Blender 2.8 is coming

Unbiased rendering? Check. Realtime rendering? Check. Unified shader model? Check. Class-leading user interface. Check. Free, open source, small? Check. Blender 2.8 offers everything you want in a 3d package and nothing you don’t (dongles, copy protection, ridiculous prices, massive hardware requirements).

There aren’t many pieces of open source software that have been under continuous active development that haven’t gone through a single “major version change” in twenty years. When I started using Blender 2.8 in the early 2000s, it was version 2.3-something. In the last year it’s been progressing from 2.79 to 2.8 (I think technically the current “release” version is 2.79b, b as in the third 2.79 release not beta).

What brought me to blender was a programming contract for an updated application which, in my opinion, needed an icon. I modeled a forklift for the icon in Silo 3D (which introduced me to “box-modeling”) but needed a renderer, and none of my very expensive 3d software (I owned licenses for 3ds max, ElectricImage, and Strata StudioPro among other thins) on my then current hardware. Blender’s renderer even supported motion blur (kind of).

The blender I started using had a capable renderer that was comparatively slow and hard to configure, deep but incomprehensible functionality, and a user interface that was so bad I ended up ranting about it on the blender forums and got so much hatred in response that I gave up being part of the community. I’ve also blogged pretty extensively about my issues with blender’s user interface over the years. Below is a sampling…

Blender now features not one, not two, but three renderers. (And it supports the addition of more renderers via a plugin architecture.) The original renderer (a ray-tracing engine now referred to as Workbench) is still there, somewhat refined, but it is now accompanied by a real-time game-engine style shader based renderer (Eevee) and a GPU-accelerated unbiased (physically-based) renderer (Cycles). All three are fully integrated into the editor view, meaning you can see the effects of lighting and procedural material changes interactively.

The PBR revolution has slowly brought us to a reasonably uniform conceptualization of what a 3d “shader” should look like. Blender manages to encapsulate all of this into one, extremely versatile shader (although it may not be the most efficient option, especially for realtime applications).

Eevee and Cycles also share the same shader architecture (Workbench does not) meaning that you can use the exact same shaders for both realtime purposes (such as games) and “hero renders”.

Blender 2.8 takes blender from — as of say Blender 2.4 — having one of the worst user interfaces of any general-purpose 3D suite, to having arguably the best.

The most obvious changes in Blender 2.8 are in the user-interface. The simplification, reorganization, and decluttering that has been underway for the last five or so years has culminated in a user interface that is bordering on elegant — e.g. providing a collection of reasonable simple views that are task-focused but yet not modal — while still having the ability to instantly find any tool by searching (now command-F for find instead of space by default; I kind of miss space). Left-click to select is now the default and is a first class citizen in the user interface (complaining about Blender’s right-click to select, left click to move the “cursor” and screw yourself is this literally got me chased off Blender’s forums in 2005).

Blender still uses custom file-requesters that are simply worse in every possible way than the ones the host OS provides. Similarly, but less annoyingly, Blender uses a custom-in-window-menubar that means it’s simply wasting a lot of screen real estate when not used in full screen mode.

OK so the “globe” means “world” and the other “globe” means “shader”…

Blender relies a lot on icons to reduce the space required for the — still — enormous numbers of tabs and options, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what is supposed to mean what (e.g. the “globe with a couple of dots” icon refers to scene settings while the nearly identical “globe” icon refers to materials — um, what?). The instant search tool is great but doesn’t have any support for obvious synonyms, so you need to know that it’s a “sphere” and not a “ball” and a “cube” and not a “box” but while you “snap” the cursor you “align” objects and cameras.

Finally, Blender can still be cluttered and confusing. Some parts of the UI are visually unstable (i.e. things disappear or appear based on settings picked elsewhere, and it may not be obvious why). Some of the tools have funky workflows (e.g. several common tools only spawn a helpful floating dialog AFTER you’ve done something with the mouse that you probably didn’t want to do) and a lot of keyboard shortcuts seem to be designed for Linux users (ctrl used where command would make more sense).

The blender 2.8 documentation is pretty good but also incomplete. E.g. I couldn’t find any documentation of particle systems in the new 2.8 documentation. There’s plenty of websites with documentation or tutorials on blender’s particle systems but which variant of the user interface they’ll pertain to is pretty much luck-of-the-draw (and blender’s UI is in constant evolution).

Expecting a 3D program with 20 years of development history and a ludicrously wide-and-deep set of functionality to be learnable by clicking around is pretty unreasonable. That said, blender 2.8 comes close, generally having excellent tooltips everywhere. “Find” will quickly find you the tool you want — most of the time — and tell you its keyboard shortcut — if any — but won’t tell you where to find it in the UI. I am pretty unreasonable, but even compared to Cheetah 3D, Silo, or 3ds max (the most usable 3D programs I have previously used) I now think Blender more than holds its own in terms of learnability and ease-of-use relative to functionality.

Performance-wise, Cycles produces pretty snappy previews despite, at least for the moment, not being able to utilize the Nvidia GPU on my MBP. If you use Cycles in previews expect your laptop to run pretty damn hot. (I can’t remember which if any versions of Blender did, and I haven’t tried it out on either the 2013 Mac Pro/D500 or the 2012 Mac Pro/1070 we have lying around the house because that would involve sitting at a desk…)

Cranked up, Eevee is able to render well-beyond the requirements for broadcast animated TV shows. This frame was rendered on my laptop at 1080p in about 15s. Literally no effort has been made to make the scene efficient (there’s a big box of volumetric fog containing the whole scene with a spotlight illuminating a bunch of high polygon models with subsurface scattering and screenspace reflections.

Perhaps the most delightful feature of blender 2.8 though is Eevee, the new OpenGL-based renderer, which spans the gamut from nearly-fast-enough-for-games to definitely-good-enough-for-Netflix TV show rendering, all in either real time or near realtime. Not only does it use the same shader model as Cycles (the PBR renderer) but, to my eye, for most purposes it produces nicer results and it does so much, much faster than Cycles does.

Blender 2.8, now in late beta, is a masterpiece. If you have any interest in 3d software, even or especially if you’ve tried blender in the past and hated it, you owe it to yourself to give it another chance. Blender has somehow gone from having a user interface that only someone with Stockholm Syndrome could love to an arguably class-leading user interface. The fact that it’s an open source project, largely built by volunteers, and competing in a field of competitors with, generally, poor or at best quirky user interfaces, makes this something of a software miracle.

As the Wwworm Turns

Microsoft’s recent announcement that it is, in effect, abandoning the unloved and unlamented Edge browser stack in favor of Chromium is, well, both hilarious and dripping in irony.

Consider at first blush the history of the web in the barest terms:

  • 1991 — http, html, etc. invented using NeXT computers
  • 1992 — Early browsers (Mosaic, NetScape, etc.) implement and extend the standard, notably NetScape adds Javascript and tries to make frames and layers a thing. Also, the <blink> tag.
  • 1995 — Microsoft “embraces and extends” standards with Internet Explorer and eventually achieves a 95% stranglehold on the browser market.
  • 1997 — As NetScape self-destructs and Apple’s own OpenDoc-based browser “Cyberdog” fails to gain any users (mostly due to being OpenDoc-based), Apple begs Microsoft for a slightly-less-crummy version of IE5 to remain even vaguely relevant/useful in an era where most web stuff is only developed for whatever version of IE (for Windows) the web developer is using.
  • 2002 — FireFox rises from the ashes of NetScape. (It is essentially a cross-platform browser based on Camino, a similar Mac-only browser that was put together by developers frustrated by the lack of a decent Mac browser.)
  • 2003 — Stuck with an increasingly buggy and incompatible IE port, Apple develops its own browser based on KHTML after rejecting Netscape’s Gecko engine. The new browser is called “Safari”, and Apple’s customized version of KHTML is open-sourced as Webkit.
  • As a scrappy underdog, Apple starts a bunch of small PR wars to show that its browser is more standards-compliant and runs javascript faster than its peers.
  • Owing to bugginess, neglect, and all-round arrogance, gradually Microsoft loses a significant portion of market share to FireFox (and, on the Mac, Safari — which is at least as IE-compatible as the aging version of IE that runs on Macs). Google quietly funds FireFox via ad-revenue-sharing since it is in Google’s interest to break Microsoft’s strangehold on the web.
  • 2007 — Safari having slowly become more relevant to consumers as the best browser on the Mac (at least competitive with Firefox functionally and much faster and more power efficient than any competitor) is suddenly the only browser on the iPhone. Suddenly, making your stuff run on Safari matters.
  • 2008 — Google starts experimenting with making its own web browser. It looks around for the best open source web engine, rejects Gecko, and picks Webkit!
  • Flooded with ad revenue from Google, divorced from any sense of user accountability FireFox slowly becomes bloated and arrogant, developing an email client and new languages and mobile platforms rather than fixing or adding features to the only product it produces that anyone cares about. As Firefox grows bloated and Webkit improves, Google Chrome benefits as, essentially, Safari for Windows. (Especially since Apple’s official Safari for Windows is burdened with a faux-macOS-“metal”, UI and users are tricked into installing it with QuickTime.) When Google decides to turn Android from a Sidekick clone into an iPhone clone, it uses its Safari clone as the standard browser. When Android becomes a success, suddenly Webkit compatibility matters a whole lot more.
  • 2013 — Google is frustrated by Apple’s focus on end-users (versus developers). E.g. is the increase in size and power consumption justified by some kind of end-user benefit? If “no” then Apple simply won’t implement it. Since Google is trying to become the new Microsoft (“developers, developers, developers”) it forks Webkit so it can stop caring about users and just add features developers think they want at an insane pace. It also decides to completely undermine the decades-old conventions of software numbering and make new major releases at an insane pace.
  • Developers LOOOOVE Chrome (for the same reason they loved IE). It lets them reach lots of devices, it has lots of nooks and crannies, it provides functionality that lets developers outsource wasteful tasks to clients, if they whine about some bleeding edge feature Google will add it, whether or not it makes sense for anyone. Also it randomly changes APIs and adds bugs fast enough that you can earn a living by memorizing trivia (like the good old days of AUTOEXEC.BAT) allowing a whole new generation of mediocrities to find gainful employment. Chrome also overtakes Firefox as having the best debug tools (in large part because Firefox engages in a two year masturbatory rewrite of all its debugging tools which succeeds mainly in confusing developers and driving them away).
  • 2018 — Microsoft, having seen itself slide from utter domination (IE6) to laughingstock (IE11/Edge), does the thing-that-has-been-obvious-for-five-years and decides to embrace and extend Google’s Webkit fork (aptly named “Blink”).

Node-Webkit Development

I’m in the process of porting RiddleMeThis from Realbasic (er Xojo) to Node-Webkit (henceforth nw). The latest version of nw allows full menu customization, which means you can produce pretty decently behaved applications with it, and they have the advantage of launching almost instantly and being able to run the same codebase everywhere (including online and, using something like PhoneGap, on mobile). It has the potential to be cross-platform nirvana.

Now, there are IDEs for nw, but I’m not a big fan of IDEs in general, and I doubt that I’m going to be converted to them any time soon. In the meantime, I’ve been able to knock together applications using handwritten everything pretty damn fast (as fast as with Realbasic, for example, albeit with many of the usual UI issues of web applications).

Here’s my magic sauce — a single shell script that I simply put in a project directory and double-click to perform a build:

DIR="$( cd "$( dirname "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" )" && pwd )"
echo "$DIR"
cd "$DIR"
pwd
zip app.nw *.html package.json *.png *.js *.css *.map
mv app.nw ../node-webkit.app/Contents/Resources/
cp nw.icns ../node-webkit.app/Contents/Resources/
cp info.plist ../node-webkit.app/Contents/
open ../node-webkit.app

What this shell script does is set the working directory to the project directory, zip together the source files and name the archive app.nw, and then move that, the icon, and the (modified) info.plist into the right place (assuming the node-webkit app is in the parent directory), and launch it. This basically takes maybe 2s before my app is running in front of me.

info.plist is simply copied from the basic nw app, and modified so that the application name and version are what I want to appear in the about box and menubar.

This is how I make sure the standard menus are present (on Mac builds):

var gui = require('nw.gui'),
    menubar = new gui.Menu({ type: 'menubar' });
if(process.platform === 'darwin'){
    menubar.createMacBuiltin(appName);
}
gui.Window.get().menu = menubar;

And finally, to enable easy debugging:

if(dev){
    var debugItem = new gui.MenuItem({ label: 'Dev' }),
        debugMenu = new gui.Menu(),
        menuItem;
    debugItem.submenu = debugMenu;
    menubar.append(debugItem);
    menuItem = new gui.MenuItem({ label: "Open Debugger" });
    debugMenu.append(menuItem);
    menuItem.click = function(){
        gui.Window.get().showDevTools();
    }
}

So with a few code snippets you get a Mac menubar (where appropriate), a Dev menu (if dev is truthy) and a single double-click to package and build your application in the blink of an eye. You can build your application with whatever Javascript / HTML / CSS combination suits you best.

Obviously, you don’t get a real “native” UI (but the next best thing is a web UI, since people expect to deal with web applications on every platform), and this isn’t going to be a great way to deliver performant applications that do heavy lifting (e.g. image processing), but it’s very easy to orchestrate command-line tools, and of course the chrome engine offers a ridiculous amount of functionality out of the box.

I should mention that Xojo is actually quite capable of producing decent Cocoa applications these days. (It sure took a while.) But its performance is nowhere near nw in practical terms. For example, C3D Buddy is able to load thousands of PNGs in the blink of an eye; the equivalent Xojo application is torpid. Now if I were doing heavy lifting with Javascript, perhaps it would tilt Xojo’s way, but it’s hard to think of just how heavy the lifting would need to get.

iDraw Review

iDraw showing texture map

A while back I reviewed Artboard — an inexpensive Illustrator-replacement-wannabe — fairly positively. I then discovered a bunch of limitations and bugs, and tried iDraw. (Note this is a review of the Mac version of iDraw. I haven’t tried the iPad version yet.)

Having used iDraw quite extensively for the last few months I can only say that, for my uses, iDraw pretty much kicks not only Artboard’s butt, it kicks Illustrator’s as well (until you get to Photoshop integration). The only application that holds a candle to it is Sketch (another excellent program I need to review).

The most challenging thing I’ve been doing with iDraw is texturing a 3d character. Normally I would do something like this in Photoshop or some other dedicated bitmap graphics program, but I wanted a simple, clean look, and ended up trying a wide variety of programs including Photoshop, Acorn, Pixelmator, Mischief, and Artboard — before settling on iDraw. For the kinds of things I was trying to do, iDraw was simply head-and-shoulders above the rest. Color me very impressed.

Now if only iDraw could include Sketch’s ability to set named export areas with specific objects included or excluded from export it would be awesome. But as it is, Sketch and Artboard can talk to each other via SVG so it’s no big deal.

(If you’re looking for a replacement for Fireworks, Sketch isn’t exactly that — but as a tool for creating pixel-perfect vector art, it’s probably better.)

Solid Drawing Tools

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 10.18.32 PM

iDraw’s drawing tools are solid and well-implemented (better than most — note the compound path support), with good snapping (both to grids and other objects). Indeed, unlike Sketch (which I also like a great deal) iDraw’s snapping works correctly when dragging multiple objects (no need to great groups just to make snapping work).

Powerful Styling

iDraw's style interface

Like any useful bezier drawing application, iDraw supports booleans. Unlike most of its rivals, iDraw provides an incredibly powerful and flexible set of tools for styling shapes. Again, Sketch comes close to iDraw in this regard, but iDraw lets you explicitly reorder the different effects whereas Sketch (as far as I can tell) does not.

Artboard's mystifying style palette
Artboard’s mystifying style palette

iDraw’s styling UI is not only better than Artboard’s (or Illustrator’s or Sketch’s for that matter), it has most of the precision controls you need — e.g. you can control whether a stroke runs inside, outside, or centered on a path — although you don’t have Sketch’s or Illustrator’s fine control over corners and caps. In comparison, Artboard’s styling controls are crude and in many cases simply mystifying.

 

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 8.43.19 AM

 

Here’s some detail from the texture map I was working on. Note there’s all kinds of subtle layered effects on the different components of the pupil.

Sketch pupil detail imported

 

Here’s the same pupil exported from iDraw as SVG and then imported into Sketch. (No, it didn’t get turned into a bitmap en route!)

Artboard imported pupil detail

 

And here’s the same pupil imported into Artboard. Also note the horribly rendered bezier handles on the selected object. Not a functional problem (they work just fine) but ugly.

Workflow

Clearly, iDraw can export SVGs that other programs can read, which is a great start. (Artboard can export to PDF but not, as far as I can tell, SVG, which is a huge black mark.)

iDraw's export dialogiDraw can in fact export to pretty much any file format you’d want (no EPS! — how times have changed) but it doesn’t have the export workflow niceties of Sketch (which lets you create named export regions and if necessary specify exactly which objects get rendered within each region, and then allows every region to be exported with one click).

Shortcomings

Probably the single biggest failing of iDraw is its weak typography. If you’re looking for  any typographic tools beyond pair kerning, look elsewhere. It is possible to get good type out of iDraw but it has a weird bug in the default style of text where text by default seems to have text, fill, and stroke styles (and looks awful). If you turn off everything except the fill style it looks fine. But there’s no real ability to deal with body type conveniently (or tables), so if you need to do anything more than a logo, you probably need a different program.

Unlike Artboard, iDraw allows you to use CMYK colors. If you’re working in print, you’ll still probably want Illustrator, but unlike Artboard or Sketch, it’s at least usable.

Aside from these two items, I’d like to see some more control over strokes (corners and caps), and there are a few fit and finish problems (e.g. the way styles are rendered in the style palette is a bit wonky, especially for text styles).

Conclusion

Overall, iDraw is my favorite vector drawing program right now, although for drawing UI components I’d give the edge to Sketch, which deserves its own review. There are some other programs I haven’t mentioned, such as Lineform, ZeusDraw, and Intaglio. These are all not bad — probably better than Artboard — but I prefer iDraw to all of them, and at $24.95 (in the App Store) I believe it’s cheaper than any of them.