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Autodesk bringing 3D modeling to the masses

On Monday, the design software giant will unveil 123D Catch and 123D Make, new tools that are intended to give almost any user the ability to create digital 3D models and schematics.

A set of new tools from Autodesk, 123D Make and 123D Catch, are intended to allow almost anyone to create their own 3D digital models.

SAN FRANCISCO--You may not know CAD, but if you've got a computer, you can now start creating 3D models.

That's the idea behind 123D Catch and 123D Make, two new free software applications that Autodesk is planning on releasing on Monday. The two programs join the company's existing iPad app, 123D Sculpt, as part of a family of tools that are intended to give just about anyone the ability not just to make their own 3D designs, but also to get them produced as real, physical models.

Autodesk unveiled the two new applications at a press event at its innovation center here today, making the argument that just about anyone can now play the role of 3D modeler that has traditionally belonged to CAD experts and other professional designers.

With 123D Catch, a user can take any digital camera and use it to photograph a real-world object. By snapping a few dozen pictures from angles all around the object and then uploading them to Autodesk's cloud-based system via the software, the user can within minutes get back a 3D model of the object. Autodesk will process the model at no charge.

This is a 3D model of the author's head, creating using Autodesk's 123D Catch software. Though this image is static, the software creates a full 3D model that can be examined from all sides. As is clear from what looks like a crown on top of the head, the resulting image needs to be touched up or manipulated to be usable for creating a physical model. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

With the associated 123D Make tool, the user can then take that new 3D model and upload it to Autodesk's servers in order to get a physical model made from it. For an additional fee, Autodesk will arrange to produce a 2D cut pattern made from wood, cardboard, plastic, metal, or fabric, that can be used to put together a full 3D representation of the original object. The result will require a fair amount of touch-up, but it's a pretty good start for most people.

Autodesk is betting that the tools, used either alone or in conjunction, will be valuable to anyone wishing to prototype a new product, art project, or piece of furniture, or someone just looking to create their own models of real-world objects.

This is just the latest in what is almost certain to be an increasing stream of product and service offerings from companies looking to democratize the process of making 3D items. Most recently, a startup called My Robot Nation introduced a service that lets users craft a small digital robot design and then have a physical 3D printed model shipped to their door. Other companies, such as Shapeways, Freedom of Creation, and Ponoko are also in the business of letting users upload their own 3D designs and then charging to 3D print them, although these are generally aimed at more sophisticated and experienced modelers.

With 123D Catch, Autodesk is betting that because digital cameras are now ubiquitous, almost anyone should be able to produce a workable 3D digital model. The tool--which for the moment is only available on PCs--returns a model that can be closely examined and re-touched, and which can include extremely detailed wireframe data. Users can choose to email the model to anyone they wish or even automatically upload a digital fly-around of it to YouTube.

Another view of the 3D model of the author created using 123D Catch from Autodesk, which is expected to be released on Monday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At the same time, 123D Make allows users to manipulate their 3D model and see on the screen the schematics of the 2D cut-outs that will be physically printed. The tool lets the user resize the final model on screen and because of built-in knowledge of what it takes to manufacture a real-world object, automatically updates the schematic to account for the changes. Users can either print the schematics on paper themselves and then take the time to glue them onto materials like cardboard or wood, or pay Autodesk to create the cut-outs.