Let’s say you’ve always been curious about 3D applications, and have decided to give 3D a try. Where do you start? Top-tier 3D applications, such as Maya and 3DS Max (both now owned by Autodesk), cost $5000 or more, so they probably aren’t the best choice for getting your feet wet. And while 2008 saw the elimination by Autodesk of a free, Personal Learning Edition of Maya, it also saw the introduction of some new and quite capable free programs. Believe it or not, there are some very good options available to you that cost absolutely nothing. Some corporations, such as Microsoft, are hoping to generate interest in 3D, and so they are giving away programs that used to sell for hundreds of dollars. Here’s a list of free 3D applications that are definitely worthwhile, and a great way to begin learning about the world of 3D. Enjoy!
In 2008, Google released version 7 of Sketchup, which is an easy-to-use 3D application as well as a place to share models with a worldwide community. There’s a paid “Pro” version, too, but the free version is plenty powerful, and a great way to find out if 3D is for you. There are versions for both Windows and Mac. This is probably the most popular app in this list.
Microsoft’s Virtual Earth offers competition Google Earth. Just as Google Sketchup works with Google Earth, Virtual Earth works with 3DVIA Shape, which is remarkably similar to Sketchup. One difference, however, is that Shape only runs on Windows, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In 2008, Microsoft acquired Caligari Corporation, makers of trueSpace, and beginning in July, made it available to anyone for free. TrueSpace has been around, in one form or another, since 1986. It’s a complete package, including animation and collarboration tools, as well as 3D modeling. Windows only.
Houdini is a high-end 3D animation package competing with the likes of Maya and 3DS Max, and comes with a similarly stratospheric price tag. But, unlike Autodesk, SideFX (the makers of Houdini) continue to offer a free personal learning edition. If you have your sights set on working in Hollywood, this might be a good place to get started. For Windows, Mac, and Linux.
As I mentioned recently, E-On software is currently giving away free copies of the beta version of Vue 7 Pioneer. This free version will give you a free license to the final version of Pioneer, once it is released. That’s a hard deal to pass up, considering you’re getting the latest version for nothing! The Personal Learning Edition of Vue 6 is still available for download, as well. For Mac and Windows.
DAZ Studio differs from all the other programs on this list in that it does not allow you to create 3D models from scratch. Instead, think of it as a sort of virtual photography studio, where you can set up pre-made figures and objects, and take digital pictures (renders) of them. DAZ makes its money on the figures, props, clothing and accessories for use within DAZ Studio.
Blender is a free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License. It has a reputation for being a bit difficult to use, but it is also said to be as powerful as any full-fledged commercial program. Open source means it is, and always will be, free.
Interested in creating 3D content for video games? Gmax is a stripped-down version of 3DS Max, offered for free to gamers looking to make their own game content. Autodesk dropped support of Gmax in 2005, but it is still available for download, along with tutorials, a “gamepack” for Quake III, and an online community for collaborating. Windows 98 and Windows 2000.
Mod Tools, like Gmax, above, is the stripped-down gamer’s version of Softimage XSI, another high-end 3D application recently acquired by Autodesk. The link I’m posting here currently says the download is offline until January 2009. You may also want to check out this link for an XSI development environment for the game Half-Life. Free.
Wings 3D is an open-source modeling program, with no animation capabilities. Some people swear by it, some just swear at it. Free, runs on all platforms.
Terragen is a free, photorealistic, scenery generation application, much like Vue Infinite You can create some amazingly lifelike images with Terragen. Runs on Windows and Mac.
Lightwave is one of the top 3D packages, and this is a good way to check it out. You can download Lightwave and use it for 30 days, free. They’re also including 24 hours’ worth of training videos! That alone may make it worth you while. Windows and Mac.