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Axonometric projection is a type of parallel projection used to create a pictorial drawing of an object, where the object is rotated along one or more of its axes relative to the plane of projection.
There are three main types of axonometric projection: isometric, dimetric, and trimetric projection.
"Axonometric" means "to measure along axes". Axonometric projection shows an image of an object as viewed from a skew direction in order to reveal more than one side in the same picture. Whereas the term orthographic is sometimes reserved specifically for depictions of objects where the axis or plane of the object is parallel with the projection plane, in axonometric projection the plane or axis of the object is always drawn not parallel to the projection plane.
With axonometric projections the scale of distant features is the same as for near features, so such pictures will look distorted, as it is not how our eyes or photography work. This distortion is especially evident if the object to view is mostly composed of rectangular features. Despite this limitation, axonometric projection can be useful for purposes of illustration.
The concept of an isometric projection had existed in a rough empirical form for centuries, well before Professor William Farish (1759–1837) of Cambridge University was the first to provide detailed rules for isometric drawing.
Farish published his ideas in the 1822 paper "On Isometrical Perspective", in which he recognized the "need for accurate technical working drawings free of optical distortion. This would lead him to formulate isometry. Isometry means "equal measures" because the same scale is used for height, width, and depth".
From the middle of the 19th century, according to Jan Krikke (2006) isometry became an "invaluable tool for engineers, and soon thereafter axonometry and isometry were incorporated in the curriculum of architectural training courses in Europe and the U.S. The popular acceptance of axonometry came in the 1920s, when modernist architects from the Bauhaus and De Stijl embraced it". De Stijl architects like Theo van Doesburg used axonometry for their architectural designs, which caused a sensation when exhibited in Paris in 1923".
Since the 1920s axonometry, or parallel perspective, has provided an important graphic technique for artists, architects, and engineers. Like linear perspective, axonometry helps depict 3D space on the 2D picture plane. It usually comes as a standard feature of CAD systems and other visual computing tools.
According to Jan Krikke (2000) "axonometry originated in China. Its function in Chinese art was similar to linear perspective in European art.[clarification needed] Axonometry, and the pictorial grammar that goes with it, has taken on a new significance with the advent of visual computing".
Optical-grinding engine model (1822), drawn in 30° isometric perspective
Detail of the original version of Along the River During the Qingming Festival attributed to Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145)
Three types of axonometric projections
The three types of axonometric projections are isometric projection, dimetric projection, and trimetric projection, depending on the exact angle at which the view deviates from the orthogonal. Typically in axonometric drawing, one axis of space is shown as the vertical.
- In isometric projection, the most commonly used form of axonometric projection in engineering drawing, the direction of viewing is such that the three axes of space appear equally foreshortened, and there is a common angle of 60° between them. As the distortion caused by foreshortening is uniform the proportionality of all sides and lengths are preserved, and the axes share a common scale. This enables measurements to be read or taken directly from the drawing. Another advantage is that 60° angles are more easily constructed using only a compass and straightedge.
- In dimetric projection, the direction of viewing is such that two of the three axes of space appear equally foreshortened, of which the attendant scale and angles of presentation are determined according to the angle of viewing; the scale of the third direction (vertical) is determined separately.
- In trimetric projection, the direction of viewing is such that all of the three axes of space appear unequally foreshortened. The scale along each of the three axes and the angles among them are determined separately as dictated by the angle of viewing. Trimetric perspective is seldom used, and is found in only a few video games (Fallout, SimCity 4).
Approximations are common in dimetric and trimetric drawings.[clarification needed]
Limitations of axonometric projection
As with all types of parallel projection, objects drawn with axonometric projection do not appear larger or smaller as they extend closer to or away from the viewer. While advantageous for architectural drawings, where measurements must be taken directly from the image, the result is a perceived distortion, since unlike perspective projection, this is not how photography normally works. It also can easily result in situations where depth and altitude are difficult to gauge, as is shown in the illustration to the right.
In this isometric drawing, the blue sphere is two units higher than the red one. However, this difference in elevation is not apparent if one covers the right half of the picture, as the boxes (which serve as clues suggesting height) are then obscured.
This visual ambiguity has been exploited in op art, including "impossible object" drawings. M. C. Escher's Waterfall (1961) is a well-known example, in which a channel of water seems to travel unaided along a downward path, only to then paradoxically fall once again as it returns to its source. The water thus appears to disobey the law of conservation of energy.
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- Yve-Alain Bois, "Metamorphosis of Axonometry," Daidalos, no. 1 (1981), pp. 41–58