Ever dreamed of strange alien worlds, where impossibly vivid sunsets give way to amazing triple moon-rises? Or perhaps you want to go back in time to when the green fields of England were wooded slopes with no trace of humans? How about showing the impact of a proposed housing development, fading from “before” to “after”? World Construction Set can help you do all this and more. I’ve been using WCS v4 for several months now as part of my PhD in landscape visualisation, and if I had to sum it up in one word, I would choose “comprehensive”. To the newbie, it seems as if there’s a button, switch or parameter for every concievable aspect of the visual world. Each editor window you bring up leads to yet more options, and it feels a bit like being dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship. At first you’re not quite sure whether the next thing you do will make no discernible difference or send the whole thing off course. However, v4's manual weighed in at some 600 pages, including a huge set of tutorials, and on-line help is available for every window in the program at the press of a button, making the program reasonably easy to get to grips with. In addition, the company offer help via personal email and an egroups list (see below), both of which are very useful. You're certainly not left to flounder. If you can afford it, there are residential training courses 2 or 3 times a year, but running at some $1600 (excluding travel to Denver, Colorado) for a few days, you'd have to be a pretty serious user to justify it. I haven't used many other 3D visualisation programs, but from comments from other users on the mailing list, WCS is the bee's knees. You can control the appearance of the ground, the sunlight, and practically everything in between. When it comes to the look of the land, it's not a case of picking from preset choices - you can literally set things to appear how
ever you like, right down to the ability to incorporate your own vegetation images and 3D models. But you don't have to know everything straight away - starting from default values, you can set up the bare minimum (e.g. assign colours) at first, and then work up to more complex settings (such as textures and vegetation grouping) as you wish. Water and skies are just as easily modified, and can be animated if desired, as indeed can most parameters. In a review like this, I really can't begin to describe the complexity available in this program. The results of such attention to detail are simply breathtaking. Images produced in WCS (although not by me - yet!) are the closest to photorealistic I have seen. The quality of skies and reflections in water are amazing, and the use of photo-derived images for vegetation add immensely to the realism. Perhaps the best adverts for this program are found in the gallery section of 3Dnature's website - there are many images showing a variety of uses, from film backgrounds (Cider House Rules) to visualisations of land restoration projects. They certainly give new users something to aspire to. One of WCS's strengths is its ability to import data from Geographical Information Systems. Widely used in local government, planning, research and many other fields, GIS data allows WCS to model the real world - users can then apply modifications either in the GIS or in WCS itself in order to visualise changes to the environment such as forest clearing or new buildings. Great attention has been paid to making sure that GIS data can be imported smoothly from as many formats as possible, and WCS is therefore a n immensely valuable tool for anyone involved in communicating environmental change. For users who don't have access to this kind of data, and are perhaps using it in a more "creative" way, WCS can generate random landscapes, over which the user can then digitise vectors to hold the various
landscape-modifying effects. The capabilities of the program mean that it can require some intensive processing. You will learn (as I am doing) to optimise your data and the way you use WCS to visualise it, so that you don't waste processing time and effort on aspects of the image that can't be seen. There are all kinds of discussions going on among users about the "ideal system" and best graphics card to use, and since there are no built-in limits to a project's complexity, it really does depend on the hardware you use. I have experienced crashes, corruptions and slow running, but I think these are due to me pushing my 350MHz/128Mb/crap graphics card system to its limits with a dataset that is a bit too big. I'm trying hard to get the system upgraded! Since I first used the program, v5 has come out, with major improvements to the way the program works, and includes a much more comprehensive on-line help system, but with no tutorials in the manual. There are, however, some available on-line - they're written by someone outside the company but excellent nonetheless. Comments on v5 have been very favourable, and it seems to have further reinforced WCS's position as the best tool for landscape visualisation. A major source of support as users have changed over to v5 has been the WCS mailing list, which can be found at egroups. To my mind, this is is a huge strength of WCS, as messages are read and responded to by 3Dnature staff as a matter of course, as well as many WCS users, both newbie and veteran, who use the program for work or pleasure (although given the price, there probably aren't many of the latter). The atmosphere is extremely friendly and supportive, and there is no such thing as a stupid question – I think everyone remembers only too well when *they* were new! Being on egroups, there is also a large archive of messages to browse before jumping in with your question. Support is given for
all versions of the program, although only the current version receives update patches, and suggestions for new features are taken very seriously - many of the new-to-v5 features arose from the users' "wish list". I should be receiving a copy of v5 in a few weeks, and will add to this review when I've had chance to explore the new features. But the concepts and capabilities mentioned above have, to my knowledge, been carried over to the new version, and the friendly, supportive ethos of the company remains unchanged.