Lightwave is a 3D animation program by NewTek. The package includes Lightwave 3D, Modeler, and a Hub control program for rendering. This package has a very accurate physics engine, and although the company doesn't say, given that one of the standard scale options is kilometers, this package can probably be used for geological and mining applications.
The user interface for the programs is simple. There are a series of tabs across the top, such as Items, Scene, Display, Texture, etc. when one of the tabs is clicked, the menu at the left of the screen is changed to a new set of tools. The more difficult thing is learning how and when to use the multitude of tools. I found Lightwave to have a very steep, but worthwhile learning curve. Knowledge of how the tools worked together was crucial for doing even basic work. Modeler and Lightwave are separated to simplify the creative process. Otherwise, there would be an overload of availible tools and options. The one trade-off is that many of the UI options and tools are overlapping between the two programs.
Modeling with the Lightwave package
Modeler is (if you haven't guessed) the modeling program. This works off of a system of bones. You create bones of many shapes, connect them with other bones, and you then have a skeleton which you can texture. The 'joints' connecting the bones can also be defined the same way human ones are, e.g. ball and socket, rotational, one axis bendable, etc. This is important when modeling any moving object. For instance, when modeling humans, it would look very strange to have a ball and socket joint used for the knee. The modeler can also be used to control texture.Translucency, color, and all sorts of texture options are availible.
Making it Move and Dance
Lightwave 3D is the animation program. This program is used to move and animate objects created in Modeler. Lightwave 3D is also used to control lighting, camera angles, bone movement and texture. There is frame by frame control. Camera angles and lights can move, as well as items made in modeler.
The Hub is a controller for rendering. It can control multiple computers, start up times, queue order, and resource allocation for clips created in Lightwave 3D. Unfortunately, problems associated with gimbal lock still have to be debugged by hand.
There are some other interesting facts about Lightwave. A plethora of plug-ins are availible for Lightwave. To name a few, there are texture plug-ins for hair, physics plug-ins for different liquids, and plug-ins to emulate explosions and other fx. LightWave runs on Macintosh, Windows, and some Unix platforms like SGI's IRIX boxes. It has been used in many feature films, and as stated above, many TV shows, including Star Trek. Lightwave's main competitors are Maya and 3DStudio Max.
The info gathered here was obtained through personal experience in using version 6.5 for the Macintosh.