3D modelling

Almost everything you work with on your computer (web pages, Word pages, PowerPoint slides, images, videos…) is flat (2 dimensional), just like your computer screen. But you live in a three dimensional world! Ten or twenty years ago very few people were trying to work with 3D shapes on their computer, partly because computers were simply not powerful enough, but as computer power has grown so there has been a sudden explosion in the use of 3D applications on computers. If you are a computer gamer you know that most modern games give a convincing impression of being in a 3D world, even though you are viewing that world through the 2D ‘window’ that is your computer monitor.

There are several reasons why it makes sense for us to study 3D programs in this class:

1) It’s excellent mental exercise to manipulate 3D objects via the 2D computer screen

2) It will give you a better comprehension of 3D concepts used in mathematics and science, such as the three axes of space, 3D coordinates etc

3) Most manufactured objects are initially designed on computers these days. Look around you and you will see a lamp that was designed on a computer, a desk that was designed on a computer, a TV that was designed on a computer, a computer that was designed on a computer… Studying 3D programs helps us better understand the design processes that make the modern world.

4) Not only can we better understand the world we live in but also we are better able to participate in it – having experience with 3D applications is likely to be increasingly valuable on your CV. Not many schools teach 3D computing today, so it could give you the edge.

5) Speaking of careers, might you be interested in a career such as architecture or medicine? These are both good example of careers in which 3D computing is becoming commonplace. Your future home will no doubt be designed on a computer, and doctors are making increasing use of 3D images of human organs generated by sophisticated scanners.

6) The specific program that we will be using, Google Sketchup, makes intensive use of the third button on your computer’s mouse. Perhaps you are not even aware that the mouse wheel is also a button – you can press it down just like the other buttons. Working with Google Sketchup gives you practise using the middle mouse button that is likely to be used more and more in other programs too.

7) If you make models of real buildings then you can incorporate them into your copy of Google Earth or, even better, you can upload them into the Sketchup warehouse so that other people can admire your work. Initially your model will not display in other people’s Google Earth automatically, but if Google decides they like your work then they will incorporate it into Google Earth in such a way that whenever anyone looks at your part of the world in Google Earth they will automatically see your model.

8) Last but not least, learning about 3D programs will help 'demystify' the 3D effects you see on TV and in movies. I think the demystification of technology is a major function of ICT class but some of you may disagree and tell me that you don't want the 'magic' of a movie like Avatar to be broken. But that's like saying you wish no one had told you that Father Christmas is not real. The fact is that Avatar is NOT magic!

Google Sketchup

We will use Google Sketchup since this is a free, popular and easy-to-use 3D program from one of the world’s largest software companies. It is designed to make it easy for you to create 3D models of the outside of buildings. You can either create the model from nothing or make a model of a real building based on photographs you have taken or real floor plans.

Check out this short video to get a feel for how Sketchup works (this YouTube video may not be accessible from school):

The above image is a flat image of a 3D model of EE3 Building C made by me in 2008. You should be able to see the same model in interactive format below. Here is how to control it:

First click the applet to make it active. You can then rotate the view by holding the left mouse button and moving the mouse left-right (yawing) or up-down (pitching). Also the mouse wheel can be used for zooming in/out.

There are some keyboard commands, too:

  • Arrow keys: Rotate view
  • +/-: Zoom in/out
  • Z/z: Zoom in/out
  • f/F: Decrease/increase camera focal length
  • s: Start/stop continuous rotation

In my class you will make your own model like this (but simpler) using photographs.

Please follow the link at the top of this page to see the Sketchup Tutorial.

3D Animation

3D modelling and animation software is used by film studios to produce movies like Toy Story, Ice Age and Avatar, and also in industry in the design of all kinds of objects from planes and cars to toothbrushes. The programmes can be used to design static objects or the objects can be given a skeleton and then animated. In both static and animated examples the objects can be placed into a virtual world where lighting can be set and cameras positioned and moved as desired.

'3D Animation' means taking a 3D model and making it move. This is more difficult than the kind of 3D modelling described above since it involves several extra steps. The complete process is:

  1. Make the basic 3D model showing the parts of the model that will be visible in the finished animation (the 'skin' of the 'body parts', if you like)
  2. Make a skeleton (or 'armature' )and attach the body parts to the skeleton. Apply restrictions to the movement of each joint in the skeleton.
  3. Set up a single movement of the skeleton consisting of several 'keyframes' - this will be a cycle of movement that can be repeated if necessary.
  4. Incorporate the animated model into a virtual world that you have designed and adjust the lighting, camera angles, etc.

Two of the best-known 3D animation programs are 3D studio Max (expensive) and Blender (free). You can learn more about Blender by following the links at the top of this page.

3D animation may be offered to you as a possible end-of-year project - there can't be many ICT exercises more satisfying than making a 3D model and then making in move it the way that YOU want, but it's a rather time-consuming process and you may want to look for something easier.