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August 10, 2006

On Importing 3D Models Into Second Life

Dick Eades posted the following question on an older post and I wanted to answer it for everyone. Dick wrote:

I am an architect who has been working for forty years in the hotel field and I am interested in exploring the possibility of presenting designs in a virtual world such as SL. I work with several CAD programs including SketchUp and would like to know if there is any provision for importing dxf or 3ds models into SL. I would hate to think that I would have to recreate the entire model using SL's building system.

I also can't see some of my clients going through the process of getting SL memberships, logging in, and learning the interface just to see their project. "Can't you send it on a CD?"

Right now there are some very early experiments with importing 3D models from external applications like Maya or Blender, but nothing is "production" level yet. Second Life is streamed over the Internet and is entirely dynamic (i.e. it can change at any time, and everyone needs to see those changes at the same time). Given this, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) had to design a new 3D system with a much much lighter footprint per shape. Even with Linden Lab’s lighter footprint, savvy designers/builders in Second Life work to optimize their builds so that they run well on older computers. This, of course, will change as computing power and graphic cards increase in power.


Second Life is not based on 3D meshes. Rather, everything is built from very simple building blocks called primitives: box, cylinder, sphere, torus, tube, and ring. You can manipulate these primitives by changing size, cut, taper, hollow, etc. The core shapes and their permutations become your alphabet. You combine them and texture them to make your words, sentences and novels. People used to powerful 3D applications might find this a little crude, but you can actually make extremely impressive structures with this method. Of course, working from primitive shapes is not a new concept – art teachers throughout time have taught painters to examine nature this way. Cezanne once wrote “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,” and the American painter Thomas Eakins used to train his students by making them do studies of an egg, a lump of sugar, or a piece of chalk.

Bringing a model in from an external application like Maya or Blender requires a significant translation effort, especially if you want to translation to be optimized for computing performance. We believe that an import/translation tool is possible to create, but it probably makes sense to do some of that translation in the 3D tools (like Maya) rather than making a translation program do all of the heavy lifting. For example, if you can build in Maya in a more compatible fashion to Second Life’s primitives, importing should be easier.


As for Dick’s second question, you cannot save a Second Life model on CD because SL is entirely an online environment. You can use GL tools like OGLE to get Second Life objects into Maya (or even “print” them in 3D foam!), or just make a video of a walkthrough that can be edited and distributed.

However, Second Life is not designed to be a single-person, offline tool. Second Life's strengths are more along these lines:

- You can do a virtual tour with other people at the same time, communicating about what you see. The participants can be logged in from anywhere in the world.
- You can make changes on the fly. Other avatars around you instantly see those changes. You can even allow others to make changes and collaborate in real-time.
- You can bring objects to life using the scripting language, so that you can press a button or say a word and the building around will change on the fly or objects will have motion and interactivity (for example, the smart drawbridge which knows when to open and close). Again, as all this is happening, everyone in the virtual location would be seeing the same thing at the same time, no matter where they were located in the real world.

- You can integrate streamed audio and video into your 3D environment.
- I would also note that Second Life is an extremely fast building and prototyping platform, with a much lower learning curve than high-end tools like Maya

Hopefully all this helps answer your question!

-- Giff Constable

Posted by at 1:19 PM in 3D Modeling | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0) |


Thanks for the excellent response. I have a much better picture of the situation with modeling (or building in SL). As an architect, I am first oriented to developing the model for the real world client and finding a suitable presentation medium. My hopes were that SL might be able to provide a medium for that presentation, but it isn't if the building has to be modeled all over again using a different system.

My comment about "sending it on a CD" referred to getting a traditional CAD model out to a client in a manner in which he can manuever within it. "Send it on a CD" is the expression of the client's reluctance to be burdened by learning the unfamiliar environment of SL. Again the hope was that SL could be the medium of presentation for a model created in an external modeling program and that the client could visit SL and experience it there.

I think that SL has a ways to go before it can be used in this manner. We have to be realistic about the cost of developing complex building models and want to avoid doing it twice and SL will be torn between the desire for fantasy and the need for realism.

Posted by: Dick Eades | August 10, 2006 1:56 PM

Glad the post was helpful Dick. I think a lot of architects and builders are trying to figure out whether Second Life is ready to be useful for their businesses. There will be different adoption curves depending on individual priorities and target client base. I have been hearing that there are a number of architects in Second Life using it effectively already however.

Posted by: Giff Constable | August 11, 2006 12:18 AM

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