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AECbytes Product Review (March 13, 2007)

Google SketchUp 6

Product Summary

SketchUp is a popular application for conceptual 3D design exploration, presentation, and documentation, which has been specifically developed to be easy, intuitive, and fun to use.

Pros: Basic version, which includes most of its functionality is free; professional version, which adds the new presentation and documentation capability, is relatively inexpensive; modest system requirements; sparse and intuitive interface with minimal dialogs, options, and user input for seamless modeling experience; new release includes Photo Match, Styles, a basic 3D Text tool, Watermarks, and other modeling and display enhancements that add to the power and repertoire of the application without adding complexity; cross-platform, with the same interface on both the Windows and Mac versions; availability of video tutorials and self-paced tutorials makes the program easy to learn.

Cons: Lack of solid modeling capabilities makes it difficult to select and manipulate individual volumes for massing; not fully equipped for detailed and dimensionally accurate modeling; geometry-based, rather than object-based, so a SketchUp model cannot be intelligently re-used in a BIM application; no built-in photorealistic rendering or advanced lighting capabilities; no dimensioning capability in the LayOut tool; User's Guide accompanying the application has been eliminated.

Price: Basic version is free, professional version costs $495 for a new license; upgrade from previous release of professional version is free until June 30, 2007, if it was purchased from Google/@Last Software.

In my newsletter on Macworld 2007 published in January, I briefly described the new version of SketchUp, which had been released just in time for the show. Coming close to 18 months after the last release, SketchUp 6 is particularly significant as it is the first release of SketchUp since its acquisition by Google last year. In that time, Google has already released a free version of SketchUp, which has boosted its popularity even further. While Google did this primarily to encourage more users to develop models for its Google Earth application, it also benefits the AEC industry by putting a quick and easy-to-use 3D modeling tool in the hands of any aspiring designer, student, or practicing architect for free. This should help to nurture a whole new generation of architects that will start working on design ideas by modeling rather than drawing. Building information modeling (BIM) is then only one step further, putting an end, once and for all, to the "dumb CAD drawings" era. The free availability of SketchUp must, no doubt, be causing angst to some AEC vendors as it will hasten the demise of their CAD applications; yet ironically, the 3D mindset it nurtures will benefit some of those very vendors by enabling the entire industry to transition to their BIM solutions more easily.

SketchUp 6 incorporates several features that had been demonstrated as prototypes at the 3D Base Camp in October 2005, including Photo Match, which allows users to adjust a 3D perspective grid over site photographs and then model 3D elements with respect to the grid or match an existing model with a background photo; Styles, which allows easy access to a collection of display settings that can be saved and shared; new display types including Sketchy Edges, Watermarks, and Fog; and the ability to model 3D text. The most dramatic new feature, however, is LayOut, which had been demonstrated in the past at the 3D Base Camp and at the AIA 2006 Convention as a separate application, Grizzly. It now comes bundled with SketchUp Pro (the paid version of SketchUp, intended for professional use), and allows users to quickly create professional-looking design presentations and documentation sets from SketchUp models. All these new features as well as other enhancements are explored in more detail in this AECbytes Product Review.

For a historical perspective on SketchUp's evolution, please see a comprehensive overview of the application in my review of SketchUp 4.0, as well as my subsequent review of SketchUp 5 describing the functionality it introduced including new terrain modeling tools, the ability to add depth to drawings, improved ability to organize and manage component models, enhanced 3D export, and new import formats such as DEM and 3DS.

Modeling Enhancements

Topping the list of modeling enhancements in SketchUp 6 is Photo Match, which allows a site photograph or any other digital image to be imported into SketchUp and a 3D perspective grid to be adjusted over it so that the modeling environment can match with the image. This feature is demonstrated in Figure 1, where the top image shows the default perspective grid placed over the imported photograph and the lower image shows the same grid after the perspective lines and scale were adjusted to match those of the photograph. The process was quick and easy, requiring just the two sets of red and green axis bars to be aligned with parallel elements in the photograph, and the grid origin to be relocated to a meaningful spot. With this grid in place, SketchUp can now be used to model elements that correctly match the photograph, useful when modeling as-built conditions as in the case of these historic Mayan ruins in Chichén Itzá, Mexico. You could also use the same feature to easily match an existing model with a background photo. The Photo Match dialog provides additional useful options including the ability to turn the photograph display on or off, make it transparent to any desired level, and adjust the grid scaling to allow it to be more accurately scaled. Modeling elements with respect to this grid requires building the geometry first from the origin and axes and subsequently building on those elements. You can orbit the view at any time and use the Scene tab that is created by default to get back to the Photo Match view.


Figure 1. Using Photo match to align the SketchUp modeling environment with an imported photograph. The top figure shows the default perspective grid, while the lower figure shows how it has been adjusted to match the photo.

Photo Match also goes a step further than simple photo matching; it allows you to create a model by matching different sides of it with multiple photographs. So, for instance, if I wanted to accurately model the structure shown in Figure 1, I would start with one image, photo match it, model as much as possible on the basis of that photograph, then orbit the model to a different side and import a second photograph showing that side of the structure. This would again be photo-matched, and I could now use this new photograph to model additional parts of the structure. The automatically created Scene tabs allow quick toggling between the two photo-matched views. In this way, if multiple photographs of a structure are available, they can be used as a reference for accurately remodeling it in SketchUp.

Not only does the Photo Match feature help in recreating the correct modeling environment of a structure from photographs, it can also be used to map parts of the photo to the corresponding surfaces. Figure 2 shows this photo mapping completed for one of the walls of the structure that were modeled using the photo-matched grid shown in Figure 1. The opacity of the photo itself has been greatly reduced in Figure 2 to show how the wall texture, mapped from the original photo, is now part of the model itself rather than just being seen through from the photo. If the entire structure has been completed modeled using multiple photo-matches, then the entire model can be photo-mapped in this manner. The end result of the process will be a 3D model that has most of the textures of the original photographs and looks very much like it.


Figure 2. Photo mapping the texture from the photo-matched image shown in Figure 1 to a wall that was modeled using the photo-matched grid.

Creating signage in SketchUp is now easier with the 3D Text tool. Selecting it opens up the 3D Text dialog where you can enter the text you want to display, the font, text height, and whether it should be a simple outline, filled surface, or fully extruded 3D text with the specified thickness. After exiting the dialog, the text object is created according to the specifications and you can place it on any surface. The orientation of the text adjusts automatically based on the surface. So, for example, if you move the cursor to the top surface of the box, the text is placed flat on it, whereas, if you move it to one of the vertical surfaces, it is placed vertically as shown in Figure 3. This pretty much captures the current functionality of the 3D Text tool. Advanced text modeling features found in more high-end modeling applications, such as the ability of the text to wrap around a curved surface, creating a text object along a curved path, or creating a text object of varying height that spans between two control lines are not yet available in SketchUp. Also, editing of the text object after creation is limited to basic modification operations such as move, rotate, and scale. You cannot edit the actual text of the object, or even simply take it and move it to a surface with a different orientation. Once it is placed, its orientation is fixed and can only be manipulated with the Rotate tool.


Figure 3. Using the 3D text tool to create signage for a model.

Since SketchUp is a surface modeling rather than a solid modeling tool, it relies heavily on the Intersect capability for creating any kind of complex geometry by simulating Boolean operations. In SketchUp 6, the Intersect tool is more robust and a new Intersect Selected option has been introduced to limit the intersection only to selected objects when there are multiple intersecting objects. There is an additional Intersect with Context option, but the documentation did not shed any light on how this could be used. Other modeling enhancements include the use of the Arrow keys to lock the inference direction to any of the three axes, making modeling and editing a lot easier, as well as the use of modifier keys such as Ctrl to invoke operations like copy at any time during an operation.

Display and Viewing Enhancements

From a visualization perspective, the new Styles capability comes in very handy. It is no longer necessary to manipulate multiple settings to change or customize how the model looks or use the Scene tabs (formerly known as "Pages") to save display settings. All the different aspects that make up a specific display setting such as line styles, extensions, jitters, face colors, transparency and so on, can now be saved as a "style" in the new Styles browser, from where it can be quickly applied to the model. SketchUp comes with a large number of pre-defined styles, grouped in categories such as Color Sets, Sketchy Edges, Straight Lines, Paper Watermarks, and so on. These, by itself, provide a wide variety of different displays, two of which are shown at the top of Figure 4. Any of these styles can be tweaked to create a different look by editing it. The Edit tab of a style, shown in the lower left image of Figure 4, shows the different display settings that can be adjusted, grouped under five categories: Edge, Face, Background, Watermark, and Modeling. While the first four deal with the four main visual components making up a display, the Modeling category contains display options for geometry such as section planes, section cuts, hidden geometry, construction guides, axes, and so on. The large number of settings makes it possible to create an extremely wide variety of display styles. SketchUp even goes a step further in style creation by allowing you to "mix" specific settings of other styles into the current one, as shown in the lower right image of Figure 4, where the Face Settings of a Color style has been mixed with one of the Sketchy Edge styles to create a new look for the model.


Figure 4. Four different displays of the model based on different styles.

After a style has been edited, either by directly changing its display settings or by mixing the settings of another style with it, the style can be updated with the new settings. To retain both the original and revised versions, you could make a copy of the style and then update the copy with the desired edits. All of these operations can be carried out in the Styles browser. By default, styles are saved only within the current model. If you want to use a style you have created in other SketchUp models, all you need to do is save it as a style file in a styles library folder, from where you could then upload it into other projects. This allows firms to create and save their own personal collection of styles that can be standardized and used across all their SketchUp projects.

The only issue I found with the otherwise impeccable implementation of styles is that each style you switch to while exploring different display options for the model gets stored under the "In Model" category, even if you don't explicitly save it there. Thus, if you have browsed through 50 different styles before hitting upon the right one, all of them will get saved in the Styles Browser, making it difficult to find the ones you really want. There is a Purge option to remove unused styles, but it would have been simpler if only desired styles got saved to begin with.

The new Styles capability in SketchUp 6 is nicely complemented by the introduction of some additional display types including Sketchy Edges, which renders edges to simulate a hand-drawn look; Fog, which adds atmospheric haze and a sense of depth; and Watermarks, which are 2D images placed in the background or foreground of the drawing area that do not change when the model view is modified. The most obvious use of a watermark is for bringing in a background image to provide a context for the model, but it can also be used to add artistic effects such as a paper texture or gradient fill, or functional items such as a logo, descriptive text, labels, and so on. Watermarks have several associated options: they can be stretched across the screen, or tiled or positioned at a specific spot with the scale set as desired. You can also create the watermark as a mask which will only be applied to the model rather than the background and specify the level of blending between the model and the image. As shown in Figure 5, the use of watermarks can be used to add interesting effects to the display.


Figure 5. The use of watermarks to add some additional artistic effects to a display.

Creating Sheet Sets and Presentations with LayOut

The LayOut utility is a separate application that is installed along with SketchUp Pro 6. It is currently in beta mode and still somewhat unstable, but otherwise very much functional. LayOut is essentially a 2D presentation graphics and page layout tool intended to complement the use of 3D modeling done in SketchUp. It is very close to SketchUp in spirit—it is simple, intuitive, and easy to use. It lets you place text, images, views of SketchUp models, etc., on multiple pages, with the ability to create background graphics such as a title block that will run across all the pages. You can use it to create a sheet set for printing or electronic distribution in PDF format, or for presentation as a slideshow in full screen mode. Where LayOut fundamentally differs from other CAD, page layout, and presentation tools is in its ability to interact with the images of the SketchUp models that are placed on the pages. An image is actually a viewport into the 3D model, and you can modify what is seen in the viewport by accessing various SketchUp options including Perspective, Standard Views, Shadows, as well as the Scenes and Styles that were saved for that model (see Figure 6). Double-clicking on the viewport takes you to a 3D Edit mode, allowing you to further change the view by orbiting, zooming, panning, or using any of SketchUp's other Camera tools. Thus, you need to insert the model only once in LayOut; you can then copy the viewport multiple times on the same page as well as on other pages, and resize each viewport and set its view as required. Figure 6 shows four different views of the same model shown in Figure 5 placed on a LayOut sheet. The link to the original SketchUp file is preserved in LayOut, which allows the images to be automatically updated if the model is changed.


Figure 6. Laying out multiple views of a model in the LayOut tool.

LayOut comes with a basic set of drawing and annotation tools for adding labels and additional detail to the SketchUp views that have been inserted. It also comes with many common drafting symbols as well as drawings of trees, cars, and people organized in scrapbooks that can simply be dragged and dropped into the drawing to enhance its presentation quality. Users can also create their own libraries of symbols to use across projects. LayOut incorporates scale, which means that any view of the model can be set to a desired scale. Entourage elements such as people and trees are also available at different scales. The system is not yet smart enough to automatically size symbols placed inside the model viewports according to the scale they are set to, so the onus of placing these objects at the correct scale is on the user. Some other key aspects of the application are the availability of templates incorporating different sheet sizes and title blocks for setting up the pages (see Figure 7); smart inferencing, object snaps, and grid snaps that makes it easier to place images in desired alignments as well as create new shapes; and the ability to create red-lines in presentation mode that are saved in a separate layer and can be reviewed at any time. There are no dimensioning tools, which would have been useful to have. I was also disappointed to find that the Styles concept, which has been so nicely implemented in the modeling environment of SketchUp, is completely absent in LayOut. You have to rely on the styles that have been created in the modeling environment to display the images in a specific way; you cannot create any new presentation styles in LayOut.


Figure 7. A sample multi-page presentation created in LayOut using a template with a title block.

Other Enhancements

Some other enhancements in SketchUp 6 include text and dimension improvements with font sizes that remain fixed relative to a model and better display quality on screen, in images and in printing; redesigned Component, Materials, and Styles Browsers that make them easier to use; the availability of a new Two point perspective view in addition to the regular Perspective view; and a new Paste in Place command that makes it easier to move geometry in and out of components or groups without having to reposition your selection. SketchUp 6 is supposed to be up to 5x faster depending on models and hardware, but I did not find any noticeable difference on my computer—large models were still quite slow to work with.

The use of SketchUp in conjunction with Google Earth and the 3D Warehouse is now much easier with a direct link built into the Pro version, without the need for a plug-in. If Google Earth is running, you can get to the desired location and import it as a snapshot into SketchUp Pro, create your model, and then place it back on that location in Google Earth. For sharing the model on this location with others, it can be exported as a KMZ file. The model can be viewed on the actual site by anyone using Google Earth who has access to this file. Interaction with the 3D Warehouse is even simpler. A Get Models button opens up the 3D Warehouse, allowing you to browse through the extensive selection of models and download any of them directly into your SketchUp session (see Figure 8). And if you want to post your own model to the 3D Warehouse to share with others, a Share Model button lets you quickly do that as well.


Figure 8. Downloading a patio furniture set model from the Google 3D Warehouse directly into the open SketchUp project shown earlier in Figure 3.

Analysis and Conclusions

SketchUp continues to remain the best tool for conceptual 3D design exploration along all fronts—it has simplicity and elegance coupled with intelligence and sophistication that let you model with effortless ease; and it is a lightweight application with relatively modest system requirements, quick and easy to install. With a new price of tag of $0 for the basic version—which has most of its functionality—there is really no reason for anyone to not use it for exploring 3D design concepts, even in those parts of the world where the cost of software usually prohibits it from being deployed en masse. The new features in version 6 such as Photo Match, Styles, 3D Text, Watermarks, and other modeling and display enhancements—all of which are available in the free version as well as the professional version—add to the power and repertoire of the application, but without detracting from its inherent simplicity in any way.

With all this good stuff available for free, why would anyone want to spend money to buy SketchUp Pro, even if it is relatively inexpensive at $495? That's where the integration of LayOut comes in, which is only available in the professional version. Also, AEC professionals will typically want to export their SketchUp models to other CAD and BIM applications, and this functionality is again restricted to the professional version. The integration with the 3D Warehouse and Google Earth is helpful, but it does not stand out as the compelling factor in opting to buy SketchUp Pro. Getting back to LayOut, it is a terrific tool for extending the functionality of SketchUp from modeling to creating drawing sets and presentations. Still in nascent form, it has plenty of room for improvement and growth, such as providing dimension tools, the ability to create and modify presentation styles which can be quickly applied to other drawings, symbols that correctly resize according to the scale of the model view seen through a viewport, and so on. But even in its current form, after final post-beta release, it should be a very useful addition to SketchUp.

One aspect of SketchUp that I have complimented highly in past reviews has been the excellent quality of its documentation, including video tutorials on the SketchUp website, self-paced tutorials that can be downloaded and used within SketchUp to master the basics, and the User's Guide accompanying the application, which was enhanced in SketchUp 5 with a concepts section, a glossary, and visual cues letting users know when a companion video tutorial was available on the same topic. I was disappointed, therefore, to find that the User's Guide has been completely eliminated in this release. All the documentation is now only available on the SketchUp website, which means that you need to be connected to the Internet to access it. This is a bad idea, not just for users in countries where Web access is still not easy, but for all users—imagine trying to use SketchUp on a plane and needing help with a feature, but not being able to access the documentation and being stuck because of that. SketchUp does include an Instructor palette which provides some basic information about a tool, but this cannot replace the need to have full-fledged documentation accompanying the application, without having to rely on Internet access to get to it. The SketchUp teams tells me that PDF versions of the online Help should be available soon for download, which should be useful, although this cannot fully substitute for the User's Guide that used to accompany the application.

While SketchUp does a terrific job at what it can do, sooner or later AEC professionals will hit its boundaries and wish for more functionality. The lack of wall objects means you have to find a way to model them from scratch. There is no concept of a volume; to simulate one, you have to select all the surfaces of an object and group them. The lack of solid modeling capabilities means relying on the Intersect tool to subtract one object from another, which is quite cumbersome as you have to delete surfaces individually after carrying out the operation. There is no grid display you can turn on for reference or for snapping; you would have to create one yourself using construction lines. The Sandbox tools for modeling terrain are very basic: contour lines have to manually positioned at the correct heights and cannot be automatically placed using a specific contour interval. Also, you cannot model a terrain as a solid on which cut-fill analysis, for example, can be done; you can only model it as a surface. I hope that in time, the professional version of SketchUp can be developed to have some of these capabilities and make it more compelling, even if it had to be priced a little higher to accommodate them. In addition, although SketchUp has never claimed to be a high-end visualization solution, its users would certainly welcome having some advanced lighting and photorealistic rendering capabilities. There is active third-party development currently taking place to connect SketchUp to popular rendering applications, but integrating these capabilities within SketchUp would make the process more seamless for the user.

As mentioned in the beginning of this review, I think that the free availability of SketchUp will make 3D thinking much more commonplace in the AEC industry, thereby speeding up the transition to BIM. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that SketchUp is not a BIM application. Yet, many product manufacturers are starting to put their content libraries in the form of SketchUp models in the 3D Warehouse, which seems somewhat meaningless as that content, by default, becomes just plain geometry in SketchUp and loses all its object data. Their effort could be better spent in building object models that can directly be used in BIM applications, which is what the AEC industry needs more urgently.

The SketchUp team tells me that it is possible to store metadata in SketchUp models using the Ruby scripting interface that was introduced in SketchUp 4.0. However, no one has used this yet to support data transfer to BIM applications. It is possible that a third-party developer might take up this as a good business opportunity, or that SketchUp itself might eventually evolve to include object metadata in addition to its geometry by default. It could then become a real bridge between the initial conceptual 3D design process and the later detailed BIM process in building design. It will be interesting to see whether Google is content to let SketchUp remain a general-purpose 3D design tool for mass usage, or go further and fine-tune versions of it for more specialized use in some key industries like AEC. So far, Google's business strategy has been to develop products for the mass market than for specialized verticals, and no one can argue that this strategy hasn't paid off. But perhaps the AEC industry will provide the turning point for Google in this regard, given the size of the industry, the increasing importance of sustainable design, and the criticality of software technology in helping to create environmentally friendly, high quality, yet cost-effective buildings that can be efficiently managed and operated.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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