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Innovation in 3D PDF

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Michael Kaplan
By Michael Kaplan

Director of Engineering
Adobe Acrobat
Adobe Systems Inc.
San Jose, CA

When I started graduate studies in 3D computer graphics in 1978, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I still remember my shock the first time I saw a real-time 3D vector graphics system. That quick glimpse of the future changed my life. The next day I applied to the Masters Program at the Cornell Program of Computer Graphics, and I’ve been working full-time on real-time 3D graphics ever since.

I have been privileged to work in an industry where these capabilities have become available on every desktop, and 3D graphics technology has proven to be central to at least four main disciplines: scientific and medical imaging, computer-aided design, computer games, and movie and video animation. Instead of focusing on one application, I concentrated my efforts on developing tools and systems to enable the more general use of 3D in everyday computing — to “democratize” 3D graphics.

Eventually I found my way to Adobe, and about five years ago, I was approached by the director of product management for Acrobat and PDF. The Acrobat team was interested in expanding the capabilities of PDF by adding dynamic 3D content, mainly to support the needs of the manufacturing and AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) sectors.

As PDF has developed over the past 15 years, it has grown from a de-facto standard for the accurate reproduction of printed documents on the Web into a comprehensive format for intelligent documents. It now supports not only accurate text reproduction, but 2D drawings, image formats, smart tables, and metadata. I learned in my conversations with the Acrobat team that manufacturing was the number-one segment for the product.

We certainly got an earful from customers during our early product research. Once outside their primary CAD design systems, OEMs and end users were confronted by a dizzying array of incompatible visualization formats and viewers. The visualization formats they used were closed, and often tied to a single vendor’s CAD format. Because these visualization formats were not based on open standards, they could not be used for archiving. Manufacturers had to require their downstream vendors, or even non-primary design users within their own corporations, to own and operate complex and expensive CAD systems simply to visualize and collaborate on design data.

Users told us they wanted a single, compound document format that could transmit 3D data for a wide range of downstream uses. They wanted the format and end-user viewer and collaboration tool to be widely proliferated, trusted, and accepted by IT organizations; capable of representing data from multiple, diverse CAD systems along with text and 2D information; capable of protecting sensitive information; capable of being tracked and well supported over time; standards-based; archival; and oh, by the way, open and free! Since PDF coupled with the Adobe Reader met these requirements — except that of representing dynamic 3D models — customers repeatedly asked us to take on the task of enhancing the format to meet these needs.

Large manufacturers wanted to replace multiple 2D drawings with a single 3D visualization with embedded PMI (Product Manufacturing Information). Their goal was to reduce and ultimately eliminate the need for 2D drawings. The challenges we faced in adding 3D representations to PDF were numerous. Open standards were to be used when possible, or published and made open when not already available. We needed to support data from multiple CAD systems. There needed to be a smooth tradeoff between size and accuracy to support the various uses of 3D models, ranging from simple visualization up to, potentially, the ability to drive manufacturing processes downstream in the supply chain. Complex assemblies needed to be handled in a single document, while references to original parts had to be accurately maintained. Assembly structure, part names and relationships, and associated metadata all needed to be maintained in the format and easily viewed and manipulated by the Adobe Reader. High levels of compression had to be achieved, coupled with predictable levels of accuracy, in order to allow 3D PDFs (as they came to be called) to be e-mailed.

We believe innovations in 3D PDF will help improve the efficiency of processes in manufacturing. Since the format can be retargeted at multiple 3D uses with a single, multi-platform, free client, companies will be able to reduce costs and focus on design rather than on downstream tools, while maintaining better control of their data. Adobe has distributed over 500 million copies of the Adobe Reader capable of viewing 3D PDFs. Perhaps my dream of helping to democratize 3D graphics will finally come true. I’ve only waited 30 years!

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