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Piranesi 3 by Informatix Software International, in the United Kingdom, is the latest edition of one the most exciting applications to hit the AEC (architecture/engineering/construction) software market in quite some time. At just the point where architects—and many in the general population—were beginning to realize one day soon computers would render 3d scenes indistinguishable from reality, along comes a program that produces imagery as dreamy and impressionistic as a French country scene in a Monet painting.

What has certainly surprised some—including this author—is that such a movement back towards the days of beautiful hand drawings would be facilitated by the very machine that helped aid their demise in the first place. This is especially true in the world of architecture where students in colleges around the world have learned to play digital putty makers with programs such as formZ, Maya and Softimage. No doubt, such high-end tools have a place in the arsenal, but far too often their output lacks the ability to project a mood or sensibility about a designer's ambitions with a particular project. Instead such tools often produce uniform looks more akin to science-fiction movies such as Tron and The Matrix. Piranesi is different; it harks back to the days of traditional hand drawing skills.

Piranesi 3 - Learning the Program and the Interface

One of the nice things that seems to come out of new or young software developers is that they put great effort into explaining how to learn and use their software. Nowhere is this more important than in learning advanced visualization and modeling applications like 3D and rendering. Informatix does a good job of this by employing a solid .Html-based help and tutorial system.

The program's interface itself is simple and complies with Apple's Mac OS X Aqua interface guidelines. Piranesi 3 has a healthy amount of detailed controls but all of this is managed within an interface that employs an excellent use of simplicity, differentiation, and depth. Specifically, regions of the interface number no more than four distinct areas, counting the drawing area. Within the main Tools Manager—essentially the name Informatix calls the properties or inspector like palette controls—there are three major areas: Information, Settings, and Cutout Manager. Each sub-area itself operates like its own regional control center, just like the Mac OS X's individual control preference panels. A menu bar is associated with each item (Information, Settings, and Cutout Manger) and under each are palette controls settings that consist of fields, drop-down menus, sliders and so on. Within a fairly short amount time a new user will adapt to the excellent use of depth in the interface to begin exploring the program's diverse set of image controls.


You begin painting in Piranesi by bringing in an EPX (EPix) Piranesi native file format image (more on that later). In the images directly below (see 001 - 002) you can see a basic tutorial image file consisting of some geometric primitives. The early part of the tutorial has you working on these basic items. The first question you might have about Piranesi is, "how do you actually paint with accuracy?" It's a very good question because anyone who has used Adobe Photoshop to do painting on architectural renderings knows that there is work involved in controlling what you paint. With Piranesi the EPX file format stores more information than a typical bitmap file. There is both depth information and geometrical information about the objects themselves. The program uses a series of intelligent constraints or locks (shown on the left hand side in the Toolbox palette) to help you paint just specific objects, planes, materials, or items with a particular color.



Without these locks on (and you can apply them in combinations to do different things with the constraining system) you are free to paint over the image just as I did with a brush with pink paint (image 001). (click on images for larger views). Naturally you can zoom into the image (just like in Photoshop) and pick a smaller diameter brush to be more accurate with your painting if you like, but the real power of this application lies in its ability to constrain painting actions to specific elements of the scene.

Similar to programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Piranesi includes numerous brush type settings. You can paint with a circular brush, determine its size, softness and even angle. An aspect ratio setting allows you to convert the brush's circular shape into an elliptical-like shaped brush. Additionally, Piranesi can take advantage of pressure-sensitive input devices like Walcom tablets. One of the more special things about Piranesi is the use of 3D brushes. A 3D circle or rectangular brush tracks surfaces in 3D space as you paint.

Piranesi goes beyond programs like Adobe Photoshop because it saves more intelligent information useful to painting in 3D space. In addition to the regular bitmap information like RGB values saved in typical "graphics" painting programs, Piranesi saves pixel depth information and data about the 3D objects represented in the image scene. This distuingishing feature is important. Plane and depth data is critical to the application of textures such a stone, brick, or wood such that they scale correctly to the image and conform to the rules of perspective. In the images below (see 003-004) a wood flooring texture is applied much like it would be in any typical 3D modeling/rendering program, complete with the ability to rotate and orient the direction of the wood. It is important to point out that the wood is being applied to a 2D image file that represents 3D space, unlike the application of a wood floor texture to a floor in a true 3D modeling application.


Piranesi's file format is quite amazing. For example people and trees automatically scale as you slide them over the image, based on the pixel information underneath the cursor. Moreover, when people or trees are placed in an image they may appear behind or in front of elements in the scene, again depending on their location. The program will automatically crop the people's bodies correctly if they are behind elements in the scene.

This intelligent scaling feature of Piranesi is due to the depth channel. There are several channels stored with the EPX file format. In addition to an RGB channel there includes a Depth Channel (see 005) as well as a Material Channel. A Pixel tab on the Tools Manager allows you to visually see the x, y, and D dimensions of the pixels and their associated depth in the scene. D is the associated depth of that pixel in the scene.


The Material Channel information serves as a way of defining different elements in the scene, such as walls, ceilings, particular furniture items, etc. When you view the image by the Materials Channel elements in the scene are rendered in bright distinguishing colors.

Next Page: Piranesi 3 - Part 2

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