Machine Design
3D models come to the iPhone

3D models come to the iPhone

Interactive, 3D product documentation is going mobile, targeting non-CAD users such as repair technicians. For example, Autodesk Inventor Publisher Technology Preview, a free download from Autodesk Labs, supports the creation of interactive 3D assembly instructions, operating procedures, repair instructions, and the like. These can then be “published” to the Web, paper documents such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint — and the iPhone. The phone app seemed interesting and since I have an iPhone 3G S, I asked company representatives to publish a 3D animation to my phone.

To do this, I first needed the iPhone application, Firefly. Because the program is still in beta, the developers emailed it to me in a zip file (instead of my, say, downloading the program from the Apple site). Installing the software was merely a matter of attaching the iPhone to the computer and launching iTunes. Next came unzipping the content, dragging and dropping it into the Application folder in iTunes, and then “syncing” the phone. In a short while, Firefly loaded. Lightly pressing the Firefly icon opens the application. My phone is always “on” the Internet, so launching Firefly automatically connected it to Autodesk servers and downloaded files named “Bike Assembly,” “LED Light,” and “Guitar Hero,” among others.

Much of the iPhone’s appeal comes from its touch interface and this capability extends to Firefly. For example, tapping the 3D View tab for “Bike Assembly” brings up the 3D model of the bicycle. Pressing the Play arrow displays an exploded view of the bike and then an animation of the steps to installing the front wheel, fork, handlebar, crank, and seat. While the animation ran, associated text instructions for each step displayed at the top of the window. You can also touch and drag the timeline bar to scrub the timeline.

The interface is quite intuitive. For instance, a one-finger touch-and-drag orbits the camera, a two-finger touch-and-drag pans the camera, and a two finger “pinch” zooms the camera. Also, double-tapping a part displays the part name and tapping on the part label brings up another window that shows the part properties. A nifty feature: Touching and holding a part centers the view on the part.

Likewise, opening “Guitar Hero” displays an animation showing how to assemble a guitar. Double-tapping a body panel reveals its name, Body_Bottom:1. Tapping on the label shows part properties include author, date created, density, design status, designer, and material. Pages with a lot of text just take touching and dragging to scroll through the text.

A caveat from the developers: This version of Firefly is an early build of the app, so there were likely to be quirks. I found them to be few and far between. For instance, sometimes the part would not center immediately. But this is just a quibble. Firefly is probably among the first wave of mobile 3D applications. The program could even be handy for non-CAD end users such as a frustrated father needing to assemble a boxed toy for his kid.

The software comes from Autodesk Inc., 111 McInnis Parkway, San Rafael, Calif. 94903, Autodesk Labs is found at

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