Artists and visualists often want to work in 3D, as our world increasingly becomes saturated with 3D technology. But we may want to get their feet wet before making an investment in a massive program. Fortunately, we’re now blessed with free 3D tools — partly because industry heavyweights Google and Microsoft are so desperate for the Average Joe to populate their virtual worlds with 3D models.

First, Google acquired SketchUp, the fantastic, user-friendly 3D sketching tool. They made the basic version of SketchUp completely free. Unfortunately for visualists wanting to use videos in a VJ app or OBJ models in a Processing sketch, exporting requires the full version of the software. (On the other hand, it’s $500, a tiny fraction of that for academic users, and it is user friendly.)

Well, now you have yet another choice, courtesy your friends at Microsoft. Microsoft snapped up a 3D app of their own for their competing Virtual Earth product when they bought Caligari, creator of trueSpace back in February. Sure enough, like Google they’re making the tool free.

Now, I expect Microsoft is hoping you’ll spend countless hours making models of houses for Virtual Earth, not just using this as a cheapskate way of making 3D models for your visualist projects. But they’ll survive.

trueSpace itself could be a strong choice even if you had to pay for it. It has a rather lovely interface, and some powerful tools for modeling organic-looking shapes. You can also script complex generative, interactive procedural models. There’s even a real-time DirectX9 renderer, which I believe, with effort, could even make trueSpace your live tool. There are powerful export tools — something SketchUp tends to lack — and scripting options, so this could fit well into another workflow. And unlike SketchUp, trueSpace is a "real" 3D tool that does everything. Microsoft also gives you the full-blown tool for free, minus just a few add-ons like ray tracing. The only catch is that trueSpace is Windows-only.

trueSpace even stacks up nicely against some of the 3D heavyweights, with tools like a node editor, real-time 3D collaboration, and lots of rendering options that set it apart.

Of course, SketchUp and trueSpace are both proprietary, so the open source Blender is another option. Those with more 3D experience than me, I’d be curious to hear how you think trueSpace stacks up against Blender.


Free trueSpace 7.6 sign-up

When you’re ready to learn the tool, the video tutorials are now completely free, too.

But the bottom line: 3D tools are becoming more accessible, in cost, power, and ease of use alike. And as more people dive into 3D interactive tools like vvvv or Processing, and VJ-focused apps like 3L add 3D object import, I think the third dimension may increasingly infect visualist work.