It provides the features necessary to make everything from realistic environments to never-before-imagined worlds.

Clayton is a freelance writer and independent consultant based in Knoxville, TN. Reach him at [email protected].

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