[Original story posted on 10 October 2012. Scroll down for the update.]
Artist and developer Chris West has released a nifty automated terrain-generation plugin for 3ds Max.
The plugin, known simply as Terrain, downloads DEM digital elevation data for a latitude and longitude the user specifies, and converts it into a 3ds Max mesh.
The model can be coloured by height, or automatically assigned photographic textures using Google Earth data.
Covers everywhere except the poles
According to West’s website, the Terrain plugin can access DEM data for 80% of the Earth’s landmass, covering the region between 60 degrees north and 54 degrees south (that is, anywhere except Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, northern Scandinavia and Russia, and Antarctica.)
The plugin also automatically interpolates to fill in any local areas of missing data. To judge by the before-and-after image shown on the site, the results are pretty seamless.
All of the parameters, which include zoom level, material settings – and even sea level – are fully animatable.
Terrain does not display the curvature of the earth, meaning that you’ll want to do some editing by hand before using it to create very large digital sets – but then, that probably goes without saying for any professional job.
The Terrain plugin is available for 3ds Max 2008-2012, with 3ds Max 2013 available “very shortly”. It costs $199.
Updated 4 January 2013: The 3ds Max 2013 version of the plugin is now available. The full version now comes with scripts to import the terrains it generates into Unity, and enables users to import Terragen files.
Download a trial version of the Terrain plugin (Direct download link)