Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 145 / OCTOBER 1992 / PAGE 82

Vistapro. (simulation software) (Evaluation)
by David Sears

Create a world of pristine mountains and topaz lakes or forge your own path across Mars in this spectacular 3-D landscape generator.

>From the ragged edge of Olympus Mons we find the view of Mars spectacular. Treading lightly on the topological lips of silent Mount St. Helens, we survey the grim damage that she has wrought. The more pastoral among us will want to wade kneedeep in the shimmering blues of Crater Lake; perhaps the nascent mathematicians among us will wander off to explore the shadowy fractalscapes of the Julia and the Mandelbrot sets. No need to fear losing your way in these virgin panoramas; with VistaPro you blaze new trails. Forget the tour guides, the road maps, and the Fodor's handbooks-your mouse and your PC will take you as far as your mind may wander, both on earth and beyond.

Virtual reality, the bombastic watchword of the nineties computing society, only recently broached the home front when Virtual Reality Laboratories tried its hand at three-dimensional modeling. Until then, true landscape generators seemed forever in the province of NASA supercomputers. Now, just master the mechanics of an Instamatic camera, and Mars exploration soon follows. Acquire a little technical skill, and VistaPro's renderings can take your breath away.

Before moving any mountains, virtual reality pioneers should familiarize themselves with the essentials. U.S. Geological Survey data serves as the basis for VistaPro's imaging work. A Digital Elevation Model, or DEM, provides the VistaPro engine with 3-D coordinates--samples taken at 30meter intervals in the real world to measure elevation changes. VistaPro plays connect the dots and fills in the resuiting polygons, quickly approximating the original landscape.

The VistaPro main control panel displays a relief map to the left. Lighter shades represent higher elevations including cliffs and peaks, greens and browns indicate hills and valleys, and blue, of course, demarcates rivers, lakes, and seas. Here, on this miniature version of the landscape, you can add personal touches to reality. Click on the top of a mountain, and a river threads its way into a valley, there to puddle into a small pond. Click again, and the sea rises; an ocean covers the lowlands.

You also practice your photography on this geological playfield. Move the pointer to a promontory--it affords an excellent view of your new sea-- and place your camera. Set your sights on that tiny accidental island (one of the many joys of creating worlds, these little surprises) and click again to set your target. You could render this pristine worldlet now, but great art requires a modicum of skill. Look to the right, and you'll see the main control panel.

Among your options here are sophisticated target and camera controls. More precise than the simple pointand-click method used on the Topo Map, these gadgets allow you to place your camera and choose your target with meter-by-meter accuracy.

Just click on the boxes corresponding to x-, y-, and z-axes and enter the desired coordinates with the keypad. Other gadgets affect banking, heading, and pitch--all rotational controls that can lend your work some artful spin. At times, these controls actually engender a touch of vertigo, but as long as you imagine the camera in your hands, you'll have no trouble setting up magnificent shots.

Also on the main control panel you'll find a button to scatter pines or oaks across the countryside, a button to smooth rough terrain, a button to ripple the surface of the sea, and even a button that summons fog. Activate the Color Map and remap the sky to grays for overcast days; turn rivers to red, and they become menacing lava flows. Outfit your camera with any size zoom or wide-angle lens; move the sun at your whim and cast shadows in any direction. Adjust the vertical scaling, and peaks reach the stratosphere; a tweak later, and they become bottomless pits. These tools seem almost magical in their ability to effortlessly conjure misty islands, majestic mountains, and sweeping plains from the meagerest of numbers. A certain amount of artificial intelligence ensures that cliffs too sheer for clinging snow don't show drifts; trees, too, will not grow where they would not in nature.

Graphics modes range from a passable VGA resolution of 320 x 200 to a far more robust 1024 x 768 SVGA, each with a healthy palette of 256 colors. VESA drivers are necessary for all but the lowest resolution; for maximum resolution, the video card should carry a megabyte of memory on board. The higher the resolution, the greater opportunity for photorealism, and after a few sessions with VistaPro, the expense of an SVGA upgrade seems quite modest. Still, photorealism isn't everything, and even standard VGA will yield some stunning views.

Rendering times, the confirmed weakness of all virtual reality generators, run from scant seconds to hours in VistaPro, depending on the resolution and options selected.A low-resolution image with large polygons and no trees requires only two seconds or so on a 486DX running at 33 MHz. Increase the resolution to 1024 x 768, call for dense flora, invoke Gouraud shading, decrease the 'size of the filled polygons, and you'll have time to rent and watch a movie before VistaPro delivers. More likely you'll leave your PC to perform these intense operations overnight. The script generator, which allows for linear flybys, requires similar lengths of time to show significant results, but it does save in a compressed animation format. Playback speed for these sequences begins at 16 frames per second from a hard drive; from a large RAM disk, expect replays at a seamless 30 frames per second.

Virtual Reality Labs sells prepackaged scapes disks that include DEM data from the equatorial and Valles Marineris regions of Mars, the Grand Canyon, Colorado ski areas (Aspen, Breckenridge, and Vail), and Yosemite National Park, among others. Each retails for $35.

On the VistaPro horizon, you can expect to see a terraforming utility that will allow drastic alterations of any landscape. Another package will extend the flight paths of VistaPro animations to incorporate loops and banking; simulated roller-coaster and dunebuggy motion will add to the thrills. More important for digital realists, though, VistaPro itself will evolve. Version 2.0 promises road building and clouds, star fields and new varieties of trees. You may also add buildings, import foregrounds and backgrounds, and render much larger landscapes-all to be available for a small upgrade fee.

More than a window to places we always wanted to visit, VistaPro offers a glimpse of an imminent future wherein simulations are almost as good as being there. Commendable in every respect, this software awakens our explorer instincts and arouses our artistic sensibilities besides.