Wanting to add a little spice to a talk I have to give I decided I'd investigate Blender, the Python 3D rendering application. The idea was to see how easy it would be to create a modest 3D animation. Blender has a reputation for quirky interface so I was intrigued to see how quickly I could get started and expected something in the way of frustration.
I'll ignore download and installation as I'd done it some time ago, and I suspect it must have been easy because I don't remember any problems. I'd played with the program a couple of times and given up because its behaviour seemed so counter-intuitive, so this time I decided to work through Bart Veldhuien's Blender User Interface tutorial, two clicks away from the web page that came up from the Help menu ("can't be that counter-intuitive if I can find the tutorial," I thought).
I noticed that at the bottom of the page it said "This page does not have a maintainer. If you would like to help, please read 'Getting Involved'" and if you've already followed that link and it hasn't changed you will know that a charitable instinct is rewarded with the news that "We have received many offers for help lately and we need some time first to get everyone going." followed by an invitation to join up for the website editors list. Maybe later, I thought. For now I'm just going to critique each section of the tutorial as I work through it.
Introduction explains the motivation behind the creation of the document - apparently Bart was himself intimidated by Blender at first and took several weeks to to discover the basic princiles behind Blender's interface. Well, I'm certainly all in favour of saving several weeks, so I ploughed on.
What am I looking at? is a walk throught he empty blender scene, explaining that the stripe across the top of the window is called the info window. This has the 3D window underneath it with objects representing the standard plane (whatever that may be), the camera and the lamp with a 3D cursor. At the bottom is the buttons window, apparently used for changing scene characteristics. I read that each window has a header, and that the header of the 3D window is at the bottom. I'm not sure I need to know how to reposition these headers at this stage, but I learn that. I am told that the Icon slider button can be used to select a window type, and wonder why it isn't called the window type selector button. There's a lot of that kind of stuff going on.
Configuring the screen your way tells me how to change the size of the windows, and to split windows (thereby creating new ones) using the middle button (which, since I only have two buttons, I fortunately know how to emulate by chording the right and left buttons). I accidentally activate the "No Header" feature of one of my new windows, and in trying to put the header back I remove the header on the window next to it. This makes it difficult to use the information that the window having the focus is displayed with a lighter-coloured header. I manage to get the headers back, and use CTRL/up-arrow to "make the current window full screen" (which actually makes the current window occupy the whole of the Blender window - couldn't they have chosen another name for their "windows"?) and return the view to multi-window. So now I have four 3D windows described as "the traditional four-view window" (so are windows really views?), though unlike the illustration my 3D views are all showing pretty much the same thing.
The Toolbox - Adding a sphere explains that Blender functions can be accessed by either keyboard or mouse, and that the toolbox appears if I hit space or click on "the toolbar icon at the top right of the Blender screen" (so am I dealing with views inside windows or windows inside screens - I wish the terminology were more consistent here). Unfortunately there's no picture of the icon, and a three-minute hunt where I click on almost everything doesn't reveal it, so in the end I just hit the space key. I'll find that darned icon later. I discover that the space key only works when a 3D view or window has the focus. I am told to select Add, then Mesh from the menu that appears, then UVSphere from the final menu. I do this and then apparently move the mouse too far, because the resulting popup, which is supposed to allow me to select the number of segments in the sphere, disappears before I can use it. Now for some reason my toolbox "Add" item no longer shows "Mesh" as an option, the Mesh item appears in the toolbar but the shapes I can create are hanging off the "Add" item. Boldly ignoring this menu transmogrification I finally manage to insert a sphere into my 3D window, and it gratifyingly appears in all four views.
About Edit Mode explains that you can operate on an object as a whole, or on the individual vertices of an object. My newly-created shpere appears to have about four hundred closely-spaced vertices, and I wonder how to select just one or two of them. It mentions in passing that the G, R and S keys translate, rotate and scale respectively. I guess there must be some really important other operation that begins with T. Undaunted, I attempt to G, R and S my new sphere into something I can work with. I learn by experimentation that rotation is a two-phase operation where you first rotate in one plane and then in another. I realise that am wrong, and that rotation actually appears to be much more complicated than I had thought. My sphere is now at least large enough that there is space between the vertices. I fail to learn how to select individual vertices, but this may not be a bad thing.
Loading and saving your work optimistically begins "By now you have probablky created a Blender scene", which I suppose I have even though it only has a single sphere in it. It suggests I might like to save my work, or take a look at some of the files that come on the CD that comes with the book (which is annoying, because of course web pages don;t have attached CDs).
Loading a Blender File tells me how I can load up a new file. There isn't anything that I cna see to load, but it's obvious from the dialog that Blender's approach to opening files is just as quirky as everything else appears to be. I discover by accidentally selecting Quit that Blender isn't one of those applications that will warn you about unsaved work before quitting, and lose everything I've done so far. I restart Blender to see what I can remember. I see that Blender has forgotten about that nice four-pane view it took me so much trouble to create, and wonder whether that would have been saved with the file, had I realised that the next section is ...
Saving a Blender File which tells me, only a few minutes too late, that saving works pretty much like loading. I try to create the scene I had before, with rather limited success, but I do manage to create a scene and save it. Then I modify it and, in opening up the previous scene I learn that the cavalier attitude to current work is repeated when loading files. I curse Blender, and wonder when I will start to learn how to use it properly. I curse again because this is the end of the user interface tutorial.
Well, that was interesting. Fortunately there's a whole host of other material available, as indicated in the sidebar of the web tutorial I've just been working from, and some of it at least looks quite helpful. Having had to work with CAD programs in the past I'm well used to complex interfaces, and resigned to the fact that a certain complexity is inevitable. I have to question the wisdom of providing application-specific file load and save dialogs, however, when most GUI toolkits give the programmer ready access to the platform's standard dialogs.
It's definitely not helpful that there doesn't appear to be any standard terminology surrounding Blender (e.g. the tutorial describes the Info Window, but this is actually selected in the program's menus as User Preferences - how is this supposed to help?) and overall the beginner gets the impression of a professional-grade program with amateur documentation. The usual qualifications apply, of course. Since this is open source, nobody is forced to write manuals for the software, and anyone who's spent the time to find out how to use Blender would probably rather play with Blender than write documentation.
I am also surprised that Blender doesn't by default open up with a four-pane view of the scenes, since later experience shows that this makes manipulation of the objects in the scene much more precise and much less counter-intuitive. It's particularly galling that the four-pane (top/fron/side/camera) view of a scene isn't stored with the scene, so it had to be re-established each time.
Now of course it may be that these complaints are in fact invalid, and that it would be possible to make Blender behave in what I, at least, would find a more natural way. If this is the case, though, there is even more of a crying need for adequate documentation. So far I haven't even learned how to select objects in the scene, let alone use the many buttons in the buttons window. Overall I'd advise against picking up Blender if you're in a hurry to produce some impressive graphics for that important presentation. It will take time and patience to master this software, possibly more of each than I currently have.