Wednesday, 03 May, 2006

Google Sketchup

I just love to see something done right.  I've been in the business of making graphics editors for 10 years.  In 1996 I built what was and might still be the best golf course design tool available.  It was for a game, Jack Nicklaus Golf, but you should have seen the courses that people created with it.  I saw people build things that I didn't think were possible.

During its development I got to visit Jack Nicklaus's golf course design studio in Florida and take a look at what they used.  Their software ran on very expensive Unix workstations and took hours to render a view.  We rendered a very realistic frame in a second or two on a 90 MHz Pentium.  Their design software had a lot of engineering features that we simply didn't care about, but you could create an "artist's rendering" of a hole or course with our little toy a whole lot faster than you could with their serious design package.

I worked briefly on a pinball construction set (the project was canceled) that would have allowed users to build their own pinball tables that had the quality of the Space Cadet Pinball game which shipped with Windows 95 Plus Pack, and every version of Windows since then up to Windows Server 2003.

I've also done two projects with 3D world editors:  the original Genesis World Editor in 1998-1999, and more recently a much enhanced version for the current project.  I won't say that I'm an expert when it comes to world editors, but I've seen a lot of them and understand most of the issues involved in balancing functionality with usability and convenience.  But I also got caught in the "that's the way it's always been done" trap.

Ever since AutoCAD (probably before AutoCAD), "everybody knew" that a 3D design package had to display three orthographic wireframe views in which the user could edit, and then a 3D rendered view that show the finished product, but in which the user couldn't edit.  I fell into that trap with the 3D world editors, and so did every significant 3D editing tool.  Even 3D Studio Max, the premier artist's modeling tool, uses that editing model.  The result is that you have to be an engineer or a somewhat technically-minded artist in order to make any of these tools work.  3D editing is inherently hard.  That's just the way it is.

At least that's what I thought until I downloaded Google SketchUp the other day.  SketchUp does everything wrong.  There's no 3-panel 2D wireframe view.  Users edit in the 3D rendered view by placing shapes and then "pushing" or "pulling" those shapes to make solids or make holes.  You can combine shape primitives to make more complex shapes.  Your average 8th grader could learn to use this tool in about 15 minutes.  A few hours later, he'd probably have a reasonably good rendering of your house, provided he had plans to work from.  These SketchUp people did everything wrong, and yet they created one of the best pieces of software I've seen.  It's easy to create and edit a model.  With SketchUp, anybody can do an "artist's rendering" of a new project.  You wouldn't want to create blueprints with SketchUp, but initial concept creation is unbelievably fast and easy.

I've been using split-pane orthographic-based 3D editing tools for over 10 years.  In just two days, I'm much more productive with SketchUp if I want to put something attractive together quickly.  My high-end tools have their place--they give me flexibility and power without some of SketchUp's constraints--but in truth I don't need them very often.  I usually don't care about getting the lighting just right or making photo-realistic renderings.  I just want to sketch a house, a bookshelf, or an odd geegaw.  I can spend an hour with my high end 3D tool, or a few minutes with SketchUp.

Google SketchUp is free for non-commercial use.  SketchUp Pro 5 is the commercial version that has better printing (allows you to print more than one page), export to popular graphics formats, save animations and walkthroughs to movie files (.avi and .mov), some very cool terrain editing tools, and a few other features.  SketchUp Pro might sound expensive at $495, but I guarantee you'd save that much in a month if you do a lot of 3D modeling work.

Highly recommended.  It's kind of embarrassing to see this, after having spent 10 years trying to simplify "the other way."  But I'm happy to see that somebody did it right.  If you need to do some modeling, download SketchUp and give it a shot.  You won't be disappointed.