Product Review: Vue xStream 8.5
"Vue 8 xStream operates as a fully integrated plug-in for 3ds Max, Maya, LightWave, Cinema 4D and Softimage. It adds all of Vue's dedicated environment creation tools to your application's interface. Using these tools, you can create complete, hyper-realistic 3D environments without leaving your favorite application."
Although there are other decent virtual landscape programs out there, E-on's Vue is now considered state of the art. Chances are that if you've seen some recent films, like Avatar or Terminator: Salvation, you've seen Vue at work. Video Games, TV commercials, nature/history programs, art projects - practically everything in computer graphics has been affected by Vue in some form or another. If you want to create amazing landscapes and backgrounds, what E-on calls "Digital Nature," then Vue is the program for you.
Setting Sun by Miska7
(made with Vue 8)
When the initial program that became Vue was conceived in 1992 as a college project, Nicholas Phelps (founder and President of E-on), had no idea that the program would become so complex and so important to the CG industry. After quitting his job, he worked on the program full-time, and after 5 years, he began "selling Vue as a commercial project." Initially called "Vue d'Esprit," it received overwhelming praise and support, especially for the "beauty of the vegetation" and the "realism of the images."
Originally intended for the amateur and semi-pro market (a bit like Poser in this respect), Phelps released a "pro" version of the software in 2003 with Vue 4 Professional, which became increasingly popular in the architecture, games, special fx, broadcast/advertising industries, while still continuing to grow the amateur market it started with. Now, in 2010, Vue has become an essential part of the workflow for many, many individuals and industries.
Vue xStream 8.5
As the Vue program began to take off, it began to develop into several different versions. The idea being that each of these versions would appeal to a different user group. Vue is now organized to appeal to three main groups: the professional, the artist, and the enthusiast. I had a chance to review the "Frontier" version of Vue (offered to the enthusiasts group) last year for renderosity.com, and was impressed even with a version of the program that was bare-bones compared to what is offered in the artist and professional groupings.
Now, I've had a chance to work with the latest high-end version of Vue xStream 8.5, which is offered to industry professionals. Essentially, the xStream version acts as a plug-in to a major package like Maya, 3ds Max, CINEMA 4D, Lightwave and Softimage. The plug-in has all of the capabilities of Vue Infinite 8.5 (the stand-alone professional program), but now you have the ability to work with Vue directly inside your CG package of choice. I'll be reviewing the Vue xStream 8.5 version that works with the most recent version of Autodesk's 3ds Max 2011.
The "xStream" line of Vue products has been in existence since 2006 with the release of Vue 5, which was originally designed to work with just Maya and 3ds Max. And although the program was well received, it seemed to need time to grow and mature. With Vue xStream 8.5, there is no doubt that the program has arrived at it's peak.
Vue xStream 8.5 Interface within 3ds Max 2011
(For a complete list of everything that's new in the 8.5 version look here.)
There are so many improvements and updates to this version 8.5, that this entire review could consist of just listing them (and there still wouldn't be enough room). Suffice to say, the engineers at E-on have done a superb job in growing Vue, especially in this xStream version. Remember, all of the functionality of Vue Infinite 8.5 is included with xStream 8.5. The only difference is that you have to work with the program inside of another one like Maya, or in my case, 3ds Max 2011.
Drop down menu for Vue xStream in 3ds Max 2011
Working with Vue xStream 8.5
Installation of xStream 8.5 was easy and straightforward. After validating my copy of the program, Vue shows up as another button at the top of the 3ds Max screen, with a drop-down menu. I was curious as to how much independence Vue would have inside of 3ds Max. But, I soon had my answer as I was able to add vegetation around objects created inside of Max with ease. Painting an eco-system inside of Max is so, so helpful. And while Vue uses "instances" of landscape objects in order to render them, which means you can't really duplicate an instanced object inside of Max, it's a snap if you just use Vue to do this.
The workflow takes a bit of getting used to; switching back and forth from Vue to Max, that is. It's not difficult, just changes your rhythm a bit. Something that a couple weeks of practice would even out. Rendering is a bit tricky, too, as you have to work at both renderers (Max Mental Ray and the Vue render engine) to get the best quality for your image/animations. Vue xStream 8.5 makes it petty simple for you to turn off elements of the Vue renderer if you need to. Plus, the Vue renderer is completely compatible with Mental Ray's Photometric Lights, Sun&Sky and Distributed Bucket Rendering (among others). Moreover, render settings of the host application can be automatically adjusted to match Vue render settings, so that the render times are consistent in both.
Vue xStream 8.5 also matches the scene scale in the host application (plus allowing you to change it if you like). Vue lights and Max lights can be adjusted independently using 3 different methods: automatic, ignore light in Vue, and manual (which allows for separate manipulation of light quality in both programs).
I wasn't able to try all of the various render combinations for both Max and Vue, but everything I tried worked just fine. And the rendering speed is very good. I have a medium-to-high PC using a quad-core, and I was able to do simple renders very quickly. More complex scenes obviously took a bit more time, but not as much as you might expect.
And after working with the program, it became apparent to me that Vue xStream really isn't a plug-in in any traditional sense. It's more the case that both programs work in tandem with each other, and you move back and forth from each complete program. This is something that I think E-on is still in the process of refining and polishing, although this version of the program is at a very high level.
Documentation and Support
E-on has done a remarkable job of supporting the various versions of Vue. Not only do they provide a 600+ page manual inside of the "help"section of xStream (can also be copied as a pdf and used independently), but there are numerous sample scenes, animations and tutorials on every aspect of the program, accessible from directly within the program. I especially like the "Elaborate Feature Tutorials," which focus intensely on subjects like "Boolean Objects", "Underwater Scenery" and "Distant Planets." There are also effective tutorials on "Building a Complete Scene," with a variety of examples and many animation tutorials. I wish I had more time to work with the animation as it looks very interesting indeed. Integration with host software like Max is very well covered, too.
Vue xStream 8.5 provides several scenes and tutorials from within the program
The writing in this reference manual is clear and informative, without being overly dry and pedantic. It's actually fun going through these tutorials. And I'm delighted to report that you can purchase the manual in book form at the E-on site, and the price is right around what you'd pay for a similar book ($49.95). Also, E-on has very smartly developed a support site called Cornucopia3d, which is actually a combination store for buying various modules, 3D models and materials for the Vue product line, but also a very rich source of training videos (both free and to purchase) along with a highly active forum.
E-on has also set up a series of authorized training centers, where high-level instruction for the Vue professional line of products (xStream and Vue Infinite) are available.
The Vue community on the net is rich and varied. Google searches list dozens of excellent sites with many free Vue tutorials. And the level of help runs the gamut from newbie all the way to high-end pros helping at a variety of sites. When you start using Vue, all you have to do is look for support and it's there.
Our very own Renderosity.com Vue Forum, moderated by thebryster, is one of the best forums on the site. There are bi-monthly contests, tutorials and lots of excellent help. The quality of posting in the forum is excellent, too. Highly recommended.
How Vue xStream adds an environment to your 3ds Max scene
"We intend to stay focused on our comfortable little niche of digital nature. It's what we're passionate about and it's something we believe has a terrific potential for growth as a fundamental CG element across a wide variety of markets"
-Nicholas Phelps, 3DArtist, No. 15
It's very difficult to cover all of what makes Vue xStream 8.5 such an incredible program. The beauty of the program's design is that it grows with you as you use it. Simply laying out a textured ground, adding clouds and setting up the sun can involve you for hours and hours. And Vue just doesn't stop. If you imagine you can do something, with enough time and research, you can do it. No wonder so many professional studios use this program. There's simply nothing like it on the market.
The xStream version, in particular, is really built for high-level professional work, aligned with programs like 3ds Max, Softimage and Maya. In my own experience, I found it a simple process to build/import and then use Vue to create the world around my designs. But, I'm really just scratching the surface here.
E-on does still have some room for growth with the Vue xStream program. Even as good as the 8.5 version is, there is still the problem of not having Max content display in the Vue xStream Terrain Editor. Also, there are a very small amount of bugs that need to be fixed (highly technical), but none cropped up while I was using Vue. And the shared rendering with 3ds Max and Vue xStream 8.5 still needs to be polished a bit. E-on is such a strong, focused company, I have no doubt they'll make the adjustments and push the boundaries of the program even further.
I cannot recommend Vue xStream 8.5 (and it's brother program Vue Infinite 8.5) any higher. The improvements in rendering, materials, lighting and interaction with objects are superb. And, in the many hours of using xStream 8.5 inside of 3ds Max 2011, I had zero crashes. The program is solid, stable and ready to respond to your "digital nature." I'm so looking forward to working in depth with the program as my learning continues.
E-on's Vue xStream 8.5 (along with Vue Infinitie 8.5) is designed primarily for professionals. The full purchase price of xStream 8.5 is $1495, with an upgrade costing $495. Vue Infinite 8.5 is priced at $895, with the upgrade costing $295. E-on offers a variety of "Maintenance Plans" for registered users. The "Standard Plan" costs per year/license $395 for xStream and $295 for Vue Infinite. This plan offers free upgrades during the subscription period, plus priority support and access to a private forum. A "Premium Plan" is available for $995 per year/license and has an amazing amount of benefits. Too many to list here. Both plans are worth a look as they are useful and well constructed programs that could save you money in the long run.
While Vue's xStream and Infinite versions are the company's flagship programs, there are several other versions of the program that you should look into if you can't afford the high-end version. Vue 8 Complete, Studio and Esprit versions are all balanced so that they appeal primarily to artists. E-on has created a variety of "Modules" that add specific functionality. You can pick a version you like, then build on that version by adding the modules that interest you.
Hardware requirements for Vue xStream 8.5 can be viewed here. I tested the program on a quad core PC with 6Gb of RAM and a high-end Graphics card, while working with the 64-bit version of the program inside of Windows 7. I have the great pleasure of reporting that Vue xStream (and Infinite) is also available for the Mac.
And on a final note, E-on has released a "Personal Learning Edition" of Vue xStream 8.5 and Vue Infinite 8.5 which is a fully-functioning version of each program with some limitations. Best of all, the PLE will never expire. It's well worth your time to examine.
My sincere thanks to E-on, and to Matt Riveccie in particular, for making a copy of Vue xStream 8.5 available and for being so helpful.
Please note that E-on's history, along with some quotes, were taken from the 3DArtist (No. 15) magazine article "Inside E-on Software," which was written by David Crookes.
Be sure to also visit:
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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