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Adobe Project Felix aims to ease 3D compositing for designers

The company's latest spinoff application uses automation to reduce some of the headaches of creating photorealistic mockups.

Editors' note, November 7, 2016: Corrected an error stating that Felix can't import models and materials; it can.

Adobe has a new trend of showing off "project" applications shortly before launching a basic-featured product -- think of Fall 2015's Project Comet, which became Adobe XD in Spring 2016. This time it's Project Felix, targeting designers who need to mock up realistic scenes by combining 2D and 3D elements, but with far less of the hassle required in Photoshop and Illustrator.

Felix lets you build a scene by adding 3D objects, assign materials and lighting and insert images and then render it out with a high-quality renderer.

But the secret sauce here is automation, the latest to emerge from Adobe's long-running work with machine-learning technology; that's what powers the content-aware features in Photoshop, for example. Every large tech company is dancing with AI, and at Adobe Max 2016 the company announced it's rolling out the technology as a service layer across its cloud platform, newly branded as Adobe Sensei.

In the case of Felix, for instance, it can analyze a background image for a horizon and automatically place objects on it correctly, or duplicate the lighting position to cast properly-oriented shadows. There's also a real-time thumbnail preview of the final rendered output.

Initially, it will integrate with just Photoshop and Illustrator (it can render out a layered PSD file). And Adobe's added 3D models, materials and lights for use with 3D to its Stock service. Currently, it can import OBJ-format models and MTL-format materials.

Felix's interface looks similar to lots of traditional 3D applications. The magic wand tries to intelligently select subsets of the predefined selection areas for fine-tuning materials.

Adobe

One downside is the interface looks as if it retains too many aspects of what makes traditional 3D difficult. (Seriously, when will terms used in material editing such as "normal map," "index of refraction" and "fog bias" disappear from the vocabulary of applications like this? And that's just from a single panel.) It opens to a naked perspective grid and presents materials as the ubiquitous spheres.

The interface looks especially tired when compared to the metaphor Microsoft uses for combining and manipulating 2D and 3D in its newly announced Paint 3D. That application has a much different audience than Felix -- creation for fun, not profit -- but it takes an interesting direction. The reason for Adobe's approach is minimizing the the time it takes for its existing users to get up and running. Certainly valid, but I also think it's probably shortsighted.

Felix is scheduled to turn into a real boy, with a real name and beta release on both Mac and Windows 10, by the end of the year.