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How to render 3D images on your iPad for free

AutoDesk's 123D Catch app for the iPad is an expansion of the company's strategy to get into mobile.

AutoDesk isn't exactly a household name, but I'm continually impressed by the quality of free apps it offers.

One of the latest free apps, which came out earlier this month, renders everyday objects in 3D on your iPad, a fairly nifty feature. These aren't the wonky 3D images that seem to fly off the screen; I'm talking about rendered images that can be moved around on screen.

The app 123D Catch works like this: You use the app to snap 40 or so photos of an object at different angles. The photos are then uploaded to a server run by AutoDesk, which does the heavy lifting and spits back a 3D-rendered image that can be edited, rotated, and zoomed in and out.

Also new is 123D Make, which allows you to digitally slice a model up in different pieces for assembly and fabrication. They join 123D Sculpt, which works like digital clay that can be formed to create images, and refined and decorated. It came out in August.

Beyond something cool to show off to your friends, the 3D images can be edited and used for 3D printing, a new niche interest that's been popping up among the avid do-it-yourself crowd.

For AutoDesk, it's another way for the company, largely known for its AutoCad designing software and its business focus, to reach out to its growing base of consumer enthusiasts. I previously wrote about Sketchbook, another app it released, which introduced the company to consumers. 123D Catch represents yet another step.

"We're fostering community member participation," Christian Pramuk, technical product manager for Autodesk, told me in an interview. "The goal here is to provide anyone with free apps for them to design, create, and fabricate."

The 123D community is made up of more than 100,000 users.

The company continues to give the apps away for free, though Pramuk said that there is the potential to do in-app purchases with added sculpting features.

"Right now, we want to give it away for free because, well, people like free stuff," he said. "It's about creating 3D for the masses."

I like it because of the integration of the real world with the digital one. You hop from analog to digital, mess around a little, and go back to analog.

It's pretty refreshing when you're so focused on apps all the time.