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!

Trimble SketchUp

We will use Trimble SketchUp (formerly Google SketchUp) since this is a free, popular and easy-to-use 3D program. 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. It's possible to do the inside of buildings too, but that is a lot more work.

Check out this short video to get a feel for how SketchUp works:

This video below showcases some models made by my students and by myself, mostly in SketchUp but also including some animated models made in Blender.

In my class you will make your own model like this one below (but simpler) using photographs. Note that there is also a good set of SketchUp lessons HERE.

Getting started

Trimble SketchUp is a great 3D modelling program that you can download free of charge here: . Or simply do a Google search for SketchUp. Downloading and installation is easy.

When you start the program you may be asked what units you want to use – choose ‘metric metres’.

This program is fun to use and it's tempting to just jump in a start making, say, a house without any introduction, but it's probably better to do the 6 tutorials that are provided by Google in version 6 (not necessarily available in later versions).

We will thus do the 6 tutorials first, then I will give you some time to experiment and start designing the house of your dreams. You can add ready-made 'components' such as trees, cars, even your own personal helicopter if you wish. Then I will show you how to make a model of a real building, using photographs of the building. We will even project those photographs onto the outer surfaces of the model to make it look super-realistic! Finally we will try making something other than buildings - we will make a chair and a lantern. Here is the lantern video:

And here is the chair video:

Note that SketchUp can usually only make static models - it can't make animated models unless you modify it by adding the SketchyPhysics plugin, for example. If you are interested in installing and using that plugin then check out these two pages: SketchyPhysics Simple Car

The wonderful and free Blender program is like SketchUp on steroids - it lets you make 3D models but it also (unlike SketchUp) lets you animate them, though this makes Blender MUCH more difficult to learn than SketchUp.

Here are some hints for working well with SketchUp.

1) Learn how to use the middle mouse button (the mouse wheel is also a button) for adjusting your view of the model - avoid using the toolbar to select these three tools.

  • To orbit, hold down the middle mouse button and mouse the mouse.
  • To pan, hold down the shift key and the middle mouse button then move the mouse.
  • To zoom simply roll the mouse wheel.

2) Learn how to use inferencing to make sure your actions are oriented in the right direction. For example, SketchUp will let you know you are moving in the vertical direction by showing a broken blue line rather than a broken black one.

3) When drawing lines or shapes, don't make them cross over existing lines, otherwise they may not connect (intersect) in the way that we normally want them to.

4) Get into the habit of using keyboard shortcuts to select tools, rather than selecting them with your mouse. Most of the common tools have easy-to-guess keyboard shortcuts - to switch to the rectangle tool, for example, just press 'R'. Some shortcuts that are not so easy to guess are:

  • Q = rotate tool
  • B = paint Bucket tool + open materials palette

You may want to try modelling a real building yourself, based on photos that you yourself have taken. The trick here is to model a building that is not too complex. The first building I made a model of was the Brussels Town Hall on the Grand’ Place – it took me about twenty hours to make this model (including taking photographs of the building) and you probably won’t want to invest that amount of time in your project. Other hints to a successful project would be to choose a building that stands alone (not joined to others), and has all sides of the building clearly visible, so that you can take pictures easily.

Click HERE for a lesson that guides you in making a SketchUp model using photos of a real building. And don't miss the other lessons that are linked to at the top of this page.

If you would like to go further with SketchUp, you will find many additional lessons on including several video lessons. Speaking of videos, you can also find dozens of SketchUp lessons on - the SketchUp Show videos are especially good. Unfortunately, however, you are not allowed to access YouTube videos from school.