What FREE Options are Available for 3D Visualization?
While the entry level cost of premium 3D visualization has dropped dramatically the past decade or so, it still takes a considerable investment. While this may be frustrating to someone trying to do some side work on the weekends, as an owner of a small but growing 3D visualization studio, I’m grateful for the high barrier of entry. Even in today’s age of mainstream high speed hardware and subscription based software, it still takes a considerable investment to get going in 3D visualization for the type of transportation and other civil engineering projects I work with.
That said, you have to start somewhere. If you are like me you may have opportunities to work for large corporations that have the budgets for good hardware and software and you can learn on the clock. Others have resources available at the universities that they are studying at.
But, even with those options, not everyone has the abilities to work with the latest hardware or software and either learn new skills or preform visualization services for others and that is the focus of this conversation.
The most important question to ask yourself before you start exploring the free options for 3D visualization is this: will I be getting paid for this 3D visualization?
If you answered yes to that question then you almost have no options available for free. Even the popular Sketchup Make is only for educational or personal use. Demo versions are typically reserved to test out software and not to be used for paying clients. Even though those EULAs don’t usually get read, don’t even play with the idea of using demo or free versions for paid work if it isn’t allowed by the developer.
For paid clients your only options are essentially open-source. When it comes to 3D modeling and animation, Blender is your #1 option. The learning curve is steep and I personally don’t know the compatibility with CAD software, but Blender is incredibly capable and has an extensive and passionate user base available to help you out.
If you need to do some CAD work, there is an open source option for that as well in LibreCAD.
For video editing you can use Windows Movie Maker (I don’t believe there are rules against using this for paid work) and for image editing you can use GIMP which is another open source software focused on image manipulation.
If you aren’t ready to do paid work and are just interested in personal projects or improving your own abilities, you have many more options. Sketchup Make is nearly ubiquitous in the 3D modeling community and should become a staple in your skill set. If you do graduate to paid work you can get the Pro version of Sketchup for a relatively low price. Autodesk also offers free 30 day trial on their software which can be used to learn if it is right for you. Lumion has a free version that allows you to use most of the functions although everything you output will be watermarked from top to bottom (and rightfully so). ArcGIS allows a 60 day free trial.
The free versions of Google Earth and Street View are also helpful in research although make sure you read the EULA for Google Earth as some functions are only available in Google Earth Pro.
Don’t forget this tutorial on how to get terrain from NASA Reverb into InfraWorks for free (although InfraWorks is not free).
What free tools do you use for 3D visualization?