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LightUp 1.3 review

Verdict:

Review Date: 24 Mar 2009

Price when reviewed: (about £106.50)

Reviewed By: Tim Danaher

Our Rating 5 stars out of 5

With its ability to produce near photo-real, navigable environments within SketchUp, LightUp 1.2 was an intriguing plug-in.

However, It didn't handle large models well and the lighting times could drag on, though the results were certainly worth it. Thankfully, this new release has addressed these issues, and crammed in much more in besides.

The application starts by 'baking' the rendered textures and shadows onto the surfaces of your model. This is a technique used in games engineering to produce a strikingly real look while keeping the game playable. It's done with an automated process called UV mapping. Simply set a few preferences, hit the Tour Tool button and your fully-lit model appears.

One of this plug-in's major improvements is speed. This version has been rewritten to use all the cores on your Mac. Models that previously took 40 minutes to light rendered in under five in our tests. The preliminary lighting tests can now be achieved in seconds. The option to use ambient occlusion can slow things down, but we achieved convincing interiors without it. The problem with more complex models is gone: LightUp 1.3 handled every model that we threw at it. Once lit, you can navigate your model in real-time - using an Nvidia GeForce 7300 we had no problems, although Macs with integrated graphics may struggle on complex models.

SketchUp's Scene Animation can now be exported with LightUp lighting, although the post-processing necessary to anti-alias the frames can take a while. Also new is still image export, again with full anti-aliasing. Materials have also been beefed up in this version: double-clicking on a surface in LightUp mode will bring up a dialog box that lets you set reflection, Fresnel and bump properties. The impressive part though, is that these properties update in real-time - there's no need to relight the model. And when you navigate the model, you'll notice that reflections are not static: they change according to your angle of view.

Real-time navigation through a SketchUp model with soft and translucent shadows, light spills, real-time reflections and a 'parallaxed' sky is something that has to be seen to be believed. Also, if your graphics card supports it, this will be anti-aliased.

There are other handy new features, such as the ability to see the Lux contours (light energy distribution) and a real-time light meter that gives the Lux reading for any point in the model. However, the most intriguing new feature is the ability to export a fully-lit model with all textures intact as an FBX, so that it can be taken into other programs. Some 3D apps have problems with LightUp's multiple UV sets, although others, such as the game design program Unity, have no problems.

For such a small upgrade, in numerical terms, this release is a tour de force.

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