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What is 3D Modeling?

By Anurag Ghosh
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the world of computer design, 3D modeling is the process of developing graphics and images that appear to have three dimensions. The process is complicated, but generally involves connecting a set of points with various geometric data such as lines and curved surfaces with the goal of creating a wideframe model that represents a three-dimensional object. It is popular in gaming, motion pictures, and other entertainment ventures, though it also has applications in medicine and engineering. In most cases it requires both specialized software and at least some knowledge of computer coding. Designers typically use one of four main modeling methods, namely polygonal, primitive, non-uniform rational B-spline, or splines and patches. Choosing one method over another is usually a matter of end goals as well as software capabilities.

Entertainment Applications

There are a great many applications for digital 3D modeling, though the video gaming industry is one of the most commonly recognized by many. Designers use various three dimensional modeling methods to create realistic character models that appear on gaming consoles and online. The end product can be either animate or inanimate, but is typically characterized by its life-like look and apparent depth — a far cry from the one-dimensional graphics and cartoon-like animations that used to be the industry standard.

A number of motion pictures and movies make use of 3D imaging, as well. This is perhaps most readily apparent in features that are completely computer-generated, but the technology also has applications in live action film. Actually viewing these sorts of films in three dimensions often requires special screens or viewing lenses, however, since in most cases they are filmed as normal — which is to say, in one dimension. Computer programmers then manipulate the film into three dimensions, which can give a broader, more real-life feel when it’s ultimately watched.

In Industry

Designers also use this sort of modeling in the medical field, usually to create detailed models of human body organs. This can be an important part of many diagnostic scans and can in many cases prevent or at least delay things like exploratory surgery, since medical professionals can see what’s happening inside the body with a great deal of precision from the outside. Programs in this category are also widely used in fetal monitoring and ultrasound scans of pregnant women.

The engineering community also uses 3D computer aided design (CAD) programs to create three dimensional models of new devices, vehicles and structures; everything from architectural design to urban pipeline dynamics can be brought more or less to life with 3D structuring. Not only can this help designers and planners get a feel for projects, but can also be a good way to diagnose problems and issues before they actually arise.

Primitive Modeling

There are typically four modeling methods that designers can choose from. The first and most basic is known as the “primitive” modeling method. This is the simplest way of modeling 3D objects, and involves the use of geometric basics such as cylinders, cones, cubes and spheres. The forms here tend to be mathematically defined and precise, which makes it easy to work with in most cases, even for relative beginners. Primitive modeling is mainly used in developing 3D models of technical applications.

Polygonal Modeling

A slightly more advanced approach makes use of what is known as the “polygonal” method. Polygonal modeling involves connecting line segments through points in a 3D space. These points in space are also known as vertices. Polygonal models are very flexible and can be rendered by a computer very quickly. One cannot, however, create an exact curved surface using polygonal 3D modeling technique, which limits its usefulness in certain applications.

NURBS Modeling

Non-uniform rational B-spline modeling, also known as the NURBS method, is one of the best ways for developers to create truly curved smooth surfaces. Unlike polygonal modeling techniques, which can only approximate curved surfaces using numerous polygons, NURBs modeling actually does “bend” the space. This style of modeling is widely used across most platforms.

Splines and Patches Modeling

A more advanced form of NURBS modeling is the “splines and patches” method. This type of program allows developers to use curved lines to identify and project the visible surface. It often takes more time to build and execute commands in this category, but the results tend to be some of the most vivid and life-like.

Software Requirements

3D modeling is usually easiest to do with software programs that have been designed expressly for that purpose. Maya® and 3DS Max® are two examples; there are many out there. While most three dimensional software suites are quite expensive, there are also a number of open source programs that are available for free. No matter their specifications, most follow polygonal and NURBS modeling methods. Some also have specifications for creating complicated materials like rain, clouds and blowing sands, which typically make use of a particle system to make the modeling process easier. There are also some scene description languages like POV-Ray that 3D modelers frequently use.

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Discussion Comments

By anon991334 — On Jun 12, 2015

What is a 3 D model? Can it be simplified for architectural design? What is the difficulty in upgrading 3D?

By anon200810 — On Jul 28, 2011

Good article!

By nony — On Jun 04, 2011

@hamje32 - Lightwave 3D modeling software is an industry standard, along with Maya. I think Maya was used to create the Shrek animation movies. The problem with both of these programs, however, is that there is an incredibly steep learning curve. You usually have to take classes for a year or something before you can really become comfortable enough to be productive.

I don’t have that kind of patience, so I usually use simple, free 3D modeling programs along with stock 3D models to create my animations. It saves a lot of time and lets me focus more on the creative aspects and less on the technical aspects of learning how to use the software.

By miriam98 — On Jun 02, 2011

@hamje32 - If you don’t want to make your own objects you can use Google sketchup. These are free 3D CAD models you can find online from Google and you can import them into a lot of popular 3D CAD modeling programs. You can find everything from furniture to everyday household objects and more models are being added every day.

By hamje32 — On May 30, 2011

Years ago I plunked down a lot of money to buy Macromedia’s Director Suite. Back then they bundled a 3D modeling program called Extreme 3D. It was a pretty cool tool but a little difficult to use. I never got beyond creating some simple primitives which I was able to meld together into basic shapes.

Eventually Macromedia dropped Extreme 3D when they went into developing Flash. I don’t know if they have any comparable 3D packages they still make, but all 3D software programs require some getting used to.

The most disorienting part is learning how to navigate in 3D space and then learning how to lathe your objects into stuff that resembles everyday items.

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