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SolidWorks Review

Cosmic Blobs

By Martyn Day, editor, CADserver, November 30, 2004

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I never thought I’d end up looking at kids' software, but here I am writing about a new toy for kids of all ages (well, those 7 and upwards). Cosmic Blobs, as it’s called, is the brainchild of Scott Harris, cofounder of SolidWorks (the product and the company), and is essentially an intuitive 3D modeling/sculpting tool for children. It works like the computer version of Playdough - it can be used to create most shapes by pushing, pulling and molding. Figures and shapes can be colored, textured and animated, all within an easy-to-use, point, draw and click environment.

So why is MCAD talking about a kids' toy? Well, there’s the obvious benefit to getting children to see 3D in a more creative way than virtually ‘fragging’ each other in Doom. The other reason is that the core technology behind Cosmic Blobs, I guess you’d call it the ‘Blob-engine’, will be used in professional-level products in the coming years. One of the barriers to getting adults to move to a 3D working methodology is ‘ease-of-use’, or rather, lack of it. I guess bringing out a product so simple that a child could use it, worked pretty well for Apple and the development of Windows back at ‘Xerox Parc’ in the 70s.

I asked Scott Harris what the intention of the ‘Blobs’ project was, he replied.” I was thinking about the limitations of today’s technology and wondering what new modeling paradigms there were. There must be new ways for people to describe shapes in a computer, that wasn’t CAD, that might be more conducive to design, particularly industrial design where shapes are more anatomical by nature. By this I mean, instead of describing shapes in terms of cross sections and swept paths, instead use higher-level descriptors. As a more natural alternative to sweeping something along a path, you could take something and ‘bend it’. “If I was designing a banana, in CAD you would have to take a bunch of cross sections, draw a curve and do a loft along the curve. Whereas in Blobs you’d start out with a shape that you’d simply pull and bend. Cosmic Blobs is fundamentally a different way of working and thinking about modeling. In the real-world, you may not know that your product, in our case a banana, is going to be bent when you start to design it. Blobs is built on the idea that design is different to modeling.“

There have been a number of products that try and overcome these limitations, such as think 3,the warp functions in SolidWorks and Pro/E, Dassault Systemes’ (DS) Imagine and Shape (mentioned last issue) and Delcam’s morphing capability in Powershape. But these functions are nearly all to overcome the problems of existing dimension-locked models. DS’s Imagine and Shape is probably the closest thing to Cosmic Blobs but it uses NURBS and subdivision surface technology – something that’s now used heavily in computer rendered films like Shark Story and The Incredibles.

So what makes Cosmic Blobs different to these existing methodologies? Scott Harris explained, “We had to think about what kind of mathematics could support these new capabilities? For instance I wanted to pull on a surface without having to reapproximate the surface, and I wanted to be able to draw a curve on a surface and pull on that, pull out an area of the surface and pull or push on polygon points and not having to worry about surface continuity.

“We did a lot of prototyping 2 years ago and came up with some breakthrough technology on surfacing, which I can’t go into because it’s a trade secret! In fact we are doing some patent work on that at the moment. So we came up with some unique surface mathematics that allows the manipulation of surfaces while maintaining curvature continuity throughout. This means if I had a cube or a cylinder, and pulled out some sharp faces, you’d notice that the sharp edges look good while the curved surfaces maintain second order continuity. It doesn’t use NURBS or sub-division surfaces, it’s a totally new concept that allows you to manipulate the surface directly.

“The real power of this Blob technology is its simplicity, it’s actually like using clay because it uses a displacement metaphor. And, it works on both closed volumes (solids) or it can work with open volumes (surfaces), it’s that robust.“

So when we will see a product based on the Blob engine? Harris said,” We need to do more research before the mathematics can support all the operations that we have in mind – not so much accuracy, more topological. If you play with the online demo you will see that we can’t yet cut holes. So as an industrial design product there’s problems yet to be solved to get to that point. But as this is a product for children you don’t need thin-wall shelling etc. But development is ongoing!”

While it hasn’t made the shipping release, Harris has a copy of Cosmic Blobs with an STL-out capability and admitted,” My office is filled with rapid prototypes from cosmic blobs, at one point I had a machine in my office churning out models! We hope to put that in the product.” So not only is SolidWorks trying to recruit and train the engineers of the future, don’t be surprised if little Johnny (or little Jane), start putting Stereo Lithographic (SLA) or 3D printing systems down on next year’s Santa list!

Brief impression

I’ve had a go with Cosmic Blobs and have to say I’m very impressed with the modeling capabilities. It really does deform like clay. I’m not too sure about the interface, but then again I’m not the target audience. It reminds me of that green slime stuff you used to get as kids. Labels have been dispensed with and there’s a lot of fun to be had experimenting with the knobs, sliders and mouse. All geometry can be manipulated via bounding boxes and grips, with some super tools to bend and shape the blobs you add into the workspace, There are automatic workplanes for mirroring and some clever stuff for working simultaneously on mirrored geometry. Once you have completed your model, you can make it move along a path (just tell the software which way is up an assign a movement pattern). Somehow, the software works out which bits are limbs and actually moves them! It’s also possible to add in a surface to walk over – by grabbing and manipulating this surface, the path will automatically adapt to ensure the character follows the topology. I would say that some of the features are a bit advanced, so I could well imagine parents getting involved in assisting the younger users.

Getting to market

This is obviously new territory for SolidWorks and to gain experience has hired in experienced educational software developers and marketers. For now, the software will only be available from the www.cosmicblobs.com  website, either as a download or they will ship you the CD ($39.99 or $44.99 respectively – cheap thanks to the weak dollar). The company has plans to also release add-on packs of content and ‘shaders’. The potential market is huge for this type of toy, as it appeals to boys and girls, with the former wanting to build Robots and the latter, weird and wonderful animals!

Conclusion

As it’s free to download and try it, I’d highly recommend downloading the demo (30Mb) and just seeing how easy Cosmic Blobs is to use. Even if you haven’t done any 3D modeling before, Blobs is so easy that children have been using it! Probably within a year or two I’m sure we will see a product design utility or program from SolidWorks based on this. For now, SolidWorks has taken an interesting step to diversify its reliance on a maturing modeling market, yet it’s still staying true to developing and deploying core 3D product. I wish them success..

About the Author

Martyn Day is group editor of MCAD Magazine and AEC Magazine. For more information, visit the CADserver website.


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