19 December 2008
PDFs ready to enter the third dimension
3D PDFs are basically like any other PDF file, but they have embedded into them a window though which you can view and manipulate a virtual model. The ability to view a 3D PDF is built into all the current versions of Adobe Acrobat 9.0 (available as a free download from adobe.com).
On initially opening a PDF with 3D content, the model appears as an ordinary image and will print as such. It is only after clicking on the image that a 3D toolbar appears across the top of the image and the image becomes interactive. The tools provided allow the user to rotate the model, pan horizontally or vertically, and zoom in or out, similar to the functions you might already be familiar using in an application like Google Earth.
The additional view control functions open up a range of possibilities. These view controls include play/pause control (for built-in animations), rendering control, lighting, and background colour control. These features give the format a flexibility that allows a model to be explored by changing the rendering to any one of 15 different settings, changing the background colour, and adapting the lighting to any one of 11 settings. Having chosen a particular view or style of rendering, the user is then able to print the view of the model they have chosen.
While these controls let the user choose how the model is viewed, the layer/level control feature allows further exploration of the model through the turning on or off parts of the model that have been created on different levels or layers. This gives the user the ability to view a complete building model, to see the same model with roof or external walls removed, or indeed to isolate the display of the structural elements only.
To get a feel for what is possible, it is worth looking at some of the examples of 3D PDFs available on the Adobe and Bentley websites at http://store.wip3.adobe.com/products/acrobat3d/3dpdf_samples/ and http://www.bentley.com/en-US/Products/MicroStation/Interactive+3D+PDF.htm
While the software to view a 3D PDF is free, the software to create them comes at a higher price. The basic tool for authoring a 3D PDF is Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended. This is an enhanced, Windows-only version of Adobe’s PDF authoring software. It allows users to make screen captures of 3D models within a cad application or to import common 3D files directly into a PDF. With this application, even inexpensive cad packages such as VectorWorks can be used to create 3D PDFs. More expensive cad packages such as Bentley’s MicroStation have the functionality built in and don’t need the Acrobat Pro Extended software.
As well as being an authoring tool, Acrobat Pro Extended acts as an enhanced viewer application. Additional features include enhanced navigation tools, measuring tools, and the ability to display sections of 3D models.
At the other end of the scale, Render Plus Systems has developed 3D PDF, which for less than US$200 can be used to pull the output of 3D PDFs into SketchUp Pro.
The PDF authoring software described here is only available in Windows-based formats, but 3D PDFs are readable on a Mac, and with Boot Camp and Windows installed, you don’t have to be left out when it comes to creating them.
3D PDFs have a huge potential, but perhaps if they are to become an everyday means for communicating design intentions, it would help if some of the viewing features incorporated into the Extended version were incorporated into the free version of the software. Nevertheless, the 3D PDF is a powerful and accessible file format.
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