In code labs and meeting rooms throughout the software industry, programmers and product managers are trying to produce 3D printing's killer app, aka, the Great Enabler. Most agree the CAD learning curve is 3D printing's barrier to mass adoption and that simplified 3D modeling software is the key. Sixense's MakeVR goes beyond easier software by naturalizing the human-to-computer interface and incorporating features such as multi-user cooperative mode.
"The 3D printing industry recognizes that there is this void that needs to be bridged," says Steve Hansted, MakeVR Product Manager. "It's a void between people who don't have the time, money or inclination to learn a deep menu-based tool, and the objects they wish to create and print. With MakeVR, people can just start interacting with content."
Unlike other 3D modeling software, MakeVR requires 3D input from a device like Razer's Hydra, Sixense's own Kickstarter hit, the STEM System, or camera-based systems like Intel's Perceptual Computing depth camera. The idea is that computer mice are great for operating 2D software, but they are not ideal for navigating a 3D environment.
At the recent CES show in Las Vegas, in a Venetian Suite setting surrounded by Mcor and Afinia prints, I was treated to a private demo by the Sixense team. I had witnessed an earlier version during the fall of 2013, but this time I was handed the STEM System prototype controllers and allowed to explore a little.
One might at first assume it would be difficult to adjust from a lifetime of mouse manipulation to an airborne 3D controller system. I can testify that for me – and I've been using a mouse for nearly thirty years – there was almost no transition at all. I picked up the controllers, squeezed the triggers and started swimming through the virtual workspace as if I'd been doing it all my life. Instead of the key-mouse combinations used for rotation and zoom in other 3D modeling software, I simply moved my hands to go somewhere, change my perspective or grab an object. MakeVR evokes a thunderous epiphany – that we can work with a mouse and keyboard because we have trained ourselves, not because it is natural.
As for the software itself, it really is much easier to use than standard 3D modeling programs. Part of it is the fact that the system was designed for a 3D interface from inception, so the developers never had the option of using hot-key combinations and endless drop-down menu trees as a solution. Instead, buttons on the controllers bring up file and tool selection dialogues and once you know which buttons do what, it becomes second nature.
MakeVR is the result of Sixense's gaming and motion tracking roots being merged into a refined 3D modeling tool specifically for the purpose of producing 3D printable output. Experience gained on gaming products have given the development team a keen understanding of what it takes to make a person comfortable in a 3D environment. When MakeVR users add an Oculus Rift headset into the mix, they look like gamers, and in a sense they are, with the game being invention.
Its noticeable resemblance to entertainment is an important part of what makes it so good for beginners and children. It's educational kung fu. By the time someone realizes they are learning how to be a maker, they are already hooked.
Netfabb and service bureau integration are planned. I saw this in action when a few quick controller clicks loaded the current model into Shapeways, quoting prices using all available materials. It was a seamless software-to-online provider transition, as natural as everything else about MakeVR. "There are bounding volumes that let the user know the size of the object before it gets to Shapeways, so there is a good idea what the price will be," notes Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense.
For those who are familiar with more traditional 3D modeling, there is an undeniable and substantial upgrade in fun when working with MakeVR. But, it would be unwise to discount its legitimate strengths as a 3D modeling platform. Like most modeling programs, you don't start from nothing – you start with primitive objects, basic 3D shapes that can be modified by having them cut or joined. Anything can be a knife, carver or glue. Even though I was only shown an alpha version, I was able to perform boolean operations with entire models and the result was perfect topology like that seen only in the best CAD software. I was also able to do spline-like sweeping without having to first draw a series of lines on 2D planes. Instead, I grabbed the object and moved it through 3D space, extruding on the fly.
It is all extremely organic, like playing with floating toys in a room, but you begin to realize the virtual tools are specifically designed to keep you from making what a 3D printer would see as a mistake. It is easy to create a model that can't be 3D printed with most 3D modeling software, because most 3D modeling software is designed for a myriad of purposes – 2D rendering, physics emulation, posing and animation, cloth and hair simulation. MakeVR is different. It exists to allow people to create 3D printable items. You won't make the next Avatar with MakeVR, but you'll be creating custom real-world items in short order, and you'll likely have a better time doing it.
Sixense's MakeVR will be on display at the 3D Printer World Expo in Burbank Calif., Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2014.