Bryce 5.5, by DAZ 3D
Posted: 19-Dec-2006

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: DAZ 3D Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: MULTIMEDIA

Overview
Do you dream of creating realistic or fantasy landscapes, tropical beaches and beautiful sunset skies? Add ray tracing to light the results, CAD functionality to create geometric objects, bring it all to life with animation and you have the main functions of the singular application that is Bryce.

Bryce, a ray-tracing 3D modeling application, had its foundations in a set of algorithms for generating realistic fractal landscapes. These were developed by Ken Musgrave, a student of Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who discovered and popularized fractal mathematics. The algorithms were developed into the original Bryce for the Mac platform in 1994 by Eric Wenger and Kai Krause. Bryce passed from one company to another and eventually languished undeveloped for some years. Lately it has been rescued from oblivion by DAZ 3D, who with version 5.5, have made it capable of importing human and animal figures and other models from DAZ Studio and Poser.

You can buy a boxed or download version of Bryce from
DAZ 3D. To do so, you have to set up a free account on their website. Once you have your account in place you have a set time and number of attempts to download the software. There was no license code enforcement with Bryce 5.5, which is the topic of this review. However, license code enforcement has been introduced with Bryce 6.0.

Along with Bryce you get Bryce Lightning, which you are free to install on any machine, allowing you to divide lengthy renders amongst available computers. You also get the free application DAZ Studio which can pose and clothe models you obtain from DAZ.

Requirements

  • Mac OS X 10.2 or above
  • 500 MHz Power Macintosh G3, G4, or G5
  • 256MB RAM
  • 100MB free hard drive space for installation (500 MB recommended)
  • 32 bit color display
  • CD-ROM drive
  • Open GL- compatible video card (NVIDIA GeForce recommended)
  • NOTE: A graphics card with at least 128MB onboard RAM is highly recommended

Reviewed On

  • 1GHz iMac G4
  • Mac OS X 10.4.8
  • 1GB RAM
  • 80 GB hard disk

Price
Bryce 5.5 was offered in high and low bandwidth download versions for $99.95 as well as a slightly more expensive boxed version. Additionally, there was a 3D starter bundle of Bryce 5.5 with DAZ Studio content including a male and female figure, a cat, a dog and a dragon for $109.95. The DAZ Studio application comes free with Bryce under a "tellware" agreement - free to download as long as you tell at least 2 other people about it.

Recently Bryce 6.0 has been released for $99.95 with upgrades from Bryce 5.0 or 5.5 costing $39.95. Extra content packages are also available for Bryce 6.0. Note that Bryce 6.0 is not universal (likely to run slow on Intel Macs).


Setup
When you install the Bryce package, DAZ studio is also installed.

If you switch to your administrator account to install Bryce, you will end up with Bryce 5.5 and DAZ Studio folders where you expect them to be in your system Application folder. Unfortunately, Bryce will then (at best) be unable to save from your normal user accounts and DAZ Studio will not even be accessible from your user accounts. The default location for all Bryce files will be the Bryce 5.5 folder in system Applications and all DAZ Studio models will have to be placed in a folder named "content" in the DAZ Studio folder in system Applications.

On the other hand, if you do the installation from a user account, then the Bryce 5.5 and DAZ Studio folders and the default content locations will end up in folders in that user's Application folder, accessible to that user without issue, but to no other user.

This is an abject failure to follow Apple's standards for locations of files and data within the Mac OS X system, and the non-standard installation leads to problems later. For example, once I'd been using DAZ Studio for a while and amassed a collection of DAZ Studio models, along came an update to DAZ Studio. Upon trying to install it, I was warned to uninstall the old one first. There are no uninstall instructions or uninstall utilities. Simply throwing away the DAZ Studio folder isn't an option as that will result in deletion of all the models in the content folder within.


In Use
Bryce creates a mystifying first impression by displaying a window with strangely tactile unlabeled controls and no obvious menu. If you are adventurous, you may get some distance by simply getting a feel for the controls, especially once you notice the tool tips which are always in the bottom left of your display. You may also discover that there is indeed a regular Mac OS X menu which appears if you move the mouse to the very top pixel of your display. Here you will discover the help option that leads you to the manual - over 500 pages of clearly written and thoroughly hyperlinked PDF. You can keep it open and consult it by command-tabbing to it as you work, learning about the user interface and what all those mysterious pearls, arrows and trackballs do.

As you learn to create more complex scenes, you will discover the pain of 3D modeling with today's computers - waiting for interminable rendering operations to complete. Bryce has a lot of tricks to help you. For example, as you work, you may be trying to perfect one small area of your picture rather than the whole; if you drag over the area to create a rectangle, you can render it on its own, and make whatever corrections may be necessary before spending time on the final render.


Bryce Terrains
Bryce's core capability is to create realistic landscapes. Below is a screen shot of the Bryce window. Under the Create menu at the top of the window, there are icons which you click once to create an infinite plain (water, cloud or land), procedural object (terrain, tree, rock, symmetrical lattice), primitive object (sphere, cone, torus, cube etc) image, light or DAZ Studio object. The screen shot shows a terrain, the object which forms the land in a landscape.


Bryce 5.5 Main Window


One click on the Render button (the biggest pearl in the necklace under the trackball) results in this view:


Bryce Render View


It's not very realistic yet, but only a few steps are needed to make an interesting scene: resize, edit the terrain, set the sun angle and select materials.

Bryce terrains are more convincing if they are bigger and more distant - dragging the position and size of the terrain results in this view when rendered:


Larger Terrains render more realistic


The terrain is too rough, so use Terrain editor; this tool applies a variety of algorithms to shape the terrain. You can also import images to form the basis of your terrain or import USGS DEM files of real places to make realistic landscapes.


Bryce Terrain Editor


Erosion makes the landscape look more natural:


Bryce Erosion Tool

Now choose a material for the terrain:


Bryce Materials Lab



Adding Snow to the Terrain


This material creates snow on flatter areas and rock in steeper areas. Obviously, the infinite plain should be given the same texture. Next, switch to top view and select the Sky and Fog palette.


Sky and Fog Tool

The red mesh is the snowy terrain. At its top left corner you can see a smaller gray mesh which is the infinite plain (it only becomes infinite when rendered) and you can also see a little blue triangle - the camera. The gray triangle emanating from it is the field of view. In the top menu there is a trackball with a lit area bottom right. This trackball sets the sun angle and the net result of its present position with respect to the camera is that the sun is behind the mountain, throwing it into shade. Drag the trackball to a position a little to the south side of the camera angle to create interesting shadows rather than flat light:


Resulting Snowy Mountain

So, just a few clicks create pleasant landscapes with the terrain editor, infinite plains, the materials lab and the Sky and Fog menu. There is also a Sky Lab which gives more precise control over atmospheric conditions and the light in your scene - including day and night, sun, moon, stars and rainbows.

Bryce 3D modeling
Here are some of the primitive objects you can make in Bryce.


Bryce Primitive Objects

Metaballs are spheres which grow together when rendered. On the left, two metaballs flow together in a chrome dumbbell. Next we have a malachite cone which is reflected in a pitted gold sphere. Finally a blue marble cube is also reflected in the sphere.

The Edit menu gives you an alternative to direct manipulation for positioning, stretching and sizing the objects you create. Direct manipulation is not always the easiest thing to do for a variety of reasons - your current view may not let you drag in a particular direction, you may have multiple overlapping objects or you may be confounded by the odd behavior of the resize handles. If any of these happen, the Edit menu will come to your rescue. I liked the way a particular menu can let you easily choose between growing an object out from the center or leaving one side at its current position and growing the opposite side.

As well as the primitive objects shown above, the easily overlooked object preset menu provides more complex ready-made objects such as springs, polygonal prisms, polyhedrons, trees, vegetation and mountains. Unfortunately, Bryce does not seem to have functions for making a 3D object by extruding or rotating a 2D shape.


Object Presets

Object controls
Once you have created an object, a tiny menu appears beside it when it's selected. Here you will find controls for editing it in various ways. You can edit its name, position, size and orientation numerically. You can select a material for your object, and for a terrain, you can edit the elevation using the terrain editor. You can define an object to be made out of negative material which will be subtracted from an object you define to be positive when you group the two together.

For example, this goblet was made from an elongated sphere which had another slightly smaller version of itself subtracted from its inside and then had another negative object positioned on top to cut off the top of the sphere. The stem is a cylinder and a cone. I selected emerald for the material and Bryce looked after all the reflections and the light passing through the goblet.


Creating a Goblet

Menu
The Bryce application has a normal Mac OS menu at the top of the window, but it is normally hidden. To view it you have to get your mouse to the very top pixel of the display and wait a second or two. The menu has controls for setting up your Bryce document, setting up animation, accessing the edit controls and help.

Labs
Bryce has several "Labs" which are editing windows for more precise control of the objects in the scene. For example, there is a Sky Lab in addition to the Sky and Fog controls, there is a Tree Lab which you can use to design your own trees, and there's a Motion Lab. Other editing windows aren't called Labs but are still complex, most notoriously the Deep Texture Editor which lets you design the structure of materials.


Bryce Tree Lab

Usability and Bryce
Bryce's many treasures are reached via a user interface that is simply unlike anything else. Its original designer, Kai Krause, aimed to make user interfaces that hid complexity from the user and encouraged creativity by avoiding text and numeric data entry - laudable goals. He introduced user interface concepts such as shadows and transparency which are now commonplace but were then revolutionary. Since Bryce was originally designed, user interface standards in Mac and Windows have settled down and solidified, usability principles have become better understood and newcomers to Bryce may have difficulty adapting to its non-standard interface.

Another problem for newcomers could be that what Bryce can do is so far removed from anything else you may have done before. Scrolling around in a 2D document doesn't prepare you for moving your position, direction of view and angle of view in 4D spacetime. Developing a Powerpoint presentation doesn't build the experience and understanding you need of optics to create a material in Bryce. Working with spreadsheets all day won't teach you the fractal geometry that underlies terrain creation. On the other hand, if you're experienced in photography and/or video, then some of your skills will find new application in Bryce. You won't just position your camera and lights; you will define the position of sun or moon and create the weather conditions you need for your perfect landscape view.

However, I do have some observations about Bryce's usability in terms of the time it takes to do things and avoid errors:

  • Bryce has direct manipulation but it doesn't work intuitively. You drag a grow handle right to increase size and left to decrease - even when you are increasing or decreasing the vertical dimension of an object. Sometimes it's easier to break down and type size, position and rotation numbers into the edit window for an object.
  • Some important features are not readily discoverable without resorting to the manual. These include holding down various keys while you click and drag on buttons to have different effects. It would be ok to provide these methods as short cuts if there were more long-winded but visible means of achieving the same end.
  • Some important controls are tiny - one appears to be about 2 pixels on a side. Fitt's law states that the time a user takes to click on a target is longer the smaller and further away the target is. There are some very small and far away targets in Bryce, especially as it insists on totally filling up your display no matter how large or small an image you are working on.
  • Some important controls have icons that appear to be meaningless. There are tool tips which explain what icons are when you hover the mouse over them, but the tool tips are in a fixed location on the display rather than at the mouse pointer location.
  • As mentioned above, Bryce completely fills your display including the menu bar, whether or not it's necessary for the size of your Bryce view. To see the menu you have to go to the very top pixel of your display. To use another application you have to use command-tab.

My main conceptual difficulty with Bryce is at a more strategic level, and it's one that in all my reading I haven't seen anyone write about - Bryce only works in fictitious distance units. When you create an object in Bryce, it is typically sized at 20.48 of these units per side. Why? In Bryce you manipulate transparent objects such as glass, gems and infinite planes of water and clouds. You know from experience that a glass of sea water is clear enough but 60 feet of sea water isn't. So how does distance affect the transparency of materials in Bryce? Bryce evades the issue somewhat by allowing you to use surface rather than volume textures, so that the transparency is determined by the choice of material rather than the size of the object. All the same, I often find the sea in my models too transparent, and making realistic fog takes a delicacy of touch that is not developed overnight.

A Total Gym for your imagination
Bryce stretches your mental muscles by leading you to think of new ways to construct objects, and new combinations of textures and materials.

Want to make a 4-legged table? The pedestrian method would be to make 5 cubes, reshape one into a tabletop and the other 4 into legs and put them together. But how about making one cube and subtracting a couple of bricks from it?

Water textures not wavy enough? How about taking a rough fractal terrain and making it out of water instead of rock?

Want wispy fog in your picture? Make giant footballs and put wispy foggy textures on their surfaces.

Want to model a viewpoint half above and half under water? Make a box out of negative material, place your camera inside it and sink it into the water.

Want an abstract picture? Make a sphere out of wavy glass, put your camera at the center of the sphere and look out.

The link to DAZ Studio
It's hard to imagine how this could be easier. Click the big DAZ Studio button in Bryce to fire up DAZ Studio. Choose, pose and clothe your model in DAZ Studio. Click the big Bryce button in DAZ Studio to return to Bryce. Here's the cat from the DAZ starter bundle, in one of several available poses and clothed in the sole available option, gray tabby.


DAZ Model incorporated into Bryce from DAZ Studio

The only issue here as far as Bryce is concerned is that when you return to Bryce, your DAZ Studio model will be placed at the center of your model and selected, but may be half underground or inside another object so you may not be able to move it directly with the mouse. You will have to position and orient it as you want and size it to suit the scale of your Bryce model.

DAZ Studio is, of course, a separate application with a totally different user interface.

Animation
Just about everything you do in Bryce can be animated and rendered as a Quicktime movie. For example, you can keep your camera still and animate the objects in your scene; you can animate the sky conditions and position of the sun and moon; and you can move your camera through your scene instead of or in addition to animating objects and weather.

Although it was daunting to get started with animation, it's actually pretty easy to do - just set up how long you want the animation to be in seconds, how many frames a second and then move the cursor on the timeline and change object position, camera position, weather conditions. The one pitfall is that if you change some aspect of your scene when the timeline cursor is not at the start of the animation then your scene will change unexpectedly in the middle of your movie. Animations can take many hours to render but Bryce makes it easy to change the number of frames per second and the size of each frame temporarily for a rough render and increase these back to normal later once you think you're ready for the final render.

I have used Bryce for creating several animations now, including the MacSurvivor contest animation that was featured in my "
Seven Days with Bryce" article.


Sample Bryce Animation (Compressed)


Stability
I found that a more complex model (with a couple of DAZ tarantulas and webs) began to be difficult to load if I had any other applications running at the time of loading. I had to quit the applications, load the model and then Bryce didn't mind at all how many applications started up afterwards. There is a way to make Bryce crash instantly too - move one of your models to a different folder and then try to open it from the recently opened items list and Bryce will blink out of existence instantly.

Apart from those issues, Bryce appears to be stable and happy to run under Tiger.

Bryce Resources
The Bryce manual is a well structured, indexed and hyperlinked PDF which you can read online while you work with Bryce. All the same, a manual tells you what the software does, which may not align with your hopes and dreams as a designer. Once I had read the manual in some detail, I still found
Robin Wood's tutorials comprehensive and useful.

The DAZ 3D site also has tutorials as well as a weekly newsletter with special offers and occasional free models.

Bryce has its own
Wikipedia page from which you will find links to many more Bryce tutorials and other sites of interest.

If you are new to fractal geometry, try the
Wikipedia Fractal page and look out for books by Benoit Mandelbrot, Michael Barnsley, Heinz-Otto Peitgen and Dietmar Saupe.

If you would like to discover how simple algorithms govern the complex designs of plants, check out the
Algorithmic Botany papers. From there you can download the wonderful geek coffee table book "The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants" for free.

Summary
Bryce, a ray-tracing 3D modeling application, is a Total Gym for your imagination, and brings anything you can imagine to virtual life. Suppose you were a rose expert and somebody gave you a strange plant and told you it came from Mars? Suppose you were a family doctor and somebody brought a Vulcan to your dinner party? Well, as a usability engineer, I find getting to know Bryce has the same compelling fascination of applying professional knowledge to something all but utterly alien. For people who are used to the Mac or Windows user interface however, Bryce may well be a case of "Life, Jim, but not as we know it." Take heart - the learning curve can be ascended and you will be rewarded every time you look at a stone wall, a tree, a cloud or a sunset, and your newly toned imagination leaps into overdrive figuring out how it could be done in Bryce.
Bryce has its share of user interface issues, and even a few bugs, but for what it does, it does it amazingly well. I highly recommend Bryce for any Mac creative artist or artist-wannabe.

Pros

  • Handles terrains, weather, textures, light and basic CAD
  • Numeric as well as mouse entry for parameters
  • Animation for objects and viewpoint
  • DAZ 3d models can be imported
  • Time intensive rendering can be divided amongst multiple computers


Cons

  • Installation under admin account gives unusable installation for user accounts
  • Content files by default go in application folders
  • No CAD extrusion and rotation functions
  • User interface quirks
  • No real distance units


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice