2005 is here, and this will be the year Macromedia releases the next version of Flash – Flash MX 2005 (codenamed ‘8ball’) – and the new Flash Player – Flash 8 (codenamed ‘Maelstrom’).
As has been largely covered by the blogging media, 8ball/Flash 8 will have some cool new features aimed at making designers happy. We’re still waiting for Macromedia to release some more information related to that (they will actually do that next week, so if you’re on the Los Angeles area, be sure to be there) but we know a bit and I’d like to talk about what is publicly known. While I don’t present any new information here, I’ll try to cover what will be possible with the features already announced – the new possibilities are immense.
Among (probably) many other unannounced features, 8ball/Flash 8 will have some key ones that will prove to be real breakthroughs for Flash Developers – specially for people still unsatisfied with the visual capabilities the player currently has. Here’s what we know, in a digested and easy way (I hope).
|As you cannot see here, Saffron makes text easier to read on screen and it adds hinting information for low resolutions|
A new text rendering engine
While text rendering has received a significant improvement on Flash MX 2004/Flash Player 7 – with the ability to export the hinted, on-screen version of the font as the actual font, emulating the so-called "bitmap" fonts – Flash still lacked the ability to actually export hinting information for used fonts. This is understandable: a font rendering engine that uses hinting is actually quite a feat, and hinting information can be so bigger than the font information itself that it wouldn’t be practical to add hinting information to a compiled SWF movie in almost all cases. However, 8ball will have a new text rendering engine – called Saffron – that not only supports hinting on a bandwidth-friendly way, but also adds support for some rendering techniques similar to what ClearType does, that is, renders sharp text by augmenting the contrast of the pixels surrounding the text.
This wouldn’t be an update to 8ball/Flash 8 if more performance improvements weren’t on the way. Flash Player 7 did a good deal of speeding things up when it comes down to processing – let’s face it, Flash 6 was lethargic – but there’s still a lot to be desired. It’s great to see another performance boost coming, although we still don’t know what or how much will change just yet.
|Effects on the Flash Conference 2004 in Tokyo demo (left) and on 8ball itself from the MAX 2004 presentation (right)|
Realtime bitmap effects
Oh, boy, where do I start.
Anyway, it’s like this: 8ball/Flash 8 will add the ability to have stackable effects added to MovieClips at runtime. These effects will be used to create fancy visual tricks – the kind of tricks you needed images created on Photoshop to do. Right now, a few effects like "glow" and "drop shadow" were demonstrated – in the future, however, a few more will be available, including a "blur" one which is probably the only real effect available anyway – the rest is just a mix of a duplicated blur and coloring.
The thing with this apparently stupid effect is that it will allow a plethora of features to be created – features that could only be created before with the painful use of several imported images. I can easily picture people creating menus which blur while not rolled over, and windows that blur when out of focus: no more tricks for simulating depth, real time blur will make it a snap.
Also, remember these effects can also be added by code, so expect to see methods like "blurTo()" added to MC Tween and many other public tweening extensions as soon as Flash 8 is released.
|Blending modes combo box|
Now this is something I think I’ve wanted on Flash since version 3: blending modes. For nondesigner people, "blending modes" is what you’d use on Photoshop (or any other semi-serious graphic program) to dictate how an object (or layer) color will blend with the underlying layers. On such programs, it’s not like one object is simply on top of other: you can have different types of calculations done and make the top object invert the colors below it, or add to them, or subtract to them, or shift them, or many other effects. On Photoshop, we have modes like "Screen" (uses only the light information from a layer), "Multiply" (uses only the dark information of a layer), "Overlay" (extrapolates colors), among many others. And now they are coming to Flash.
It’s as if Flash, nowadays, featured only one blending mode: "Normal", that is, the top object replaces the color of the objects below. It can have opacity, but that’s about it. Flash has never featured advanced blending modes probably because performance was a huge issue on the Player and it couldn’t have the luxury of doing a few more calculations, specially when it can’t even do the normal calculations correctly, but thankfully it looks like this will be a thing of the past soon. With new blending modes, Flash developers will be able to create some pretty weird rendering effects. Bizarre slideshow fades will never be the same.
Granted, on the video they have shown of 8ball on MAX 2004 they have only presented one blending mode – "invert", something that inverts the colors of the underlying objects with a fixed value (the color of the current object wasn’t taken into account). This effect can easily be done on Flash 4+ with some simple use of masking and special coloring – real blending modes, on the other hand, can never be done on Flash, no matter how many tricks or additional images you use. Even so, I believe this is due to the fact that they were still developing the tool and the player and they will show real blending soon. After all, the video does show some familiar-sounding blending modes from an 8ball combo box.
There’s no such thing as a magical update that makes code run ultra fast or movies performance at lightspeed. There is, however, new concepts and tricks that can greatly improve performance on certain specific situations. The new bitmap caching feature is one of such tricks.
In a nutshell, Flash Player 8 will have the ability to cache the contents of a MovieClip as a bitmap image – in real time, with no image at all, of course. By caching – or "freezing" its contents – it stops worrying about recalculating pixels inside of the MovieClip, so it can use its resources elsewhere. With this, you can create an ultra-complex MovieClip on your movie – as soon as it’s rendered and it doesn’t have to be redrawn, you don’t have to worry about what’s on top of your complex MovieClip. Since the MovieClip below is cached as an image, your movie will render as if it was just an static bitmap. I can think of a lot of situations from my daily work where it would have helped a lot, and I can’t wait to see that in action.
|Flash movie below a video rendered with alpha masking support|
Alpha layers in movies
Flash will now support transparency in movies, allowing developers to create movies with alpha masks that can be superimposed to Flash content or event to other movies. This could be done before – if you had a transparent movie in, say, After Effects, you could export it to a sequence of PNGs and then import the image sequence on Flash and create a Flash movie oldschool style – but the results were far from ideal, giving the final movie size. With native video transparency support on Flash, Macromedia once again shows they’re committed to make Flash the #1 video solution for the web.
New bitmap pixel control
We don’t know much about it yet. However, with 8ball/Flash 8, we will be able to control pixels in some way… maybe.
We will also be able to control gradients a bit more (like setting the position of the radius of a radial gradient in relation to its circle), add gradient to lines, set caps and joins of strokes (like on Illustrator or Freehand), toggle editing mode between the old Flash vector drawing mode and a new object mode (again, like Illustrator or Freehand) and so on. We don’t know much about that yet, although it has been shown or talked about a bit.
While this may seem just a bunch of fancy additions for some – except for the performance improvement parts – the truth is, this will be a real breakthrough in Flash. Visually, it will probably be the biggest of all updates – the new effects, blending modes, and bitmap caching, all put together, will allow an infinite set of new tricks to be done. I can only begin to think about what guys like André Michelle, Keith Peters and Yugo Nakamura will be able to do with this new version. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Read more about 8ball/Maelstrom/Flash 8/Flash MX 2005/Flash 8 Player: