Back in the late 80s, I saw some wallpapers having numerous colorful glass spheres and their multiple
reflections shown with good depth of field. The lighting in the picture was unusually bright and clear,
so my first impression was that the wallpaper was likely the result of a skillfully retouched photograph.
Having some experience in flash photography, I decided to do some close-up work trying to guess the lens aperture and f-stop
settings to see if I could reproduce the image with my Nikon 85-mm portrait lens.
Further inspections directed my attention
to some obvious unnatural details of many of the shadows in the picture. The Internet was not available at the time so after
a few days searching through various news groups and bulletin boards, I discovered a freeware tool called pov-ray (Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer)
which was the source of these
many wallpaper images with glass spheres and reflections.
Ray-tracing algorithms were not new even then. But pov-ray managed to bring this three-dimensional rendering technique to the
masses at almost no cost. And it could make decent pictures even on painfully slow Intel 386 dinosaurs.
If I remembered correctly, a small picture of VGA resolution (640 x 480) having a reasonable number of lighting effects
took a few hours even for a 33-MHz speed demon of the 80s. Besides the popular glass spheres, there were not a whole lot of
samples or interesting scenes, probably due to the lack of three- dimensional objects and the depressing performance issue of
this image rendering technique.
I soon quickly grew tired of waiting for hours, even days, for a typical rendering with ray tracing.
More than twenty years later, fate has brought ray-tracing back into my line of work. I needed to produce several menus for
a wedding DVD. The client couple wanted their first names on the menu. They wanted something simple but elegant. In their own
words, a design which is consistent but looks different, custom, and varied, sort of creating a different mood from one menu
I have been thinking about using Photoshop to generate the text with various subtle drop shadow effects. After revisiting many
text effect samples from the net, I quickly came to the conclusion which I already knew that there can be no substitute for
a true three-dimensional renderer. The lighting looks unnatural, the shadow looks fake, and of course, there is no easy way to
correctly simulate the perspective projection effect that our eyes perceive.
Well, maybe it is time to revisit the possibilities offered by 3D software. Since my client wants something elegant, why not
creating a different mood for each menu page with their names in true three dimensions. Nothing can create moods better than
the use of soft colors with subtle hues. I thought about the real world phenomenon where a white table cloth in the vicinity
of red roses gives a subtle reddish hue. This effect is very perceptive to the human eye and helps create moods and a sense
In computer graphics, there are various techniques to create this subtle effect, commonly known as radiosity. In just a few
clicks, the Yahoo search engine points me back to my good old day's toy again, pov-ray.
All I can say from this point on is wow! Reality reminds me that everything has changed. We now have the Internet with processors
around 4 GHz, hundreds of times more powerful than 33-MHz 386s. And so are the features of pov-ray after these long years.
More ray-tracing options, more scripting control, better performance and even radiosity. I should realize that a typical picture
which used to take hours to render should finish in seconds on computers having gigabytes of memory.
Radiosity can produce very realistic lighting for diffuse surfaces. It is still very slow but quite tolerable if you are not
in a hurry. The current pov-ray version 3.6 is still free and quite straightforward to install on my Linux server. Its manual
is complete, huge, a bit technical, and probably incomprehensible to most of us who have no prior knowledge of three-dimensional
graphics and vector algebra.
The following image is a Photoshop composite. The text is rendered with pov-ray using ray-tracing and radiosity. Notice the
subtle hue present in the shadow cast by the table cloth color. The rose comes from a real image. You can reproduce the
rendering of the text from this page
More variations with different background colors and textures.
I thought that this 3D tool can add dramatic impact to your web pages and other presentations not just for DVD menus,
especially in the design of 3D logo involving text.
If you are a web designer without 3D experience, it can be a very
new lethal weapon in your web design arsenal. You can experiment with different settings on this page
. Your image can be generated in just a few easy steps without having to mess with
the expense and complexities associated with installing and learning 3D graphics software.
One thing that really caught me by surprise is that my AMD Athlon 1.5-GHz is actually faster than an Intel 3-GHz Pentium 4
running this application using the same version of Fedora Core.
To make the whole story short, my clients have been very happy with the design and so have I.
Happy discovering ray-tracing and radiosity.