Friday November 28, 2014

3D PDF viewing goes mobile

One of the reasons 3D PDF is an important file format is because it doesn’t require a special viewer. If you have Adobe Acrobat Viewer on your desktop computer, which most folks do, that’s all you need.

But what about mobile?

Adobe has versions of its reader for IOS (iPhone, and iPad), and Android. But, when you view a 3D PDF file with one of these programs, you’ll find that you don’t get 3D. You get a snapshot of the 3D. Just an image.

For 3D PDF to be taken seriously, it needs a good mobile viewer. The real question is who should develop it?

Adobe would sound like the logical choice. Except they don’t actually do the development of the 3D portion of PDF anymore. They spun that technology off to Tech Soft 3D a couple of years ago.

You may not be too familiar with Tech Soft 3D. But the software developers who make the CAD software you use are familiar with them. Tech Soft 3D develops and sells component software technologies that are used inside of CAD and high-end graphics applications.

I spoke recently with Ron Fritz of Tech Soft 3D, and he said they’d thought about this problem of needing a 3D PDF viewer for mobile devices, and came to the conclusion that they ought to develop it. Not because they could make a bunch of money at it. (In fact, they did the math, and it wasn’t all that favorable.) They decided they should develop a mobile 3D PDF viewer because it would help drive acceptance of 3D PDF—and that is important to the companies which license their HOOPS Publish component software, for creating 3D PDF files.

The 3D PDF Reader (available now for IOS devices) works hand-in hand with the mobile Adobe Reader. If you open a 3D PDF file in the Adobe Reader, you can click on the 3D image, and it will open it up using the 3D PDF reader. At that point, you can navigate around in 3D, and, if the image is an assembly, drill down to individual parts.

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There is one specific capability that is quite important in this viewer: support for 3D data encoded in the PRC format.

When 3D PDF first came out, it used a simplified format called U3D for representing 3D data. It was pretty good, but not really technologically advanced. Adobe shortly acquired an advanced technology called PRC, that was much more capable. PRC:

  • Allows storage of large CAD files in a highly compressible form that is a fraction of the original size. The complete product structure of the parts defined by the CAD system can be contained in a PRC file.
  • Can represent Product Manufacturing Information (PMI), which includes Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T) and Functional Tolerancing and Annotation (FT&A).
  • Allows geometry use in CAD, CAM, and CAE applications. The geometry can be stored in either a tessellated or precise form.
  • Is well on the way to ISO standardization.

The 3D PDF Reader supports assemblies, and lets you drill-down through the product structure, to individual parts. It also supports 3D GD&T and PMI.

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Based on the demonstration I saw of the product, its performance is quite good, as is its handling of reasonably complex assemblies. Still, running on IOS (or Android, in the future), memory can be an issue. But, I think it’s important to understand that 3D PDF is a document oriented format. It’s not really designed for doing digital mock-ups.

While the 3D PDF Viewer is capable of displaying U3D, PRC is the future for 3D PDF. Most of today’s CAD systems natively create 3D PDF files with embedded U3D data, not PRC—but this will change. (I believe SpaceClaim is a notable exception. It can currently not only write U3D-based 3D PDF files, it can both read and write PRC-based 3D PDF files—with PMI.) There are a number of good tools, separate from CAD, for creating PRC-based 3D PDF files, including Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter (coupled with Adobe Acrobat X), Anark Core, and PROSTEP PDF Generator 3D.

The 3D PDF Reader, is available for Apple IOS devices now, through the Apple App Store, for $5.49.

No, it’s not free. I had a chat with Ron about this, and I came to the conclusion that five bucks is cheap enough that it won’t stop people from getting it. And it immediately gives Tech Soft 3D real feedback on interest in the product.

You might ask, what about Android? Ron told me that they wanted to see what the interest was in the IOS version, before they ship an Android version. My thought is that it’s going to be a no-brainer. There will be plenty of interest in both.

Update: I think it’s important to mention that this is just a first release of the 3D PDF Reader.  As it is, it’s more than pretty good.  But future releases, which may not be that far away, will grow in capabilities.  Things I expect to see are an assembly tree (for more PDM-like navigation of product structure), sectioning, and more integrations (this first version works on 3D PDF files delivered through email and Dropbox.) And, of course, an Android version. Still, Tech Soft 3D does not want to get into the business of competing with its customers (that is, commercial software developers.)  I wouldn’t count on them delivering advanced 3D PDF viewer applications with integrated collaboration/markup tools, and cloud-based processing.  They have the technology to build this kind of software, but I’m betting they’ll let their customers tackle it.

Tech Soft 3D www.techsoft3d.com

  • Cary

    Another exception would be the IronCAD products that export to 3D PDF. They are also in the PRC format (IRONCAD, INOVATE, IRONCAD DRAFT).

  • http://evanyares.com Evan Yares

    I shoulda known!  IronCAD, despite having roots going back at least as far as every other mainstream CAD program, continues to integrate modern capabilities. One of the better secrets of the CAD industry.

  • Rachel Berry

     IRONCAD always fasciated me – the dual kernel thing, ACIS and Parasolid…. I don’t know how that pans out with licensing but I can’t thing quite the same…  I suspect it probably results in their developers having a far more sophisticated take on tolerant modelling and data translation / formats.

  • Leslie Gordon
  • MaikH

    Any news about the Android version?

  • http://evanyares.com Evan Yares

    The last answer I had, in May, was “not yet.” I’m disappointed.