Toy story

Charles Clarke salutes the development of Cosmic blobs – a pioneering 3D design product for children from the authors of SolidWorks.

Very rarely do you get the opportunity to describe 3D modelling software as a ‘new design paradigm’ or ‘absolutely unique’; the introduction of Cosmic Blobs from the authors of SolidWorks is one of those occasions.

The great thing is, it’s been designed for children — but the lessons it contains about making CAD more user-friendly are likely to one day end up on the desktops of design engineers.

When SolidWorks and Dassault Systèmes launched their marketing slogan ‘3D for all’ few could have imagined they would one day be launching sophisticated 3D modelling and animation software for schoolchildren for the price of a premium computer game.

This work was done by the Product Concepts Group in the SolidWorks development team. It started from research it was doing to find new modelling metaphors to describe shapes electronically —- a kind of shape definition language. The idea was to provide a creative tool for the ‘less CAD proficient’. Currently, the language of shape definition is very ‘constructional’, involving the extruding, sweeping and/or lofting of 2D profiles and it is heavily constrained by the foibles and intricacies of each product’s user interface.

Cosmic Blobs enables the creation of sophisticated 3D graphics comparable to today’s TV and film media. A proprietary modelling engine acts like ‘digital modelling clay’ so you can shape, mould and manipulate 3D objects with simple mouse commands. This technology has been packaged in a colourful and ‘fun’ user interface for children between seven and 14. A full Paint Shop and libraries of pre-designed models and parts are included to provide many ways to create and decorate 3D graphics.

There have been a number of attempts at this kind of modelling in the past, but this is the first system that can maintain curvature continuity throughout all manipulation.

The other benefit is that it can do all this on relatively modest hardware, and the model files are minute in comparison to CAD files.

The primary activity centres around the Modelling Zone. The user interface is very colourful and animated with a strong ‘cartoon-like’ design, and minimal interaction is required to produce a result. It has been created to be visually strong and clear to convey how the program works, while also compelling the user to experiment with the functionality.

There is no ‘save button’ either —everything is saved as soon as a change is made. The interface is totally graphical, with carefully chosen symbols associated with each function.

The normal CAD metaphor of defining a set of construction parameters, selections, dimensions and descriptions and instructing the software to build the model is replaced by a modelling system that allows you to ‘define as you go’ by pushing, pulling, pinching, stretching, bending and cutting ‘virtual’ modelling clay. With all of these tools you can change the influence or degree of the action using slider bars until it ‘looks right’.

Once a model has been created it can be enhanced with a variety of colouring and decorating features in The Paint Shop, where a key feature is the ability to ‘stick’ 2D pictures and images or decals on to the surface of any shape. These decals conform to the curvature of a surface and bend and change as the object changes.

In addition, an animation Lab enables models to be brought to life with active and controllable movements. All Blob creations have an animation ‘skeleton’ built into them, so once the features in the Animation Lab are turned on, models move and articulate based on which controls are chosen.

This is a so-called ‘incubator project’, so the final development direction has not yet been defined. The technology needs to be extended further before any definite plans are made to incorporate it into SolidWorks or other Dassault products. But the company has confirmed that it intends to ‘do more research to make it into a more ‘industrial’ product’.

On the web