April 8, 2005

instinctive-blender: A tasty 3D fork

Author: Alexander Ewering

You may be familiar with Blender 3D, the open source modeling, animation, rendering,
and post-production package from the Blender Foundation. If you have used Blender for longer than a few weeks and miss some aspects of the old pre-2.3 user interface, or if you are looking for some interesting features to improve your 3D experience, you should get to know instinctive-blender, a fork created by the small German company instinctive mediaworks.

The degree of efficiency of Blender's user interface decreased markedly with the UI overhaul in
Blender 2.30 in 2003. instinctive-blender's main purpose is to bring some of the efficiency of the old interface back. Look at the two screenshots (further down in the story) of a typical session to compare:

instinctive-blender drops the concept of panels, and instead uses a simple buttons window. To accommodate all the new buttons for the new functionality since 2.3, the tabs have been replaced with switchable contexts, which users can choose by clicking on the names in the upper part of the buttons window. While this is a slightly hackish solution, it wastes less space and is less visually cluttered than official Blender's tabs approach.

instinctive-blender's 3D window headers provide more information in less space than Blender itself. What is hidden in drop-down menus in official Blender is directly accessible in the header here and accessible with a single click. instinctive-blender removes slightly unintuitive grouping of
context switching buttons in the buttons window header and restores the original 2.2x header with all buttons available at once. And the OB: field, for changing the current object's name, is again available directly in the buttonswindow header, and not hidden in some sub-context.

NaN, the company that originally made Blender, followed the practice of keeping its user interface elements from overlapping. That was part of the reason for the great degree of efficiency in Blender's user interface. Blender 2.3 broke that policy with the introduction of floating panels for NKEY, View Properties, and others. Users found themselves moving around the floating panel all the time trying to keep it from obstructing the view of something important.

Blender UI - Click to enlarge instinctive-Blender UI - Click to enlarge

While the fix instinctive-blender brings is, again, slightly hackish, it is probably an
improvement for most situations. The floating panels have been recoded into secondary 3D view
headers, as you can see in the above screenshots of the View Properties panel/header.

Also among its interface improvements, instinctive-blender optimizes the use of space in the various buttons windows so that more information fits in less space. In the example screenshot, instinctive-blender fits five former tabs into the window; official Blender only provides room for four.

By the way, instinctive-blender is constantly kept in sync with the official Blender tree, meaning
that new Blender features automatically appear in instinctive-blender as well. instinctive-blender files open fine in official Blender versions, and vice versa.

Feature example: The Layer Manager

The UI changes are not the only difference. One of the most interesting new features of instinctive-blender is its Layer Manager, which lets you assign names to your layers, and provides a good overview of all of them. Best of all: If you are too lazy to name your layers, instinctive-blender will do it for you automatically, as long as you don't enter anything manually. Layer 2 in this screenshot is a layer that has been named automatically.

Click to enlarge

Wonder what the buttons next to each layer mean? From left to right:

  • Lasso: Select/deselect everything on this layer
  • Arrow: Move/add currently selected objects to this layer
  • Number: Toggle layer visibility
  • Lock: Lock this layer (objects become unselectable)
  • R: Always render this layer (regardless of on/off state). Useful for lamps, for example.
  • No All: Do not turn on this layer on TurnOnAllLayers (`) key command. Useful for keeping stuff hidden that you don't want to see.
  • LOD (Grid Icon): Only render objects in this layer if they are inside a certain distance range from the viewer/camera. Useful for level of detail.

Further features

Many of instinctive-blender's features have been ported to the official Blender tree in the past,
such as the original editmode undo, recursive environment mapping, automatic mesh edge bevelling, and
audio support for the sequencer and 3D editor. Yet there is still more in instinctive-blender to love, such as the integrated network rendering, which is significantly faster than any external hacks, as it does not need to restart Blender for each frame (no recalculating displists, particle systems, or envmaps). There's also object grouping, which enables you to select any number of objects and unite them into a group object that is fully animatable and behaves like a single object. And there's softbodies with collision detection, which can give quite funky results; you can find links to some demo animations at the bottom of this article.

Finally, instinctive-blender integrates the old, well-known zblur sequencer plug-in into the render pipeline, giving you depth of field (also known as focal blur) with real autofocus (using a point in the camera's field of view as depth reference automatically) at the click of a button.

Will I like it?

Despite its strong points, instinctive-blender isn't for everyone. If you are a new Blender user, you should probably stick to the official version, as it makes access to some functionality easier for newbies. But if you have used Blender for years and miss some of the efficiency of the previous UIs, you may be happy with the advanced features this fork has.

Additional resources

instinctive-blender currently has no real home page, but these links will help you get started:

The author is a freelance application programmer, graphics/Web designer,
music producer, and system administrator who runs the company
instinctive mediaworks. He started developing and adapting
instinctive-blender in 2002 for his own needs.

Click Here!