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AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #20 (July 31, 2007)

Collaborating with Acrobat 3D Version 8

Scott Onstott
Book & Video Author

Acrobat 3D is an awesome design collaboration tool. It would be a rare thing indeed if all the parties working on a given project used exactly the same design software on the same platform. Acrobat 3D puts everyone on the same page—no matter if they are on Mac or PC, using AutoCAD, Microstation, Pro/Engineer, Inventor, Solidworks, Catia, 3ds Max, Rhinoceros, Lightwave, and many other design and visualization packages.

Acrobat 3D can also import 3D models saved in common exchange formats such as 3ds, obj, dxf, wrl, iges, and so on. It would be nice if Adobe added BIM file formats and SketchUp/Google Earth in particular, but as it stands, there is almost certainly one common format that will handle the translation of your 3D data. In addition, Acrobat 3D allows you to embed 3D models in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and InDesign documents. This makes it possible to share 3D models with folks who have never used a 3D modeling package.

One needs Acrobat 3D to create 3D-enabled PDFs, but anyone with Adobe Reader (that's almost everyone in the universe) can view, interact, comment and markup the very same PDF. Complex 3D models can be emailed as PDF files because they can be optimized for remarkably small file size with their dependent texture maps embedded. We will see how it works in this tutorial.

I'll start with a fully texture-mapped 3D model in 3ds Max 9 (3.8 MB). By the way, the model I'm using is a fantastic prefab design by Michelle Kaufmann. In 3ds Max, I chose File > Export and selected the ancient 3ds format. You really have to experiment with a variety of export formats in each 3D package to get the best results importing into Acrobat 3D.

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I find that 3ds files work well in Max as the texture maps are preserved and the model doesn't get reoriented as it can in other formats. The only downside to the 3ds format is the fact that the texture maps must have 8 characters or less in their file names (an anachronism from the days of DOS). If you're using another 3D modeling package, you'll have to do your own experiments to find the optimal file type to transfer your models into Acrobat 3D.

Launch Acrobat 3D, and choose Create PDF > From File or press Ctrl+N. Select the Files of Type drop-down and scroll through the extensive list. Here I selected 3D Studio Mesh (*.3ds, *.prj) and opened the 3ds file I previously exported from 3ds Max. A large Acrobat 3D Conversion dialog box appears.

Click the Optimize tab to control mesh/texture quality, and thus, file size of the resulting PDF. I've set Mesh Quality to 80% and Texture Quality to 40% to reduce the polygon count slightly and to use higher compression on the bitmaps. You'll see more dramatic reduction in file size by decreasing texture quality as compared with mesh quality (assuming you are importing a well-built model).

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I've also chosen to Remove parts smaller than 1% of the Model Size, duplicate parts, and duplicate and unused materials—but don't remove the normals as they are needed for surface orientation.

Click the Transform tab and check Set custom scale. Here I chose to set 1 model unit equal to 1 inch because I'm working in Imperial units and the source file from 3ds Max used inches as the system unit. Selecting proper units makes it possible to measure the model accurately.

Once you try this a few times and dial in the settings to suit your situation, click the + button in the Acrobat 3D Conversion dialog box to save settings for future use. After that, 3D conversion will be as simple as selecting a preset and clicking OK.

After the 3D model has been imported into Acrobat 3D, click the 3D control to activate it. A special 3D toolbar appears at the top of the control. This toolbar has a blue arrow that you can use to toggle it on and off. The default Rotate tool is a poor choice for architectural models as it tends to roll the model while orbiting—use the Spin tool instead. The user interface is clean and quite attractive in Version 8.

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Spin, Pan, and Zoom the model to create a pleasing composition. Click the Model Tree button along the left edge of the screen. This panel is used to create and navigate views, and manage reviews and comments.

Once you are satisfied with the orientation and position of your model, click the Create View button in the model tree (circled below in red). If you save a less-than-ideal view, delete the view, navigate correctly and save a new view—it is not possible to update existing views.

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A node called NewView1 appears in the list with a camera icon. Click the text of this node and rename it Overview. Then right click it and choose Set as Default View from the shortcut menu. This will now be the view that appears when the control is first activated.

You can save as many views as you like to showcase the model. It's a bit tricky, but possible to create interior views, although there are no field-of-view or walkthrough navigation tools yet in version 8, so interior spaces can seem cramped.

Understanding views is really the key to using Acrobat 3D—they store a lot more than just camera position and orientation. View settings include projection type, model render mode, lighting, background color, cross section, and 3D view-specific comments. Some variations in model render mode and lighting are shown below.

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Toggle the Cross Section button on the 3D toolbar to turn on the section plane. Open the Cross Section Properties dialog and uncheck Show Cutting Plane. Drag the Offset slider to move the cutting plane. Click the Save Section View button to create a new view right from the Cross Section Properties dialog box.

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Click the Review & Comment button > Comment & Markup Tools > Callout Tool. Place the callout by dragging from arrow tip to text location. Type in some text and describe the feature you are calling out. A new view is automatically created when you add a comment. Get the Cloud Tool from the same place and click a few points around the affected area to draw a cloud that focuses attention. Notice how the view gets dependent review and comment nodes identifying the author of said revisions.

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If you want to share your spatial ideas and get feedback from someone who doesn't have Acrobat 3D, then choose Comments > Enable for Commenting and Analysis in Adobe Reader. Then choose File > Save As. Saving this PDF yields a file of 1.2 MB, which is less than a third of the model's and texture maps' original size. Moreover, all the texture maps are encapsulated within the PDF, so no files can get lost in translation.

Send the PDF to your boss, sub-contractor, consultant, client, or whoever. You can download this tutorial's PDF file here. The beauty of it is that the recipient isn't going to squawk when receiving an ubiquitous PDF, and the chances are good that even those new to 3D will be able to get around the model, provided you made views and/or bookmarks for them to use.

Tip: Use Acrobat 3D to embed a 3D model in a multi-page PDF, Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, or Powerpoint presentation. PDFs can pack documentation, drawings, specifications, site photos, and 3D models into a super-organized, digitally signed and encrypted project repository.

About the Author

Scott Onstott is a book and video author of AEC software tutorials. He has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor there, in addition to working in several prominent engineering, architecture, and interiors firms in San Francisco. He has also worked as a technical editor and technology consultant.

Scott has contributed to over two dozen books and videos on AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He most recently co-authored AutoCAD:_Professional_Tips_and_Tricks with Lynn Allen. He can be reached via:

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