Toybox: SketchUp Pro 6 for professional modellers

Once you get comfortable with SketchUp's drawing conventions, you can generate 3-D models very quickly

Google's SketchUp Pro 6 is an enhanced version of its free SketchUp 6 program. The free version features the application's powerful 3-D functionality, while the pro version adds two main features necessary for professional modellers.

One is an expanded set of export formats that allow SketchUp modellers to work closely with architects using CAD software. The other is the bundled LayOut program (still in beta). You'll need LayOut if you want to print 2-D views of a SketchUp 3-D model (or if you want to project a 2-D slide on a computer screen). If, for example, you want to create a set of printed displays for a kiosk, or to present to a client, you need SketchUp Pro.

Google recommends SketchUp for all kinds of 3-D drawing projects, and its available libraries (from Google's 3D Warehouse) include objects for plumbing, interior design, industrial design, and more. SketchUp is for drawing models, not blueprints — the drawing features don't support the level of precision scaling available in CAD programs, or in Adobe Illustrator, but are sufficiently precise for creating models, mock-ups, and demonstrations.

Once you get comfortable with SketchUp's drawing conventions, you can generate 3-D models very quickly. The environment is completely unlike traditional 3-D drawing programs, in which you draw and assemble surfaces. Instead, SketchUp approaches 3-D drawing with a design environment based on colour-coded dots, edges, and planes that indicate dimensions. Illustrators who are used to the traditional approach may find SketchUp's interface frustrating at first. But the ease with which you can move a wall, or adjust the pitch of a roof, and interactively adjust an entire project in SketchUp 6 can justify the learning curve over time.

You can easily apply textures — like brick or concrete — to SketchUp models, and you can add effects like fog or shadows. You can apply strokes such as pencil lines to give a hand-drawn look to projects.

The 3-D models you create in SketchUp also can be used to generate QuickTime movies that allow viewers to move from one perspective to another. The included 2-D presentation program, LayOut, allows you to rotate and adjust a model and apply effects before freezing a view as a 2-D slide.

While Google promotes SketchUp as an all-purpose 3-D modelling package, I suspect that the folks who will put the time and energy into mastering its features will likely be generating architectural renderings. SketchUp's ability to plop a building down onto a location in Google Earth has fascinating potential for people presenting real estate projects, for example. SketchUp imports geographic context (aerial photos and terrain) from Google Earth, and you can draw on top of that context. You can also export your model from SketchUp to Google Earth to share with others.

If you're interested in using Google's SketchUp as a 3-D modeller, start with the free version. If you get comfortable with the program's 3-D drawing environment, and you need to export your models to formats not supported by the free version, or you need to produce 2-D presentations, then consider the Pro version, US$495 (NZ$665) from www.sketchup.com.

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