There exists a near future where creating content in 3D is so easy everyone can do it. In some ways, it is a reality today! Let’s look at the industry’s current state; figure out what exists and what doesn’t make 3D content creation easy and accessible to everyone.
Traditional 3D Content Creation Software Is Complicated
To craft 3D assets professionally, you need to know at least one of four different software packages: Autodesk 3D Studio Max, Autodesk Maya, Cinema 4D, or Blender. These tools have been around for decades and used by hundreds of studios worldwide to make 3D assets, animation, and visual effects for art, movies, and games. There are also many related applications out there, and you can find a complete list here. There is a surprising amount of feature parody between the four applications and similarities that make using them the standard by which 3D content creation is more comfortable to generalize.
All four of them have one big thing in common: they are all tough to use! I spent tens of thousands of dollars on education at two different schools plus six years trying to become proficient with them. While I achieved some proficiency level, I discovered that making anything in 3D with these applications was extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. It only makes sense to craft in 3D if you can offset the high production costs with a large enough consumer audience willing to pay for your content. You also have to be proficient in all of these software areas to create something of quality.
These software packages are so big that the industry has to fracture into specialization for specific workflow roles. No one person in the company does everything (this is called a “Generalist” by smaller studios). Specialization positions exist like Previsualization, Layout, 3D Modeling, Animation, Lighting, Effects, Cloth, Simulation, and Rendering. These various specializations are all explained efficiently and simply at the traveling museum exhibit “The Science Behind Pixar,” which I highly recommend checking out if you have the opportunity.
Is this the only way to create 3D content? Of course not! Some may argue it’s not even the best way to make 3D content! All of those applications run on computers with a 2D screen and mouse that you interface with the content by simulating 3D environments and project them back at the viewer in four different views to be sure about where you are in 3D space when you work. Here are some screenshots to prove it:
Decades ago, these software packages came onto the market with only 2D monitors as output devices, which determined the user interface required to operate against 3D objects. This interface is NOT an intuitive way to work! It requires LOTS of additional user interface to orient the user to what is happening to ensure their 3D asset creation progresses. It is beneficial to work this way by offering precision work suitable for a mouse and keyboard, but the compromise is very slow workflows and very complex functionality.
Recent changes in commercial and consumer hardware technologies threaten to change all of that and offer an alternative way of creating 3D that is more accessible to everyone.
Virtual Reality Applications
Today there is a host of VR 3D content creation apps out there that are available to consumers where content is booming, such as Google Blocks, Oculus Medium, Sketchbox, Gravity Sketch, Masterpiece VR, Tilt Brush, Quill, AnimVR, and Tvori. These apps are sharing content on platforms such as Google Poly and Sketchfab. This interface is inherently more accessible, not requiring a user to hold down hotkeys to manipulate views while working but simply letting users be present in the same environment as their creation. This change alters the paradigm of creating 3D content by making it more natural and fluid, not to mention faster and more efficient since the hardware has finally caught up with the appropriate user interface paradigm.
These tools are challenging the commercial norm and reimagining workflows with a completely different user experience. Artists can move fluidly from one application to another, bringing along their assets to craft unique 3D experiences using the special tools each contributes along the way. Some are perfect for sketching (Tilt Brush, Gravity Sketch, Quill, AnimVR), others for modeling (Blocks, Sketchbox, Medium, Masterpiece Creator), others for rigging (Masterpiece Motion), and still others for animation (Tvori). These all deserve a deeper dive, so I’ll be exploring them each in turn in additional articles, so follow me to learn more!
If 3D content creation DOES become more accessible and democratized for the masses, would anyone even want to create with these 3D tools?
Consumer 3D Content Creation
Some people in the gaming industry saw the 3D content creation problem and decided there must be a better way to empower consumers to create 3D content. Their hunches led to some of the most successful and prolific games of our time! Let’s quickly go through a short timeline of groundbreaking games that rocked consumer 3D content creation foundations.
Second Life (2003)
http://secondlife.com/ — This massively online multiplayer virtual world empowered artists to create their own 3D assets, start a business, and sell them virtually in-game. This virtual environment was groundbreaking at the time, and users flocked to Second Life to socialize and express themselves in what everyone assumed was becoming a real Cyberspace.
https://www.spore.com/ — The official Wikipedia article can give you a good overview of this game’s massive scope. In the games industry, this was the first application of procedural animation, and EA presented several technical papers at Siggraph 2008 on the topic. It had a straightforward 3D character creation system that brought the character to life using procedural animations while the user added body parts dynamically. It also had a simple asset creation interface where users create buildings and ships by assembling building block 3D assets together into unique configurations also procedurally animated. Users created more than 100 million assets using these systems because it was easy to use and store in a Sporepedia to share with other users.
Spore’s Creature Creator allows you to create a custom creature by adjusting the shape and adding or removing body parts. The animals respond dynamically to the body parts they receive and come to life using procedural animation.
Little Big Planet (2009)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LittleBigPlanet — This game built by Media Molecule was simple in premise: create a game where the users could create their own levels and creations. It came with 16 story levels and a level builder that gave users the power of physics simulation. It was so simple to build in and share your creations that over 6 million user levels existed as of 2012 and this continues to grow with new releases of the game on new platforms.
https://www.minecraft.net/en-us/ — This viral game created by Mojang became the best-selling video game of all time selling over 200 million copies by 2020. This game was also a procedurally generated world where users could mine resources and craft tools to build incredible custom creations within it. It expanded and evolved many times over from PC to console experiences, education experiences, mobile experiences, augmented reality experiences, and even virtual reality experiences.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
https://www.nomanssky.com/ — This game was created by Hello Games and features a 100% procedurally generated universe to explore. That means that every part of a planet’s ecosystem (from plants to wildlife, resources, weather, temperature shifts, history, habitations, ships, moons, and solar systems) is all created on the fly for each player. It’s so massive that there are over 18 quintillion variations of planets to discover across 255 galaxies. When you explore in this game, you are exploring new creations that the algorithm has generated based on phenotypes and building blocks used for each aspect of the game. Not only that, but the crafting system is extensive, allowing users to create entire cities.
https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/dreams/ — This follow-up game by Media Molecule completely reimagined what the creation of 3D content could be. This extremely robust 3D content creation game encourages users to create their dreams and share them with the world. Users can create 3D content and add event programming logic, enabling users to make their own games and experiences. It also allows a broad user base of PSVR owners to create 3D content natively in VR! This platform has already yielded some of the most profound and artistic 3D content and experiences made by consumer artists worldwide. Discover them for yourself on Twitter by following the hashtag: #MadewithDreams.
As you can see from the games listed above, the consumer market is dying to create 3D content and share it with the world! Every one of those titles mastered an aspect of the art of 3D content creation and made them easy for consumers to manipulate themselves without needing a 4-year degree in 3D animation! Every game has attained a level of success because it captured people’s imaginations, inspired them, and empowered them to create and share 3D experiences. But why should gamers be the only ones benefitting from all of these easy-to-use 3D technologies?
The Future of 3D Content Creation
It’s time for all 3D content creation platforms to evolve and leverage all of the wonderful tools we’ve put in the hands of consumers.
I believe the future of 3D content creation is an amalgamation of several technologies. It will inevitably be a combination of:
- Spatial Computing (AR, VR, XR) to cohabitate with our designs (like with Masterpiece VR, Medium, and Tvori)
- Spatial Audio to ensure the sounds come from the correct sources relative to viewers (like in VeeR)
- Procedurally Generated Content and Animations to speed up the creation of worlds, creatures, vehicles, and buildings (like in Spore, Minecraft, and No Man’s Sky)
- Neural Networks to interpret our intent from words we speak and generate the content on the fly (like with DALL-E)
- Motion Capture to quickly capture and animate our creations in real-time (like what’s being done by wrnch)
- Visual Scripting to add interactivity and behavior logic to experiences (like uNode in Unity)
- Simulations for physics, cloth, fur, and crowds (like in Little Big Planet)
- Virtual Collaboration so we can build together (like with Sketchbox and Masterpiece VR)
- Sharing Platform so we can spread our creations worldwide (like in Little Big Planet, Dreams, and Sketchfab)
- Blockchain Decentralized Cryptocurrency so creators can monetize their products and transfer ownership securely through a digital ledger (like what’s going on at Decentraland)
If these technologies were to be combined intelligently, users could don the HMD of their choice and:
- brainstorm with an AI for procedurally generated models from a neural network
- assemble creations from prebuilt phenotypes for procedurally animated creations
- shop for content created by other users that they could leverage in their products (with embedded metadata for licensing and credits)
- procedurally animate or motion capture animations for a story
- make it interactive with node-based scripting
- beautify it with lighting and simulated effects
- collaborate on it with their peers
- market and distribute it on common platforms
- get paid from distribution rights, subscriptions, and licenses
- only pay for licensing at the time of distribution rather than all upfront
This kind of application or platform would usher in a 3D renaissance among creatives, something that the spatial computing industry desperately needs to thrive. In this industry, content is king, and right now, there isn’t enough compelling content to push consumers past the tipping point to where everyone must have a device. Once 3D content creation is so easy that everyone can do it, the floodgates will open to all the fantastic content just waiting in people’s minds for exploration by the masses. We’ve seen it before with the games listed above, and it’s a safe bet we’ll see it again. When the only way you can experience this content or create this content is to have a device yourself, you’ll buy one too!
I have searched far and wide for more effortless 3D content creation experiences. I’ve bought and created content within all of the applications and games listed above. I believe there is always a better workflow waiting just beyond the horizon. New workflows are being explored every day, and new ways to express your creativity in 3D.
3D content creation doesn’t have to be hard anymore. We have the technologies already. We need pioneers and groundbreaking companies with the right resources to stitch them together for us. Until then, we can bounce back and forth between the available games, apps, and tools, building creative workflows to bring our 3D visions to life.
Stay tuned for more explorations and articles regarding this.
Let’s build this future together for the benefit of all of the dreamers out there.