General Software

First Look Review: Adobe Acrobat 3D

31 Mar, 2006 By: Ron LaFon

3D PDF creator

This new member of Adobe's Acrobat family is of particular interest to CAD and design professionals. Adobe Acrobat 3D contains all the functionality of Acrobat Professional 7.0.7 as well as expanded capabilities for the creation of PDF files that contain dynamic 3D content. Acrobat 3D enhances collaboration by allowing users to insert and publish 3D designs from major CAD applications in PDF documents.

Although Acrobat 7 Professional supports the insertion of U3D files in documents, Acrobat 3D provides more options, including the ability to create dynamic 3D content by capturing the display stream from OpenGL applications. This technology is derived in part by Adobe's December 2004 purchase of OKYZ S.A., whose product Cadalyst reviewed when it was a privately owned company. The OpenGL capture grabs 3D information from the operating system's display driver, so it works with many products that use OpenGL. To use this capability, you'll obviously need a graphics card that supports OpenGL. In practice, this technology works quite well, and several settings can adjust the capture for different parent applications.

Acrobat 3D can also directly convert many popular CAD file formats while retaining the product structure hierarchy of the original data. This ability allows more flexibility and accuracy in the creation process and does not require users to own a seat of the CAD application that produced the data. Acrobat 3D includes tools for editing and modifying 3D models that are captured or converted with a capture program available for UNIX and Windows.

 Adobe Acrobat 3D
Adobe Acrobat 3D

With Acrobat 3D, you can drop a dynamic CAD view directly into Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint and then use the standard PDF Maker (which is enhanced for Acrobat 3D) to produce PDF documents that contain the live 3D data. Enhanced workflow cycles—commenting, view creation, sectioning, measurement and other tools—are available. Users can create PDF files that enable this functionality in Adobe Reader v7.0.7 or later so that the free viewer can be used as a collaboration tool. Such enhanced PDF content viewed in earlier versions of the reader will display a poster frame. Whoever creates the 3D PDF file determines the poster frame, which typically is a selected view of the 3D object.

Acrobat 3D comes with a separate utility called the 3D Toolkit, an application that imports more than 50 file formats and saves them in the U3D file format adopted by Adobe in Acrobat 7. Much of this technology is a product of Adobe's collaboration with Right Hemisphere during the development of Acrobat 3D (compare with Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration product).

Right-clicking a 3D object in Acrobat 3D launches the integrated 3D Toolkit application. With the 3D Toolkit, users can create animations such as exploded views, edit lighting, change textures and materials and save changes as a 3D object or a 2D or 3D raster or vector image. Users also can add JavaScript to any PDF file that contains 3D content to enhance interactivity. These features improve greatly on what is available with Acrobat Professional.

Adobe Acrobat 3D lets users publish, share, review, and mark up 3D designs in portable PDF documents.
Adobe Acrobat 3D lets users publish, share, review, and mark up 3D designs in portable PDF documents.

Plug-ins specific to Acrobat 3D will be forthcoming—we know of at least two from Right Hemisphere that will plug into the 3D Toolkit: a PMI (product manufacturing information) module and a PDF publishing module. These two plug-ins were released just as this article went to press. We expect to cover them in an upcoming review.

Acrobat 3D is targeted largely at manufacturing workflows, and it incorporates a number of security-related features that can be applied at the time of PDF creation. Password protection restricts access, printing, editing and other actions. Specific security settings can be created for and applied to designated users or user groups, and digital signatures can be used to ensure authenticity. When Acrobat 3D is integrated with Adobe LiveCycle Policy Server software, users can create a server-managed security policy and apply it in one step to Adobe PDF documents.

All file formats, including 3D formats, are moving targets that change and evolve as new versions of applications are introduced. It's not surprising to find some file format variations that are not yet fully supported in Acrobat 3D, although the file support is extensive and generally well executed. It seems likely that regular updates will be necessary to keep up with format changes in the industry.

Collaboration is enhanced in Acrobat 3D by its ability to efficiently manage comments from multiple reviewers. Initiating e-mail reviews is simple, and comments from multiple reviewers appear together in a single Adobe PDF file for easy viewing and assimilation.

A 30-day trial version of Acrobat 3D, which includes all the features of Acrobat 7.0.7 Professional and LiveCycle Designer 7.0.7 software for forms, is available. Note the system requirements before downloading the tryout. If you have other Acrobat software versions installed (with the exception of Adobe Reader), you will be prompted to uninstall these versions. Adobe recommends that you have installation CDs from your previous Acrobat versions available before installing the Acrobat 3D trial.

System requirements for Acrobat 3D, which is currently available only for Windows, are a PC with an Intel Pentium 4 or M processor or equivalent running Microsoft Windows 2000 SP 2/XP. Internet Explorer 5.5 or later is required. The system should have at least 512MB of RAM, with 1GB recommended, and 1GB of available hard disk space, which includes space for the cache for optional installation files. For optimal performance, Adobe recommends a video card capable of at least 1024×768 resolution that provides pixel shader support and DirectX 8.1, which is required for hardware acceleration. An Internet or phone connection is needed to activate the product. Microsoft Office 2000/XP/2003 is required for 3D OCX and PDF Maker features, although not for basic Acrobat 3D functionality.

If you haven't already done so, update your free Adobe Reader to v7.0.7 or later and take a look at the sample Acrobat 3D PDF documents at You'll also find a more extensive list of Acrobat 3D features and a number of real-world examples of how the product is being used.

The v7.07 updates to the Acrobat product line provide support for AutoCAD 2006.

My feeling is that Acrobat 3D will require fairly regular updates from Adobe to keep abreast of changing 3D file formats. Adobe has been a bit slow on updates in the past, so it will be interesting to see if they can keep up with a swiftly evolving industry.

Acrobat 3D costs $995, with upgrades from Acrobat 7 Professional available for $545, and from v6, $699. Although idiosyncrasies currently exist with certain permutations of a few 3D file formats, these problems are known and should be resolved in the near future. Otherwise, CAD, engineering and manufacturing professionals will find much to like in Adobe Acrobat 3D.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and a computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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