The best free program in existence: Google Sketchup

Hi, and welcome to my new column, The Best Free Program in Existence. Here, I’ll review free, open-source software that rocks the socks off of my world.
This week’s article highlights a program I’ve been using for about a year now, Google Sketchup.

What is Sketchup?  Simply put, it’s a program that lets you draw in 3D; it’s not as in-depth as a robust program like Lightwave 3D or Maya or AutoCAD, but for the beginning user it’s quite handy.

Sketchup was created by the creative geniuses over at Google to make 3D building models to populate their ambitious Google Earth project; the idea is that, when a user looks up an address in Google Earth, if there’s a 3D model for it, zooming in on the location will load the 3D model over the existing photograph, allowing the viewer to take a full virtual tour of the exterior of the building.

The buildings are built to scale, with (in most cases) the photographic textures of the actual building overlaid on top of the model to make the thing virtually indistinguishable from actually touring the physical location.

A few months later, the Big Brains at Google decided to make the proprietary software, now known as Sketchup, avialable as a free download for the public.  There is also a more in-depth version available for purchase, but every model I’ve ever seen has been made with the open-source version.

Naturally, people began building more than just buildings; the users built everything from living rooms to entire cities, both real and fictitious (just yesterday I saw a simply mind-boggling version of the capital city of Cybertron, for you Transformers fans in the audience,) to spaceships and even people, simply fiddling around with the program to see what was possible and then running with it once they had figured it out.

Most recently, I discovered that Sketchup can be used for video game design.  Check out this video from Google’s Youtube channel:

Not only is Sketchup useful for creating 3D models, it can do so so fast, and using relatively little processing power, that big name game designers like Naughty Dog (the developers of the Uncharted series) are now using it for the rough concepts for their level designs.
Most surprising of all was my discovery last night; the Halo community had discovered Sketchup.

Wowzers.  This is insanely helpful if you’re the type of person that likes to sketch out your Forge maps in advance of actually making them in Forge. It lets you see the whole thing in glorious 3-D without having to fire up your Xbox, and also to make some pretty sweet backgrounds for your computer. (Which of course being a huge Halo geek, I immediately did.)

Another great thing about Sketchup is the ease of texturing your finished models.  If you want to add somegorgeous textures to the finished pieces, I suggest signing up for a CGTextures account; it’s free, and you can find some amazing photographic textures there. The only downside is a daily download cap, but the site is well worth a look.

Take a look at this stuff; you guys might discover you’re Sketchup fans!  For more information and the free download, please visit Google’s official site.  There’s also a physics plugin that allows your objects to move with realistic physics interactions, which can be found here.

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