Cosmic Blobs teaches kids how to model in 3D

Concord, Mass.-based SolidWorks Corp., part of the billion-dollar French multinational corporation Dassault Systemes, is best known for its development of 3D mechanical design software -- powerful but somewhat esoteric fare. So it's somewhat incongruous to see the company offer a consumer product, especially one aimed at kids. But that's exactly the market that SolidWorks is reaching for with its 3D design software, Cosmic Blobs.

Cosmic Blobs (

November 2005 ) was originally born of a research project to develop a new shape language, led by SolidWorks co-founder and vice president Scott Harris.

"It's a manifestation of a new way to model," Harris told Macworld . "We made it work as much like clay as possible."

Whipping out a can of bright pink Play-Doh, Harris began kneading a ball of the popular kid's craft toy.

"People understand displacement metaphors," Harris added, demonstrating by pushing his thumb into the ball to make a deep impression.

Cosmic Blobs takes a similar approach to 3D modeling, using a kid-friendly interface that will be immediately appealing to any youngster who's tried Software MacKiev's Kid Pix software. The brightly lit interface features all sorts of tools for making and manipulating 3D models and surfaces, animating them, and even adding backgrounds and soundtracks.

"Surfaces of objects in Cosmic blobs are always curvature-continuous," said Harris. "It's always sort of smooth -- there's no abrupt changes or kinks."

That lends itself to a predictability when you're fiddling with objects that people assume is quite natural when they see it and play with it in software, but works using math that's quite tough to do, Harris said proudly.

"We're still continuing the research on that new language," said Harris. "This isn't the culmination of that new shape and design metaphor, but it's an interesting side project."

Hook 'em while they're young

SolidWorks already has an outreach program to interest young engineers as they near their college years, but the company has, until now, eschewed any product in the primary school space. In fact, Harris can think of nothing that compares to Cosmic Blobs in the consumer retail space.

The idea, said Harris, was to develop a product that would turn kids on to 3D computer modeling as a conduit for creativity and learning, rather than just something used to play games.

"With Cosmic Blobs, we're preparing the next generation for 3D. Kids get 3D," said Harris. A new generation of kids has been weaned on 3D animated fare from Pixar and Dreamworks and life-like 3D action games on their computers and consoles. That's set their expectations very high.

"In fact, if 3D things aren't really good, kids get disappointed," said Harris.

The software includes a variety of pre-built shapes, objects and animations, and more are available in the form of expansion packs which can be purchased at the Cosmic Blobs Web site -- everything that kids need to make their own 3D scenes, which they can then export as movies.

SolidWorks has also been careful not to offend the sensibilities of its young client base. "We've tried to stay pretty gender-neutral," said Harris. "We've got pre-built models for both boys and girls."

Seven to 14 is the recommended age range for Cosmic Blobs, but 10-12 is the "sweet spot," according to Harris "Cosmic Blobs is really a 'tween' product," he added, referring to a demographic term used to describe kids who aren't quite teens but are starting to think like them.

Education beyond just 3D design

SolidWorks' newest effort goes beyond just trying to get kids to use Cosmic Blobs as a 3D modeling and animation tool. Harris sees the software as a useful tool for educators, too.

SolidWorks has set up an educational Web site where teachers can share tips on how to use Cosmic Blobs in their curriculum. Teachers can write and submit their own curriculums if they want; SolidWorks turns around and makes those available to other teachers.

As a practical example, Harris showed a biology course that traced the life of sea creatures that live in coral reefs. A Cosmic Blobs model of the reef contained brightly lit, finely details critters ranging from sponges and sea anemones to a hammerhead shark. The curriculum asked students questions about the marine life present in the image, and part of the lesson included a creative portion where kids get to design their own imaginary sea creature.

"Most of the curriculums we've seen developed so far are science related," said Harris. "But at a recent educational trade show we had teachers approaching us with ideas for how our medieval expansion pack could be used for creative writing and history -- those are applications we hadn't even thought of at the time we developed it."

Boot Camp no threat

"I think Cosmic Blobs is an important application for Mac users," said Harris. "There are a lot of schools that use Macs, there's a lot of graphics software on Macs, and Mac users tend to expect a certain quality in the software that they use. We've had a really good response from Apple."

Harris noted that Apple's retail stores are the first brick and mortar retailers where you can find the software. What's more, you can find Cosmic Blobs demonstrated on the iMacs that Apple keeps in the kids' areas of its stores.

Right now, Cosmic Blobs is very processor-intensive: Its minimum system requirements call for a G4/1.25GHz system or better -- an even higher bar than many modern games demand.

"It's the nature of the beast, unfortunately," said Harris. "You're doing a lot of calculations and you're displaying a lot of triangles."

Harris assures Mac users that a Universal Binary of Cosmic Blobs is on the way, though he couldn't say precisely when it'll be released. And he doesn't think that Apple's release of Boot Camp -- software that makes it possible to run Windows XP on Intel-based Macs -- will affect the company's Mac development plans.

"We've done some optimizations in Cosmic Blobs that will make the software scream on Intel Macs," said Harris. "I think Apple's transition to Intel processors is going to grow the Mac market significantly. It's a godsend for Mac users who have been suffering a bit on processor speed for a while."

Making powerful tools easy to use

The tradeoff is in the software's ease of use, Harris said. Cosmic Blobs uses many of the same metaphors and concepts used in powerful mechanical CAD and 3D design programs, but scaled to a level that kids can use. Built-in tutorials walk kids through creating and animating models themselves.

"We've tried to spoil our users a bit too," said Harris, demonstrating some effects that are tough to do in grown-up 3D packages without a lot of planning. For example, Cosmic Blobs users can animate any object they want with a number of pre-defined actions. Harris demonstrated by building a basic cube then clicking a walking-dog icon. The cube then began to march as if it was a quadruped.

"That command just created an internal skeleton for this object," Harris explained. Users can also quickly define paths for animated objects to follow -- so you can make a runner jog in circles, for example, or have a fish swim around a tank.

Combining the movement paths with the animation can create realistic motion -- or unrealistic motion. Harris demonstrated by glueing a few cylinders and spheres together, then making them walk, slide and slither around a path on the screen.

SolidWorks isn't content to rest on its laurels, either. In addition to a new expansion pack made especially for girls, the company is thinking of other applications for Cosmic Blobs in the future.

"Now we're focusing on the downstream use for this content," Harris said. "What do you do with this material once you've created it?"

Harris assured us that the best is yet to come with Cosmic Blobs -- more powerful tools will come down the road.

A time-limited demo version is available for download from the Cosmic Blobs Web site. You'll find it on store shelves for $39.99; you can also download it if you purchase it direct for $34.99.

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