AEC Tech news #154

2 Nov, 2005 By: Michael Dakan

Cadalyst AEC Tech News

The Latest in 3D

A peek at SketchUp 5, and its natural extension into new Google Earth mapping

@Last Software continues to offer frequent upgrades and enhancements to its innovative SketchUp modeler. SketchUp 5 is the most recent version, released this summer. Its price remains at $495 (single license); upgrades to v5 are $95.

SketchUp 5 offers several enhancements, chief among them what the company has dubbed the Sandbox. This suite of tools lets you create organic shapes, such as site modeling and grading, and other freeform shapes. Also provided are improvements to the SketchUp nonphotorealistic rendering tool that's very suitable for creating a sketchy appearance, such as depth-cued edges that make edge lines closer to the camera viewpoint heavier than those farther away.

Honest 3D Modeler
SketchUp is marketed in a low-key, casual style that is refreshing in today's over-hyped CAD and BIM (building information modeling) software market. SketchUp doesn't claim to be more than it has always been: an easy-to-use 3D modeler with an intuitive user interface that's suitable for creating, viewing and modifying ideas in the conceptual phases of a design project.

SketchUp doesn't attempt to be all things to all people. Instead of adding capabilities to SketchUp to support later phases of a project, @Last Software seems to openly acknowledge SketchUp's limitations. Several CAD and BIM plug-ins are offered that make it easy to bring a model created in SketchUp into software more suitable for finishing detailed construction documents and BIM.

First among these was a plug-in for Autodesk Architectural Desktop, which was released several months ago. The latest is a plug-in for Graphisoft's ArchiCAD. Also available are plug-ins for using SketchUp models in ABVENT's Artlantis R rendering software and ESRI's ArcGIS geophysical database, as well as support for OBJ file export and SHP import for using objects from software such as Alias Maya and for exporting SketchUp models as GIS (geospatial information systems) data elements. SketchUp includes built-in export to Autodesk 3ds MAX (3DS files) and import of digital terrain models (DEM).

Newly released in beta form is an upgraded plug-in for using Google Earth 2D and 3D views in SketchUp. This remarkable plug-in allows you to import and export maps in KMZ format (compressed terrain models from Google Earth) of virtually anywhere on the globe. Imagine a building modeled in SketchUp placed precisely in its proposed location, then being able to "fly" to that location from anywhere on Earth, zooming into a view of your SketchUp model.

Google Earth
Many people have discovered Google maps, which let users view street maps, satellite images or a hybrid view of street maps overlaid on the satellite image. Google maps are unique in that they provide near real-time panning and zooming. You can literally pan across the United States, for instance, from New York to San Francisco, by simply clicking and dragging with the mouse. The satellite images are in a progressive image format that may show a highly pixellated, low-resolution image at first, but then update very quickly to bring in more detail when you stop panning momentarily. You can get detailed directions from place to place and find street addresses, specific businesses or hotels in the vicinity of a destination, for instance.

This wondrous map technology has been further enhanced in a separate application called Google Earth. Google Earth is available in a free downloadable version for personal use. Google Earth Plus ($20) adds support for GPS (Global Positioning System) devices, and Google Earth Pro ($400 per year by subscription) is designed for business use, offering expanded geospatial information, higher resolution images for printing and the ability to import additional geospatial information and use GPS data. But even the free version contains a remarkable amount of information layers that you can toggle on and off, including lodging and restaurants, shopping centers, churches and schools and much more.

Zooming Around the World
Google Earth launches with a global view of North America. You can pan and zoom to any part of the world using your mouse, type in a location, or select from a list of saved places. You then get a bird's-eye view of the flight to the specified location, and as you near it, Google Earth zooms in. When you want to go to a different location, Google Earth zooms out as it begins to fly to the new location, and again zooms in as it approaches it. Satellite photography views show a fantastic level of detail in large cities, and typically lower resolution in rural and less-populated regions.

Several locations are installed by default, typically large cities such as London and Rome, and natural features such as the Grand Canyon. It was astounding when I first clicked on the installed location of Nelson's Column, located in Trafalgar Square in London, and then panned over toward Buckingham Palace and St. James Park. Along the way, the distinctive spired parapet crenellation of Westminster Abbey was easy to spot due to the unique shadow it casts on the ground.

For fun, you can easily recreate walking tours you may have done in the past, as I did for a meandering walk I once took in London from St. Paul's Cathedral to Buckingham Palace, with many detours and side trips along the way. Or create your own proposed walking route around a city. Warning: If you are anything like I am when it comes to maps and satellite imagery, you can easily spend the better part of an afternoon, or a week, traveling about the world in this way.

But more significantly, the business uses for this technology are easy to see, such as land use and development planning and retail market analysis. We are likely to see Google Earth maps and images linked or incorporated into many AEC applications in the future. SketchUp is the first building modeling software to take advantage of the published format of Google Earth files, but it certainly won't be the last.

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