The pipeline of work for creating 3D assets is becoming more and more important. More software and application experiences are moving into the 3D realm as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) move toward the mainstream. Whether you are a developer just getting into this space or an artist and creator now finding yourself on a commercial VR project, the learning curve related to 3D workflow can seem daunting. This post is designed to give you a sense of the creative side for 3D assets, so you better understand your options and what areas to study. Listed below are the four key steps in the creative pipeline most applicable to the creative side of VR development. Note that we did not include level design, rigging/weighting, and animation. While these steps are key to game development, they are more specialized skills and not as universally applicable to VR applications. Tools are becoming available that help democratize such workflow.
Creating or Acquiring 3D Meshes:
Whether you decide to download and license 3D assets or build your own, you have many choices during this phase of the workflow. Be aware that even acquiring assets will require knowledge and skill in understanding the cost of mesh topologies, mapping, and textures in your software or animation. Here are some options that will get you at least a base 3D asset to start the process.
Retopology and UV Unwrapping of 3D assets:
Retopology is the process of rebuilding a 3D mesh so it's lower in size and designed better for animation. It may seem like an unnecessary step, but it is a key one. Most original meshes, either built, acquired, or scanned have captured a level of detail that makes it look great but is not necessary. Also, most highly detailed meshes can create unwanted creases or folds when animating. To avoid this, the detail you see in a high poly mesh can be transferred out from the 3D structure and into 2D texture maps, allowing the 3D mesh to be a much smaller file with fewer parts to deal with. In the image below the mesh was reduced from 2,200,000 faces to 2,300 faces, yet the output looks relatively the same.
UV unwrapping your mesh is a key part of this process. In order to get a low poly mesh to look like it has detail, you need to wrap the low poly model with information from a detailed model or information you create in material maps. UV unwrapping is the process of unfolding a 3D model into a flat 2D map of all the vertices in the mesh. The result of the unwrapping is called a UV map. The UV map acts as a guide and defines how various material and texture maps lay over the mesh so they fit cleanly. These 2D map files can hold data on different properties such as height displacement, color and transparency, metallicness, roughness/reflectivity, and subsurface scattering.
As far as the right tools for the job, you are looking at the same list of professional full-purpose 3D editors to do retopology and UV unwrapping: Blender on the free end and Maya on the paid side.
Texturing and Materials Editing of 3D Assets:
This work is the secret sauce to good-looking and realistic 3D assets. If you have ever been blown away by a street scene, or the realism of a vehicle in a game or VR, the trick is in textures and materials editing. This is the part that people tend to miss. They jump from 3D asset to Unity or Unreal and wonder why their stuff doesn't look as great as they see in other applications.
You can do some of the textures and materials editing in the professional 3D editing tools like Blender. Blender has all that you need to set those up, especially if you find existing physically based rendering materials online and want to use those materials on your objects. However if you want to get into the details of editing materials and add or delete things to be the way you want, consider using Substance Painter*. This tool makes the work easy and allows you to bounce back and forth between editing and adding materials, and then going back to your editor like Blender to add or adjust your model as you need to.
Asset Export/Import and other workflow needed in 3D Engines.
The final task in the process is to get your 3D assets in your game engine and get it working for you. Unfortunately because there are so many tools and methods to create 3D assets, often the engines have their own proprietary way of structuring the assets with materials and lighting. Often it's a matter of importing, and then assigning the materials you created to the appropriate physics-based materials like metalness, roughness, or displacement. Your approach is really dictated by the 3D engine you choose to develop your VR application. Beyond just reconnecting materials to 3D assets, you will have control in these engines through scripting, allowing you to alter properties or swap out material properties and looks to your assets as needed.
This blog will be updated in the coming weeks with a post on this process for both Unity and Unreal.
We hope you found this article helpful as a starting guide and overview of the core areas of work for creatives, designers, artists, and developers who want to contribute to the space of quality VR experiences.
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