A Robot and His Boy

Robot Quest 06

Or should that have been “A boy and his dog. . .”, or as Harry Harrison titled one of his short science fiction stories, “A Dog and His Boy”?

Sidebar: Harry Harrison wrote some of the best science fiction I have ever read. His Stainless Steel Rat novels are classics. ‘A Dog and His Boy’ and other works, like ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’, and ‘Make Room, Make Room’ (film title: Soylent Green) were also extremely memorable and definitely worth the read..

I’ve been evaluating some software applications to find something we can use to create presentation graphics and storyboards. The one really tough requirement was that it has to be able to create 3–D graphics – there are a lot of reasons for that I won’t bore you with, at least not at this point in time. We’d considered using some CAD packages, and even some solids modelers, but finally had to abandon that approach. They required a level of detail and precision that just wasn’t worth it for what we were trying to accomplish. What we were really looking for, but weren’t able to articulate it, was an application that would allow us to sketch in 3 dimensions much the same way that we sketch on a piece of paper (or napkin) in 2 dimensions.

Of course it needed to be easy to use, but more important, it needed to be intuitive and almost second guess what we are trying to draw. It had to be capable of working with us instead of against us. We wanted a package that would have us saying ‘Wow, that’s neat. I wonder what else I can do with it.” instead of mumbling, grumbling, and raising our blood pressure. At first I thought it was an impossible task. That kind of software couldn’t possibly exist out there. . . Or could it? You never know until you look. And you never find something unless you first believe that it’s out there to be found. So, I briefly suspended all disbelief, and started searching the internet.

And, you know what? I found it!

It really does exist. It’s called SketchUp from @Last Software in Colorado.  It’s a beautiful piece of software. A real pleasure to use. Definitely intuitive. It’s easy to see that the developers approached the design process from the perspective of a user. It lets you draw and design the way you would naturally while it automatically fills in all the details. Draw a square with a few lines, and it automatically faces it. Push the square (or any face) in a direction, and it builds a 3 dimensional shape for you. Draw a free form line, then run a shape along the path, and it extrudes the shape for you. Create a line across a face, then pull the line up away from the plane of the face, and everything follows the movement – and maintains its integrity. It’s really brilliant.

To evaluate the software I used the ‘manual test approach’, and it passed with flying colors. Their website features a fully functional download copy of the software that gives you 8 hours of actual use time before you have to come to a decision. In our case, it only took a few hours of testing and experimentation before it was obvious that SketchUp was a perfect fit for our needs. Unlike a lot of great graphic applications, SketchUp actually began life on the Windows platform and then migrated to the Mac.

One word of caution – it is priced for professional users, not the occasional home user. A single user license currently runs USD $495, though they do mention student discount pricing. They also say that free copies are available for teachers to use for classroom instruction.

Here are a few examples of the models I was able to generate well within the evaluation period. Keep in mind that they are all full 3–D and can be exported to CAD and architectual design programs.

Robot Quest 02

Robot Quest 04

Robot Quest 01

Robot Quest 05

Robot Quest 03


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