Producing realistic people is the most difficult task for traditional artists to achieve and it's the same for today's 3D artists. To help get their geometry right, traditional artists use a posable wooden mannequin as a model and this was the inspiration for Larry Weinberg, Poser's original developer, back in 1995. In the decade since that first crude release, Poser has changed out of all recognition. In particular its aim is no longer simply to help visualize a pose; it's job now is to produce the end result itself, either as a rendered image or animation, or as a 3D model for export. This means that realism is crucial to the success of Poser and each new release has seen major leaps forward. So does Poser 6 keep up the tradition?
The most obvious change when you load up the new version is the new default customizable model. Don has done his duty and been replaced by James while Judy, the default female model, has been replaced by Jessi. The leap in realism involved is less than that between version 4 and 5 but it's still a big improvement - if you can get over the similarities to Victoria Adams and Michael Owen! Perhaps the biggest change is in terms of the default clothes with the all-white Raelian cult look replaced by much more realistic - if slightly fantasized - bulging jeans and long-sleeved top based on scanned texture maps of real clothes.
So looking around the interface what else is new? Version 5 raised expectations with its introduction of no less than six new "rooms" - Material, Face, Hair, Cloth, Setup and Content - but the changes in version 6 are much more limited. In fact there are no new rooms at all, though the Material room has at least been reworked with a new Simple tab designed to protect users from the underlying node-based shader system (still available via the Advanced tab). "Simple" is a relative term however - Curious Labs manages to confuse matters by defaulting to showing the material used for James' gums (!) and by including a column of seemingly unrelated and mysteriously intimidating buttons - Set up Shadow Catcher, Set up Ambient Occlusion, IBL and so on - that for some unfathomable reason have been called " wacros"!
The Material Room has been given a makeover. Much more successful is the reworking of the main Document Window. Now the main Preview window where the central figure is posed can be set to display the current Production Frame while new OpenGL hardware acceleration for systems with supporting graphics cards offers the option of real-time texture, lighting and shadow updating. The biggest change is the introduction of a new Render tab. Hit the Render command, or the new Render Area option, and the results appear in this new tab. Renders are automatically saved to a stack so that you can retrieve earlier renders (up to 10 by default) and, using the Render Wipe slider at the bottom of the screen, quickly compare render setting variations. To speed the rendering process you can also choose to re-use textures and shadow maps though this has to be done manually.
The rendering power on offer with Poser 6 has also been enhanced.
To begin with the Render Settings dialog has been redesigned with tabs for each of the four main render engines including the new OpenGL enhanced Preview and the excellent and previously semi-detached Sketch Designer for producing artistic interpretations of your scenes. For the main FireFly rendering engine there's also a new Auto Settings tab that is designed to make it simple to trade off quality against processing time without getting into the complexities of ray bounces and bucket size. It's certainly an improvement but a simple slider would have been easier still. Other changes include enhanced control over polygon smoothing and new support for soft raytraced shadows. And now you can choose to output just shadows which boosts post-production flexibility and efficiency - though multi-pass PSD support would have boosted it further.
Surprisingly the biggest improvements in Poser 6's rendering quality aren't managed in the Render Settings dialog. Instead they are light-based factors that are most easily set using those bizarre " wacros" in the Material room (I wonder if Curious Labs has ever heard of usability testing). Select a Light and click on the Set Up Ambient Occlusion wacro and Poser 6 automatically lowers the level of ambient light when objects are close together or lying on a surface - just as happens in the real world. Even more impressive are the results if you click on the IBL wacro (standing for "Image Based Lighting") which lets you choose a bitmap to act as a 360 light source (Poser 6 provides a handful of bitmaps designed for the purpose). Poser 6's Ambient Occlusion and Image Based Lighting might sound awkward - and they are - but they do take the level of realism to a new level.
Poser 6 offers improved rendering efficiency and realism. Unfortunately there are serious downsides. The first is the massively increased rendering time which is a serious disincentive to switching the new effects on. The second is the output which, although much improved, still ultimately looks computer-generated and more computer game than Hollywood movie. The third, and perhaps most important, is that the benefits are limited to images and animations rendered from within Poser and, although you can load external props, this just isn't the right environment to set up a complete 3D scene. Increasingly users are tending to host their Poser content in other 3D applications such as Carrara 4 Pro, Vue 5 Esprit or even Curious Labs' own Shade 7 in which case the main advances of Poser 6 are immediately lost.
As an upgrade Poser 6 is disappointing, especially when compared to the across-the-board improvements seen in 5. On the other hand, Poser has built up some impressive power over the last ten years - and the latest models are a definite advance. More to the point, unless you're willing to dedicate your life to getting to grips with a professional character animation package, it's the only practical solution available - and, in 3D terms, at a very reasonable price. It's figure modeling for the rest of us.
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