Adrian

Adrian

If you have recently started a new project and wanted to match your project to a real world address for sun studies and to add context to the surrounding areas, you will have noticed a significant decrease in quality of the aerial photo mapping that is available inside Sketchup.


As of the 22nd May 2017, Sketchup no longer uses Google Earth/Maps to collect terrain and aerial photo mapping data for your site, but is instead now using aerial imaging produced by a company called Digital Globe. The difference in image quality is substantial due to the fact that Google Maps’s aerial photographs are shot using aeroplanes at moderate altitudes, while Digital Globe’s photos are shot using satellites. See the image below for comparison:

This change affects all versions of Sketchup. If you have a Sketchup 2016 licence or earlier, you will see a message saying that “Add location is no longer available”. Aerial photographs from the new Digital Globe source have also been deactivated on the free version, Sketchup Make 2017; a move which may be to try and make it harder for people using the free version for commercial purposes.

Trimble, Sketchup’s developer, were very coy about the changes to the geolocation function in the weeks leading up to the changeover - and it is not surprising. Many Sketchup users have reacted negatively to this downgrade in functionality, with some businesses like solar array installers, seeing their methodology for calculating roof sizes completely disappear overnight. It is no surprise that people want to be compensated and their yearly maintenance fees returned.

The change from Google’s mapping/aerial photography to Digital Globe’s has been explained as the expiration of Trimble’s contract with Google to supply location data for Sketchup, and that Google are no longer allowing anyone to access to it. However in the argumentative forums that have popped up about this issue, many users believe that Trimble were given free access to Google’s data for the last 5 years as part of Sketchup’s sale to Trimble and now that this period has expired, they simply did not want to pay Google’s price for the continuation of the service.

Read the forum on the issue here: https://forums.sketchup.com/t/upcoming-change-to-add-location/40953

Personally, as someone who teaches Sketchup and uses it to operate their architectural design business, I am disappointed - it stinks. It makes producing conceptual and schematic presentation material for my projects substantially more difficult and time consuming. I’ll have to source other aerial photographs from places like Nearmaps (who are very expensive) or council/local government sources, import these images into Sketchup and rescale them to match my site. I have no problem with changes when they are an improvement to the existing product, but when the change is regressive in nature, it makes you question the future direction of the product and the potential loss of support base to other CAD programs.

Let’s hope that Trimble remedy the situation sooner rather than later.

Rendering grass and other organic 3d objects like trees, and plants into your scenes will often bring your rendered images to the next level of realism. It is generally not feasible to place every blade of grass in your 3d scene and thankfully there are a couple of Sketchup plugins around that automate this process for you. The one that I have used every now and then is called Make_Fur which is available for free from the Sketchucation plugin store. To download it you simply need to create an account with Sketchucation, download their plugin store extension and then find Make_Fur from their list and click install.

It then becomes a matter of creating a grass component, either some grass shaped geometry or a PNG photo of some grass blades with a transparent background (removed in an image editor) and then using the plugin to randomly place the component on a designated face. You can see by the results in the image below, created from a long grass variety with seed-heads, that it works very effectively and there are options in the plugin to randomise the scale and lean of the grass blades to create a more natural look. You can download this Sketchup model from the download files link at the top of the article.

The problem with this particular plugin (and the plugin author fully acknowledges this) is that it places a vast number of polygons into your 3d model. The grass components need to be quite dense in order to cover the ground surface and when you suddenly add 100,000 odd polygons in the form of grass blades into your model, it will reduce Sketchup’s performance to a slow crawl on even the fastest computers. While layering your model carefully will help, the effect on performance will see most people put adding realistic grass into their renders into the too-hard basket and opt for a less convincing 2d texture map or doctor their finished renders with a photograph of some real grass taken from approximately the same angle.

An alternative to Make_Fur is a commercially available plugin for Sketchup called Skatter. Skatter is an amazing plugin that considers all the problems of rendering huge numbers of polygons and then conveniently bypasses Sketchup’s interface so that these polygons only show up when activated in the rendering engine. What this means is that you can have vast grassy fields or forests of trees in your rendered images but with little or no effect on Sketchup’s performance. If you do a lot of rendering, this feature alone is well worth the money. Before I get carried away though, it should be noted that not every rendering engine supports this function; thankfully Twilight Render is supported so anyone who has done my Sketchup For Visualisation short course or intends to in the future can use this plugin to full effect.

As well as this important feature, Skatter has many other options to optimise your models so that you are not rendering your grass components unnecessarily. For example when creating a field of grass, you can set a fall-off rate so that grass blades are less dense as you get further away from the camera. You can set the grass field to match your camera’s cone of vision so that it does not generate grass outside of your scene. There is a lot of control over your Skatter components and you can layer up multiple types of grass or vegetation so that there is a considerable variety of foilage in your scenes, changing the scattering parameters such as scale, rotation, density to ensure there is enough coverage of your base surfaces. You can even concentrate your grass blade density around the borders and edges of pavements where you often need extra grass blades to hide the ground surface underneath. I did find that my best computer which I use for rendering did at times struggle with some of the preview generations and would occassionally hang, but in general, the plugin appeared to be pretty stable; the most important feature in any piece of software!

 

And it is not just about grass either. You can use either of these plugins to create leafy vines on walls, a forest of trees, street lights around roads, fields of pebbles or rocks, even shagpile carpets just to give you a few ideas. Whatever you attempt to render, like anything it requires a bit of fiddling with the settings and component textures to get it right. You can see my efforts on this page to create a lush green lawn and an abandoned railway scene with dry yellow grass and rocks with the plugin.

 

To sum up, while it does require a bit more effort to get photorealistic grass into your 3d renders, it is definitely achievable with Sketchup and you can get some amazing results with Skatter, Make_Fur and the many 3rd party rendering engines that are available.

You can download a 15 day trial or purchase a licence for Skatter from here: http://getskatter.com/

If you have thought about creating physical models from your Sketchup files, it has never been a better time and it is actually very easy!

Important!

It appears that Trimble are about to change the maintenance renewal policy for users with older versions of Sketchup.

 

As of April 25th 2017
SketchUp licences that are 3 years past their Maintenance expiration date or are Version 8.0 and older will no longer be renewable for upgrade. After this date, customers holding these old licences must purchase a new perpetual licence in order to access the most recent version of SketchUp Pro.

 

What it means is that if you are running the 2014 version of Sketchup or older, it is now a good time to pay up your yearly maintenance fees to get the latest version, otherwise if you want to get the new version in the future, you will have to pay the full price for a new license.

If you are still undecided about whether updating is worthwhile, I can confirm that in the last 3 years Trimble have implemented significant improvements (not just token ones) to Sketchup’s functionality. They include:

  • the implementation of the keyboard arrow keys to orient the modelling plane
  • the new extension manager makes it much easier to enable/disable plugins
  • improvements to the functionality of the rotate and offset tools
  • additional features added to object snapping
  • fixes to the appearance of artefacts in animations on face-me components
  • less crashes and better stability on both Mac and PC platforms
  • new features added to Layout

It is also important to note that the current version of Sketchup can open and save previous Sketchup version files (right back to Sketchup Version 3!) so you will still have access to your older models. Also, any new plugins developed for Sketchup are likely to be written for the current version only.

Now I know that I have talked about Lightup in a previous article and noted its differences from other 3d rendering plugins that are available for Sketchup. I just wanted to show you a couple of other things that it can do.

Lux Analysis - Lightup can help you out if you need to check your lux levels in your model. You need to assign .ies files to all of your lights if you want it to work properly, but turning the render mode to Lux Contours will give you a hybrid render with a spectrum colour analysis of your lux levels which you can use to check against your lighting design. Very cool!

Animations/Video - Just to be clear, Lightup can produce realtime rendered interactive walkthrough models as well as the more traditional kind where you generate a series of animation frames to form a video. It is very easy to do and uses your Sketchup scenes and animation settings to determine the walkthrough path and timings. Have a look at the video below. Note that this video only took about 5 minutes to create on my PC laptop. For a traditional rendering plugin, creating this many frames at this size video would take several days or more.

Lightup For Sketchup is available at: https://www.light-up.co.uk/

This is a bit more of a practical tutorial compared to some of the recent tips that I have been creating. One of my previous Sketchup Modelling Essentials students who is an engineer, does a lot of swimming pool design and she came to me with a section profile of a pool wall and shape of the pool, wanting to know how one would go about creating this particular model.

Have a look at the video as I go through each step of the process using a number of different tools including Offset, Push/Pull, Follow-me and the plugin “Roundcorner” by Fredo6 which is available from the Sketchucation extension store.

To download and install the Sketchucation extension store where you will find the "Roundcorner" plugin, go to HERE and follow the instructions.

Happy modelling!

Unreal 4I have been exploring the use of gaming engines lately because it is definitely possible to do a high end interactive architectural presentation to a client using these programs. I already looked at Unity in a previous article and now the more popular and flashy Unreal 4. Sketchup has a bad name in the Unreal 4 Gaming Engine community. The main issue that appears to cause the most mirth is Sketchup’s proprietary texturing system which does not work with UV coordinate systems commonly favoured by gaming engines. When you export a Sketchup model straight into Unreal you will get overlapping UV Coordinate error messages when you go to build your lighting solution, causing terrible artifacting as shown in the screenshot below. It might be possible to fix the problem with the overlapping coordinates inside Unreal, but after reading many forum threads, there does not appear to be an obvious solution. So then this issue must be fixed before exporting to Unreal. For the nay-sayers that believe exporting Sketchup models directly to Unreal 4 is too hard, I have worked out a reasonably simple workflow that allows you to import your Sketchup models with all of its textures into Unreal 4. Read on or watch the movie…

If you have ever tried to import a decent sized level from Sketchup into Unreal 4, you might get a result something like the picture below - it looks okay when you first import the model, but once the lighting solution builds things go bad. This is caused by overlapping texture UV coordinates. I have put the error message in the bottom right corner.

It is fixable but you need to do a couple of things in Sketchup first.

Preparing your Sketchup model for exporting:

When creating your model, you need to model things carefully. Make sure that all front faces of your objects face outwards. Check that they are by changing your Style to display front and back colours, flipping anything which is not correctly oriented. Make sure that you group shared geometry and apply basic layering which will help you in the exporting process later on to turn parts on and off, because it is better to export small items into Unreal and combine them to form larger objects from what I have found.

Be wary of putting too much detail into your model. One mistake that caused me a lot of grief was to use a complex follow-me astragal shape that had lots of rounded edges. Avoid this where possible because the UV texturing process that I am about to describe can stuff up - but even then you can still get around it (though I’m not going to go into that here).

SketchUVTexturing Your Model:

Contrary to popular belief, you can texture your model in Sketchup no problem; you just need to set up the UV Coordinate system on your models for the texture maps and colours. The way to do this is to use a plugin call SketchUV (by Whaat) which is available from the Sketchup Extensions Warehouse for free. You need to follow the instructions for the plugin, but to describe the process in basic terms, you use your camera alignment to apply a special grid using the various texturing options in the SketchUV plugin. The Sketchup texture is remapped according to this grid. And that is pretty much it. If you have an organic shape and need to be a bit more careful with the location of texture seams, you can use the special rainbow coloured grid to help you line things up, then save the UV coordinate solution, apply the final texture and reload in the saved UV coordinate solution again so that it remaps the Sketchup material into UV coordinates. Watch the demo of the chair on the plugin page as an example of this method.

If you are exporting an object with 3d curved faces that has non-triangulated faces, like a sphere or revolved solid for example, you need to use the triangulate faces tool inside SketchUV, otherwise you will get a separate material for each face of your object - so for example, a 100 sided object will generate 100 similar materials in Unreal - something not desirable at all.

Once your model has been assigned UV textures (and triangulated), it is ready for export. If you miss doing the UV process on any particular part of your model, you can still go back to your Sketchup model later, apply the UV texture and then re-export it out again. Unreal allows you to reload/update an existing model file very easily.

Exporting from Sketchup:

Unreal 4 can handle FBX and OBJ files and Sketchup Pro can export to either of these formats. (I believe there is a plugin called OBJexporter available on Sketchucation for people that only have Sketchup Make).

In most articles/videos that I have read/watched about exporting Sketchup models to Unreal, they export as FBX; but I have found OBJ exporting to work a little better than FBX. With the OBJ exporter, textures stay linked to the model unlike the FBX exporter. Sketchup’s FBX export puts the texture maps into a separate folder and you have to move the map files back into the same folder as the FBX file manually for them to be recognised by Unreal 4. I have also found objects with smooth curved faces, like a sphere for example, maintain their smoothness better when exported to OBJ format for some reason but not sure exactly why.

When you exporting your model, use the following settings for FBX and OBJ:

  

You don't need to tick anything else. Although it sounds like a good idea, don't use Export two-sided faces and in my experience, it is not necessary to use Triangulate all faces. For the textures to work properly, you must use SketchUV to triangulate your 3d curves in the previous step. And when using FBX, don't forget to move the model and textures into the same folder after it is finished.

Importing into Unreal 4:

This may not happen to everyone, but when I go to import my OBJ file from the top pulldown menu choosing File->Import Into Level, Unreal 4 crashes on my PC; so if this happens to you, use the Import button in the content browser instead; it is much more convenient anyway.

Once the file is imported and model and materials are linked up inside Unreal, you can create subfolders and separate out the textures and materials from the model files. Use the content browser in Unreal to move them so that they remain linked to their source files.

I learnt many other things while briefly mucking around with Unreal. One particularly annoying thing was if you imported multiple objects in the one import file, Unreal will create a collision object between all of the objects. The effect of this is you will not be able to walk between the objects, or if your player is spawned inside the bounds of this object, you won’t be able to move! You have to use Unreal’s object editor to go in and delete the collision object. Not such a big deal but if you have to work it out yourself and the collision object is not visible by default, you can spend several hours like me scratching your head wondering what is wrong!

Anyway to sum it all up, Sketchup and Unreal 4 can work together quite well and hopefully my little video below is proof of this. I should also mention that there is another Sketchup plugin (paid) which I believe automates some of the processes described above. It is called Play Tools which can be found here. A secondary plugin must also be installed into Unreal 4 which looks a bit fiddly when I eyeballed the instructions, but if you can get it working, US$50 is nothing if you are serious about making content for Unreal 4 with Sketchup.

 Unreal 4 is free to download at: https://www.unrealengine.com/

I am a fan of Twilight Render for doing conventional architectural rendering because it is cheap, easy to use and if you only do the occasional render every few months, it is quite easy to pick it up again if you have forgotten the processes.

They have introduced a new feature descriptively named “render-to-texture” which must be purchased for an additional US$45 and added onto your existing professional licence. The plugin promises to give you baked lighting inside your Sketchup models by rendering out the effect of lights and shadow on surfaces and reapplying it as textures in your models.

Having experienced Lightup and its amazing realtime render-to-texture functionality, my expectations were high.

Unfortunately this plugin is somewhat disappointing when compared with the aforementioned competitor. The first issue was that you have to select the individual faces that you want to bake, which is a real nuisance if you have created groups or components; i.e. the normal way that you would model and keep your Sketchup model in order. So what this means is if you want to bake all of the textures of your model, you have to explode everything back down into its primary geometry.

The plugin uses conventional raytrace rendering so the baking process is slow. I also found the results to be underwhelming too and using the art gallery model that you would have seen in my previous Lightup example, my attempt at baking the complex ceiling geometry produced a very dark smudge, as well as glitches from some other texture map in certain spots. The baking process also only appears to cater for lighting and shadow effects; in comparison to Lightup which can handle reflections and other effects in realtime.

It is only the first iteration of the plugin but it has a long way to go if it is going to be anywhere near as good as Lightup. So I can only advise that if you are after realtime rendering and decent texture baking, this is not the solution to go with. Purchase a license for Lightup instead.

Sketchup and Unity play very well together. For those who don’t know about or have never heard of Unity, it is a 3d software engine used for creating commercial quality computer games that has been around for about 10 years. Originally created for Apple Macs, the later versions (currently up to version 5 at the time of writing) are very much multi-platform and can be used to create 3d worlds on phones and tablets, as well as desktop computers and game consoles such as the Playstation 4 and XBox One.

The great thing about Unity is that it renders in real-time, and provided that you have an understanding of the basics, you can walk around your environment, add wind swaying grass, trees and plants, realistic shadows and textures, and other atmospherics. Unity is much more efficient at handling geometry than Sketchup so you can add a lot more detail to your scenes and not have to worry about filesize and polygon count. You could quite easily put together a sophisticated interactive architectural presentation for clients to play with as a standalone file that they just need to open on their own computer.


For things to work optimally on a standard computer, you do need a decent graphics card in your machine which can handle real-time 3d rendering.

Models that you create in Sketchup can be exported as FBX files and then you import them into Unity as game “assets” which are then placed into your game world. The interface in Unity, from a modelling perspective is not very good, making Sketchup the ideal place to create your objects and Unity the place to add landscape entourage, other scenery features and then explore your model world in real-time.


Above you can see a screenshot of a simple courtyard that I whipped up in Sketchup and then exported out to Unity, dressed it up with trees, plants, a new sky background and various rendering effects and the result is quite eye-popping. And although I can't show you on this page, you can use the arrow keys and mouse to walk around and explore it in realtime. Hope that it inspires someone out there to get creative and give it a go.

Unity is free to download from here: https://unity3d.com/

A number of companies have started to realise that providing Sketchup files of their products for designers to download and insert into their design models often leads to their products being specified further down the track.

For some companies that manufacture paints or cladding materials, they may offer .SKM files which are basically Sketchup Material files. Taubmans Paints and Bluescope Steel, for example, provide their products as SKM files which you can download from here: http://www.taubmans.com.au/colourcentre/colour-rendering-files# & http://steel.com.au/articles/article-56-colorbond-steel-texture-library-for-sketchup

You can put these into your list of default Sketchup materials so that they are immediately available for use, provided you know where they go, and in this tutorial I will show you how to do this for Sketchup 2016 which is the current version at the time of writing.

The first step is to unzip the file. If the unzipped .SKM files are in subfolders within the main folder (like in Lysaght's files) then the materials will not appear when you place the files into Sketchup's file system. You will need to move all of the individual .SKM files so that they are under one main folder with no subfolders. Then move the whole folder containing the .SKM files to the following locations in Sketchup 2016’s file system:

For a Windows 10 machine it is quite easy; go to File Explorer (keyboard shortcut Win+E) and go to your C: drive or where your programs are kept. Put the folder of materials into:

Program Files->Sketchup->Sketchup2016->Materials

You will see all of Sketchup's default material folders in there and you just add yours to this list.


 

For MacOSX machines, it is a bit more complicated. I have noticed that a number of sites tell you to put the files in the Application Support folder but that does not work. What you need to do is open up Finder and click on your Applications folder. Find the Sketchup 2016 folder and then the Sketchup application file. Right-click on it as shown below and choose “Show Package Contents”. From there go into Contents->Resources->Content->Materials and place your folder of .SKM materials into there with the other default materials.


 

 

If you have followed these instructions carefully, next time when you start up Sketchup, the new folder were appear in the Materials palette where you will be able to choose the new materials and paint your model with them.

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