We have dug up a less known Google application, SketchUp. SketchUp is not originally developed by Google; instead it was first launched in 1999 by @LastSoftware out of Colorado. In 2006 Google acquired the company and the rights to SketchUp.
SketchUp is a 3D modeling application, there are two versions one free (the one we will be testing) and a Pro version with more file-format options among other things. The pro version is $495. Both versions of SketchUp are integrated with Google Earth, allowing you to create 3D-models of buildings and then exporting them.
By nature 3D modeling apps are complicated; mastering suites like 3D Studio Max, Lightwave or Blender takes lots of time. SketchUp on the other hand is pretty easy to learn, and is one of few 3D applications where you can start experimenting almost right away.
The interface is easy to grasp, to make it even easier Google added some neat help texts for each tool that shows up in the upper right corner. There are some basic shapes you start with, such as rectangles, circles and polygons. In SketchUp you first create a 2D surface and then make it 3D, so for example if you want to create a wheel you first create a couple of circle surfaces, make them 3D and then flip the thing however you want it.
Most of the common tools are located in the upper part of the screen. The more advanced functions are hidden inside the menus by default, so it takes a little bit of browsing to find the good stuff. It is possible customize the desktop to see the tools and features that you want.
SketchUp has the features built in to work with layers, sort of like Adobe Photoshop. Outliner is a similar tool but creates a tree of the different objects in the model, it makes it a lot easier navigating models with many different objects involved.
Another very neat feature is the components, if you have created an object that you will use in many 3D models, for example a door. You can save the door locally as a component, then when you want it in another model you just fetch it from components browser.
SketchUp comes with Google Earth integration; it was however a bit flaky as my test computer started to install updates to Google Earth when I clicked “Get current view” from Google SketchUp. The problem was that the installation files that Google Earth was looking for could not be found and the computer locked up in an endless installation process. Then after restarting SketchUp the import from Google Earth worked flawlessly.
Even-though SketchUp are simple to use it does take time to master it fully. Opening the 3D warehouse makes you fully aware of that. The warehouse contains a number of user created models, many of them quite beautiful. They can easily be loaded directly into your scene; your model can also be uploaded to the warehouse. All of the models are rated by other users, and there are also comments attached to them, so in a sense SketchUp is one of a few 3D modeling apps with social web capabilities.
A drawback with SketchUp is that it does not render the 3D models itself, more expensive tools does this. In the pro version it is possible to export models in a number of different formats, the model can then be imported into a third party rendering engine. For example Blender.
SketchUp is a surprisingly fast program and nimble program. Large models run very well on an average computer, so there is no need for extra hardware such as memory when using this program. To fully master any 3D-application you often need to buy expensive books or online courses, sometimes even attend courses. SketchUp has a vibrant community and a load of free video tutorials. The tutorials ranges from the basics of learning the different tools in the program to making CAD-drawings and other advanced work.
Of course SketchUp is not a general tool that fits everyone, it can be used by game designers, engineers, architects or people interested in developing 3D-models for Google Earth. It is however relatively easy to get started with, making it broader in scope than many other similar applications.
Creating 3D models is perhaps not as hyped as the entire social and web 2.0 stuff that is going on right now. But SketchUp is a very good example what happens when you make something easy to use and add social capabilities in the background, it becomes great.