Product Design

3D Modeling Can Be Child's Play

19 Jul, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

SketchUp's weekly challenges open design arena to professionals, rookies -- even kids


Several weeks ago, Tyson Kartchner began scrutinizing chess pieces. He found rooks and bishops that looked like they'd been carved out of driftwood using a Swiss Army knife, kings and queens that were glass tubes filled with amber liquid, and pawns that actually carried shields and spears. He also found chess sets made completely of LEGOs, playing cards or Egyptian artifacts. In the following weeks, Kartchner will examine loudspeakers, soccer trophies and lawn furniture. He'll probably find they are just as fanciful as many of the chess pieces he's seen.

Kartchner, an online training specialist for Google SketchUp, is responsible for issuing weekly 3D Challenges to the SketchUp community. "It seems like a great way to get the existing SketchUp users involved with the new users coming on board," he says. "It's also a way to get more content into the Google 3D Warehouse," a searchable repository of user-submitted 3D objects.

Earlier this year, Google purchased SketchUp from @Last Software and shortly thereafter made a basic version free via download. That version has been attracting new users ever since -- even those who'd never used a 3D modeler.

Weekly SketchUp 3D Challenges come with downloadable tip sheets showing users how they might approach a given design problem. For the chest set challenge, for instance, the tip sheet suggests drawing the profile of a chess piece on a 2D plane, then sweeping the profile into a 3D shape using SketchUp's Follow Me command.

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SketchUp's Follow Me command turns a 2D rendition into 3D.

"[Participants] run the whole gamut," Kartchner says. "We're seeing a lot of long-time SketchUp users proficient in 3D modeling. We're also seeing people who say they've just discovered SketchUp two days ago and this is their first model."

Brian Schmidty, who took up the chess set challenge, writes in his post, "This was my first attempt at any 3D software since the old POV-RAY DOS program [a free 3D tool]." He adds, "After building the chess set, I couldn't help but make a table and chairs and the wall. This is such an easy program to use, I just got carried away."

Josh Lomas, a junior member of the forum, decided to go for the audio system challenge. After submitting his system, neatly mounted on an arched wooden shelf, he writes, "I only recently started using SketchUp and thought I'd have a go. ... It won't win, but it's a start. ... Was hoping some of you dudes could give me some pointers as well."

Braga, another junior member, tackled the football trophy challenge. His entry was a giant whistle mounted on a circular pedestal. "This is the first thing I made with SketchUp. ... I know it's not that good. ... I just hope I'm not the worst," he writes. In response to his request for "constructive [critical] opinion," another member writes, "I like the whistle, you did a great job with it. I like that you added the ball inside. ... Some whistles actually have a ball inside."

Google's Kartchner wants people to know he's not the sole decision maker for selecting winners. (In other words, don't send him hate mail if your entry's not picked.) "I send out what I think are the best ones to everybody here who works on SketchUp. Then, based on voting results, we pick a winner," he explains.

Somewhere near the Irish Sea, far from Google SketchUp's office in Boulder, Colorado, SketchUp is also stirring up creativity in children as young as five years old. "We have had a license to use SketchUp in all our schools for about five years now," says John Thornley, information and communications technology adviser to the Department of Education, Isle of Man. "Our primary schools incorporate SketchUp into math, design technology, art, history, geography and so on. Secondary schools use SketchUp in design technology."

Debbie Barker, a teacher at Ballaugh Primary School in Isle of Man, had her class model milk cartons in SketchUp, giving the kids an early education on product package design.

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Teacher Debbie Barker had her primary students model milk cartons using Google SketchUp.

"[It] was something they could create quickly as SketchUp beginners," Barker says. "The modeling exercise covers a number of curriculum objectives in art and in design technology. The children brought to school a variety of cartons, which they used for inspiration. Matching their products to the commercial ones helped them achieve more professional results."

Compared to some of the newbies on the SketchUp 3D Challenge forum, Kyle, James, and Emma -- ages 9, 10 and 9, respectively -- are experienced SketchUp users. They're from the Laxey Village school in Isle of Man. Their accomplishments include a gigantic waterwheel, a local landmark in Laxey; the Parthenon of Athens, complete with textured columns and roof; and a long pier jutting out of a quiet coastline.

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Even youngsters are finding their way into 3D modeling using Google SketchUp, judging by these designs from teacher Debbie Barker's class.

It seems the child modelers are as qualified as anyone to comment on using SketchUp or 3D design, so we asked for their words of wisdom. Here's what they have to say:

Kyle: "I can draw a street full of houses in a [single] lesson."

James: "Don't worry about making mistakes -- you can undo anything you do wrong."

Emma: "It's really cool being able to draw shapes that would be very difficult without a computer."

Google isn't handing out cash awards or trophies to 3D Challenge winners, but that hardly seems to matter. Judging from the exchanges on the forum, winning or losing is the last thing on the minds of participants. Experienced users are flexing their modeling muscle; rookies are experimenting with new-found tools. Both are having fun. And that might be the reward that prompts them to return for yet another challenge.

"Keep an eye on it," Kartchner alerts us. "We've just started. With integration of Google Earth, with the type of different challenges we can issue, it'll evolve."


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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