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T-Splines Review: Plugging into Maya for Better Results

Ryan Lesser reviews the newest tools available in Autodesks 3ds Max, including pelt mapping, render UVW template functionality, skinning, modeling and animation.

T-Splines takes the wish lists of many modelers into account by creating a method of modeling with the precision of NURBS, adding much more speed and freedom, all wrapped up in a neat Maya plug-in.

T-Splines is a new modeling plug-in for that allows users to go beyond basic NURBS modeling. Taking the wish lists of many modelers into account, T-Splines LLC (yep, they like their product so much they named the company after it) has created a method of modeling with the precision of NURBS while adding much more speed and freedom. T-Splines models are seamless, meaning that portions of a low-resolution model can be high detail, with no gaps in between. In addition to the speed gained by using T-Splines, users may convert to and from NURBS models without any loss of detail, as well as convert reasonably well to polygons. One of the main benefits is increased render speeds. NURBS models can be more than halved when converted to a T-Splines model. The rest of Maya's workflow remains the same, including mapping, rigging and animation. This may all seem like magic, but truth is, the plug-in works as promised. As with most first-generation software, one or two elements will surely benefit from the improvements in future updates.

Getting T-Splines set up takes a bit of grunt work, but nothing an average user can't handle. After installing the plug-in, you've got to manually create a shelf and T-Splines menu in Maya. This would be much more gracefully handled within the installer. That's a small gripe, though. Once installed, you'll find a T-Splines menu and a shelf containing just about everything you'll need to access when creating T-Splines models. If you've done any NURBS modeling in Maya, you'll be able to pick up T-Splines quickly, most likely with just a few clicks on the shelf.

Users can choose to create T-Splines model primitives or convert existing geometry to T-Splines models. If you go for the direct T-Splines method, you can change options through your NURBS settings. This is not entirely intuitive, as T-Splines is presented as a separate modeling method when really it is a modifier on top of an existing model. This confusion aside, once you get going, the process rolls smoothly.

T-Splines allows users to insert points without creating unnecessary, unwanted geometry. The overall shape is initially unchanged, but the additional points allow great flexibility in sculpting new shapes. All images courtesy of Fred Galpern.

There are many different aspects to the overall plug-in. One of the first things likely to catch your attention is how T-Splines offers the ability to insert a point without creating unnecessary, unwanted geometry. This is done by first selecting a series of edges and then clicking the insert point button. It sounds simple and it is. This tool functioned as expected each time I added additional points, with no surprises.

T-Splines also introduces its own new flavor of geometry called T-Junctions. These are spots in the model where a point touches three faces but is only considered a point by two of those faces. This is in many ways something modelers have been dreaming of for years. It means your mesh can contain varied levels of resolution yet still be continuous. Another treat is that you can use T-Junctions to join dissimilar portions of a model together seamlessly. As with any tool that offers such a treat, users will need to be cautious and realize it cannot do the impossible. However, common tasks such as joining appendages to torsos will be handled quite elegantly.

In addition to T-Junctions, T-Splines also uses a new kind of point, the somewhat awkwardly named extraordinary points. T-Splines considers any point with more than four edges connected to be an extraordinary point. When modeling with T-Splines, users need to be aware of where they create these extraordinary points, as they will sometimes adversely affect T-Junctions. This limitation is easily worked around and, in fact, can be an aid in creating quality models. In other words, it can serve as a reminder to clean up your geometry, something that certainly doesn't hurt when you're trying to stick to tight graphics budgets. If you're careful, though, the model doesn't suffer and you gain the ability to create complexity only in selected portions of the overall model.

T-Junctions are spots in the model where a point touches three faces, allowing more modeling freedom. Modelers have been dreaming of something like this for years.

Adding creases to models is an excellent way to introduce organic elements such as wrinkles in a face. The crease command in T-Splines is perfectly tailored to this common task. Creases are created by selecting edges and then hitting the make crease button. The result is two additional edges, one on either side of the originally selected edge. These new edges are connected to the original via a T shape at the ends of each original edge. This creates some extra geometry, which isn't always ideal, requiring the user to do too much clean up as they model. I'd like to see T-Splines improve this function by offering a weld vertices option at the time of crease creation. An alternative use for creases is creating extrusions. You can select the four edges of a polygon and create a smooth extrusion. This same process can also be tweaked to create a rim around the edge of objects. This is achieved by changing the sharpness amount; the one and only option users are presented with when creating creases. If T-Splines is able to beef up the crease functionality with some additional options, they'll have a powerful tool. As it is, the crease tool is not as refined as similar tools available in other modern 3D modeling apps.

T-Splines is as smart about how it deletes portions of an object as it is about creating new points, edges and faces. When deleting edges, users will need to select pairs of edges. However, this doesn't mean that all pairs are deletable. Often edge pairs cannot be deleted because they share critical points with other edges or with T-Junctions. To aid in finding the edges that can be deleted, users can use the right-click contextual menu option to select deletable edges. This is great, intuitive functionality and would be a welcome addition if repeated as a method for finding deletable points. Faces may also be deleted, although the result is not always as expected. In order to maintain the integrity of the mesh, T-Splines will often leave a ring of faces around the hole created by deleting a face. Again, this is an area I'd like to see some options. Why not allow the user to determine whether or not to maintain the surrounding shape within a given threshold?

Getting T-Splines set up takes a bit of grunt work, but nothing an average user cant handle. Once installed, youll find a T-Splines menu and a shelf containing just about everything youll need to access when creating T-Splines model

Overall, T-Splines is a great addition to the Maya toolset. The developers have followed through on their promise to offer a tool that speeds up the creation and rendering of complex 3D objects, while improving the often difficult areas of modeling; namely, merging surfaces and adding detail to complex surfaces. However, it's important to note that this release is clearly a first iteration of a product. I have every confidence that the folks at T-Splines will continue to improve with subsequent versions. They would do well to spend some time getting to know the modeling methods used in LightWave 3D and modo, as well as some of the improvements to tools in 3ds Max, such as Edit Poly. For Maya users, T-splines is a great, flexible modeling solution that is likely to get better and better with each upgrade.

A downloadable free trial version of T-Splines is available now on the T-Splines website. The learning edition has no expiration date. Instead, the full version is not compatible with saves from the trial version. Right now, they are also offering introductory pricing for both the fully licensed download only version at $791 and a slightly more expensive price of $799 for an identical boxed and shipped copy of the software. Regular prices are $991 and $999, respectively, although there is no word on how long the introductory prices will remain in effect. Educational pricing is also available to students and schools. Single educational copies sell for $199 and packs of five sell for $799. The only differences between the educational and full version is that educational copies are available via download only and they are renewable single-year licenses.

Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a part-time Maya instructor at Northeastern University. Since entering the digital art field more than ten years ago, Galpern has held management positions at several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career as a comicbook creator and also has professional graphic design experience.