By Bob Bennett
Hundreds of companies today are offering 3D software tools and plug-ins, pre-built 3D data, and services to a growing set of 3D content creators. A global community of hundreds of thousands of 3D enthusiasts as well as professional artists and programmers utilize 3D technology in game development, video production, publishing, film, and graphic arts.
What factors are affecting the continued evolution of this 3D ecosystem? I believe there are three fundamental changes at work. They are: the rising popularity of new, best-of-breed 3D software, the growing global influence of online 3D communities, and the growing availability of pre-built 3D content.
Best-of-Breed 3D Software
An increasingly rich array of software for creating 3D content and images is now available. Previously, large, multi-purpose 3D software packages such as Softimage’s XSI and Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya dominated the commercial tools market. Independent 3D software developers created plug-ins that complemented those packages, extending the reach of these large islands of technology.
Today, a new crop of stand-alone, focused 3D products—which offer best-of-breed functionality—have arrived. These products are gaining industry recognition as superior point solutions for many functions, including terrain generation, modeling, sculpting, character animation, crowd animation, and rendering. Their appeal lies in task-focused workflows and technology specifically optimized for a particular subset of 3D production.
As a result, 3D content creation is increasingly accomplished by using multiple 3D products together. Products that "work well with others" by providing common navigation paradigms, industry-standard scripting, and flexible file handling seem to be especially valued. This phenomenon is not limited to the pipelines of large studios, which have long tapped multiple applications; it is also common for multiple applications to be used by smaller shops and independent creative professionals.
Online 3D Community Connection
Ever since people started using 3D software, the desire to share that experience with other 3D users has been strong. Over the years, the annual SIGGRAPH trade show helped to provide this sense of community, as did early online forums such as CompuServe. Today, the interaction among 3D artists is occurring on a much larger scale via the Internet, where very large online communities have formed. In dozens of online communities, 24 hours a day, 3D works in progress are presented and critiqued, technology advances are discussed, and techniques are shared. One community, CGSociety, has more than 252,000 registered members, with nearly 100,000 of those being active members. There is a core group that is on the site several times a week, and its community is growing at a rate of 57,400 new members per year.
These online communities provide immediate access to peer-based information, are showcases to exhibit 3D content, and form a kind of neutral zone that eschews marketing-speak and values open expression. Watch for these communities to evolve beyond information sharing and into true social networking sites as well as marketplaces for skills and 3D content. Also expect increased collaboration on projects among online communities of artists and new community-based methods for learning 3D tools and concepts.
Growth of Pre-built 3D Content
Gradually and quietly, the cumulative amount of pre-built models available to 3D artists has grown in both overall quantity and quality. Early 3D model collections were blocky, mostly mechanical objects that lacked organic detail and did not truly represent the richness of the real world. The current generation of 3D content is much improved. Highly detailed and fully textured models are now readily available in a wide variety of categories, such as military vehicles and architectural furnishings.
Several vendors encourage 3D hobbyists (who may know little about the mechanics of character construction) to purchase pre-built human models that can be downloaded and arranged with props and simple environments. And, in some cases, notably building materials and furnishings, 3D content is evolving from the generic to the world of branded, manufactured products. 3D buildings and landmarks from the "real world" are also now commonplace on mapping systems available from companies like Google and, recently, Microsoft.
Beyond pre-built content, there are now a variety of tools that will generate unique 3D content on demand, such as landscapes, realistic vegetation, or even human heads, according to user-supplied criteria.
The availability of ubiquitous, more detailed real-world-based 3D content is having and will continue to have a fundamental impact on the 3D ecosystem. Retail "countertop" applications that allow consumers to design porches, customize a scooter, or select materials for a countertop, for example, will become increasingly commonplace. The availability of relatively low-cost 3D printers means that consumers can potentially walk away from a kiosk with a custom 3D product in hand. In the realm of content creation software, professional tools will be affected, perhaps adopting an "assembly" metaphor that enables artists to quickly arrange pre-built 3D content into scenes, as opposed to the "blank-screen" construction metaphor still common today. Expect the line between applications and 3D content to blur as new ways to navigate and assemble pre-existing content are introduced.
The greater availability of 3D content is a powerful gateway to introducing more people to the hands-on use of 3D technology. This hands-on experience is beyond the passive exposure people receive from 3D in movies and even beyond the use of 3D in games. Perhaps the best current example is Google Earth, where millions of newcomers to 3D are navigating and using 3D content every day. Moreover, children are interacting with one another in virtual environments like Disney’s Toontown Online. Already we are seeing early uses of 3D on our mobile devices and in our automobiles. 3D data is becoming more common in everyday business communications, as enabled by PDF files and X3D viewers. As such, 3D is becoming entwined in people’s daily existence more and more, and increasingly is no longer considered "special" or "different."
With its intuitive interface, Luxology’s Modo modeling and rendering program attracts a range of professional artists and hobbyists who use the software.
The 3D industry is evolving from a small artisan market serving professionals into a global, cultural, and business phenomenon.
Many of us who are in the 3D "industry" have a kind of tool-centric view of the landscape. And so, it is interesting to note, that the expansion of the 3D market has not been precipitated by the arrival of a "killer app" that suddenly made it easy to master the complex art and science of 3D content creation. Rather, and perhaps ironically so, we are seeing a kind of democratization in the tools space. The center of the action is shifting from large, all-in-one 3D applications to a more egalitarian ecosystem with no dominant hub. The "one size fits all" approach from a few large vendors is giving way to a new world in which best-of-breed tools that focus on the task (and not simply presenting the technology) are thriving.
The artists who use today’s 3D content creation tools are now linked in non-commercial communities to an extent that could hardly have been anticipated a few years ago. One thing is certain, however; no one company "owns" the 3D customer in this new era of multiple product use and open communities. 3D artists rightfully thrive or struggle depending on their fundamental talents. And, success need not be a lonely quest: The opportunities for artists to share their experiences, obtain information from thousands of like-minded souls, and offer or sell their talents and creations have never been greater. Without question, online connections have brought a new age of collaboration and sharing to the professional artistic community.
As a result, 3D has quietly grown up. It has expanded into the mainstream far beyond the traditional boundaries of the old 3D market that, at times, seemed to have walls that would never move. In a sense, those walls around the 3D market still have not moved, for 3D has leapfrogged its way into maps, cell phones, and online spaces/games on the Internet. The jumping is being done, in many cases, not by "3D" companies, but by companies that are simply embracing a new media type.
Thus, throughout 2006, new users of 3D abound, and they are not just passive consumers of 3D sitting in movie theatres agape at the latest effects. Some of these new 3D users are enthusiasts who have discovered the undeniable thrill of creating their own 3D content, whether it be creating Google Earth content with SketchUp or sculpting a character in Modo. A broader group of new 3D users are consuming pre-built 3D content and may never have heard of inverse kinematics or know what Phong shading is. And they don’t need to—they are busy navigating their way through textured 3D cities, designing their new kitchens, and configuring a custom backpack. They are using 3D to meet new people, transfer knowledge to others, reduce maintenance costs, and design, buy, and sell real-world products.
I believe the future of the 3D market is one of diffusion. The computer science of 3D nurtured in the old 3D ecosystem will now radiate in many directions. There will always be a thriving professional market of "pure" 3D professionals, just as there are professional video editors, professional photographers, and professional sound editors. And just like with other forms of media, the professionals will establish the quality bar, set the trends, and guide much (but not all) of the technology development.
With so many new players in the market, innovation in the field of 3D is just as likely to come from Google or Nokia as it is from the original 3D industry. Opportunities abound for anyone with the talent and the foresight to leverage this flowering moment in the history of 3D.
Bob Bennett is a 3D industry veteran with over 15 years experience working at such companies as Autodesk, Alias Systems, and Microsoft. Most recently, he is working as VP of marketing for Luxology, makers of the Modo modeling, painting, and rendering software.