Newtek gets LightWave 10 out the door; Core in the wings

When the NewTek team is finished, Core will become part of LightWave. Kathleen Maher sorts it all out.

The new LightWave is struggling to be born. In the meantime NewTek is shipping LightWave 10. The resource-starved 3D modeling side of NewTek, the LightWave division, has been bootstrapping a grounds-up re-write of LightWave, which it calls Core. Core development has been happening in parallel with continuing updates of LightWave. Somewhere along the way, Core will become an integrated part of LightWave. In the meantime, as chunks of core are completed they’re getting put into LightWave.

Viewport Preview Window, VPR, LightWave 10
The View Port Preview Window (VPR) of LightWave 10 gives users an interactive view of their work -- even if it's kind of disgusting. (Source: NewTek)

LightWave 10 shows the results of the LightWave development team’s hard work and it already has some cool features. The top rated feature is the new Viewport Renderer, known affectionately as the VPR. Using the Viewport Renderer, LightWave users can work interactively with their models and sees the effects of changes to lights, textures, volumetrics (LightWave’s atmospheric tools), etc. Lightworks 10 is taking advantage of the GPU to speed up processing but in cases where a model might be too large to quickly update in the windor, users can also select an area to render to get better performance.

The new LightWave has new stereoscopic tools including Stereoscopic Preview which allows users to see their work in anaglyph and adjust the interocular distance.

One new feature that’s particularly interesting is the addition of support for the InterSense Virtual Camera Tracking System (VCam) and the 3Dconnexion 3D mouse, which enable interaction with models in real time – say on the set. New LightWave chief Rob Powers has come to NewTek after working with Jim Cameron in the creation of the VAD, Virtual Art Department, a resource for Cameron’s productions to create assets for visualizations and animatics that can also act as a basis for the final models used in production. Cameron famously used a version of the VCam to walk through models as his actors performed on the sets combining models and real-motion in a way that let the director know how the final production actually worked.

Cameron, by the way, insists that this way of working enables the actors to give true performances via an animated character rather than be re-interpreted by an animator. This came up in the Academy Awards nominations last year when he insisted the Avatar actors be recognized for their performances and not just the animators.

The LightWave developers have long been concentrating on the ability to exchange files. They were early on to the Collada train. Unfortunately, that train is currently losing steam as the Collada team struggles to keep up with Autodesk’s products and Autodesk goes its own way. Meanwhile, LightWave has lost ground but it has retained devoted followers. As a result, the product absolutely has to snuggle into pipelines with other products including those from Autodesk, its estranged genetic cousin Modo, and Cinema4D. LightWave is maintaining and building support for Autodesk Geometry Cache, FBX, Collada and it’s own MDD (Motion Designer Document) format.

The new LightWave also includes Linear Color Space tools that enable users to choose a color space so that everyone in the product can be working and creating the same look. The new Linear Color Space tools also enable finer control of color for high dynamic range and realistic shadows and lighting.

If you’re interested in the new LightWave 10, Rob Powers gives a good overview here.

Some of LightWave’s basic modeling tools have yet to get the big upgrade they need, but that work is continuing in Core and is expected to arrive in 2011. The cynical among the LightWave user community — and there are a bunch of them — are predicting mid-2011 at the earliest. LightWave has a history of letting deadlines slip but in the case of their work with Core, the company has always been cautious and they’re not apologizing. They want to get it right this time.

LightWave promises not to lose the qualities that made the tool popular in the past: fast, easy to learn, good rendering tools included with the product. It absolutely has to deliver on that promise.

LightWave 10 is available now for $895. Upgrades are $495. For a limited time, the LightWave 10 license includes a HardCore membership giving users access to builds of LightWave Core.

What do we think?

In its heyday, LightWave was widely used for in TV production, special effects, architectural visualizations, and graphic illustration, and it retains its strongest core user base in TV and the movie industry.

Its tools had been packaged in an awkward way with separate modules and although the awkwardness certainly continues as Core gets developed separately from LightWave, the goal is to present the user with a tightly integrated package that works well with other tools in the production pipeline.

It’s never easy to re-build an existing product but at this point LightWave is working with the faithful who are helping the development team. In fact, some of the community is actually helping to fund the re-development by buying into the HardCore paid-beta program. As a result the HardCore members are hammering on the software looking for bugs and making recommendations for improvements. In fact, LightWave’s VP of 3D development Rob Powers could be seen as a uber-user who did so much work with the LightWave team as he worked in Cameron’s VAD, that he just kind of slipped over on to the vendor side where he seems to have done a lot to get the team in gear and focused. Obviously, the members of the LightWave development team have already done a lot of heavy lifting, but Powers’ arrival from the production world seems to have helped LightWave’s developers see their way clear to the finish line with features their users need most urgently.

While LightWave has had a tough run for the last few years, this is a situation that can change. It’s a new season for the 3D modeling and animation companies. Autodesk has been working on its Project Excalibur to bring 3ds Max up to date and their work on the viewport is one of the first things that made it into the shipping product. The latest version of Luxology’s Modo has revamped the viewport as well. Softimage spent years revamping XSI and did such a good job that Autodesk bought it. Maxon’s Cinema4D has concentrated on interoperability with Adobe’s tools to fit in production workflows, and that’s been working out pretty well for them — they’ve reported steady growth (or not-loss in the case of 2009) for several years.

Autodesk may own a bunch of the tools but there’s opportunity for users working with any of these products. — KM