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Adobe Substance 3D Modeler: Creating Art on Desktop and in VR

Jeremie Noguer discussed Substance 3D Modeler's capabilities, talked about the Substance ecosystem, and spoke about the feedback Adobe got at the beta stage.

Art by Giovanni Nakpil, Nikie Monteleone, Wes McDermott, James Zachary, Casimir Perez, John Liberto

Introduction

Hi, I’m Jeremie Noguer, Substance 3D Ecosystem Product Director – you may know me as “Jerc” on Steam or Discord – and I joined Allegorithmic in 2006 when it was still operated from a disaffected classroom on campus in Clermont Ferrand, France. I worked as a technical artist first, building tech demos in Unreal Engine and Unity, then product manager/designer for Substance 3D Painter when we first launched. Around 2012-2014, I spent most of my time traveling around the world trying to convince game developers that Substance was worth a try. It was a lot of jet lag and frustration but in retrospect a lot of fun and totally worth it!  Today at Adobe, I work hand in hand with all our teams on product strategy and roadmaps, making sure we bring value to our current apps while we are building what’s next.

Substance 3D Modeler

Modeler is a sculpting and assembly application that can run both on a desktop and in VR. It’s being developed by the team originally behind Oculus Medium, with the help of talented veterans from VR gems like Media Molecule’s Dreams or Microsoft’s Maquette.
 
The base principle behind Modeler giving artists a way to realize their vision in 3D without having to deal with all the technicalities typically associated with 3D modeling. Modeler uses Sparse Distance Fields at its core, think of it as an infinite grid of tiny voxels. This allows us to not only not care about polygons but also unlocks scales and levels of details that are simply not achievable with traditional 3D tech. Modeler lets you display and edit up to thousands of instances and billions of polygons, in a single scene, at 90fps in VR.

Of course, VR also allows new creative opportunities, like being able to use both hands to shape, twist, and bend shapes, or create complex curved surfaces with movement smoothing.

Another unique aspect of Modeler is the ability to not only work on single assets but on full scenes and environments, assembling sculpted clay, imported models, and stamps in a single project. You are then able to export it as a USD scene preserving all these instances and objects at native resolution, making it an ideal authoring environment for Nanite scenes in Unreal Engine 5 for example.

Modeler Users

Really anyone who wants to quickly lay out ideas in 3D can benefit from using the toolkit. From experimenting with shapes and forms on an object, to character or creature design all the way to blocking out a full environment. We see a lot of concept artists and designers using Modeler to flesh out ideas and then paint over them in Photoshop, but also character or vehicle artists building highly detailed models that can then be 3D-printed or rendered in Stager, Unreal, or Blender.

VR Modeling

We consider Modeler as a hybrid app that’s built from the start to accommodate both or either screen and headset, with a variety of controls. Of course, working with a precise device like a mouse or tablet has its advantages when defining hard surface models for example, while VR is unmatched when it comes to organic sculpting, scale, and shape apprehension, so each mode has its pros and cons and that’s why we worked on making the switch from one to the other as seamless as possible. We see a lot of Modeler users using one or the other depending on the task at hand. 
 
We are also aware that the install base for VR headsets is still fairly small and slowly growing, so we made sure that users working only on desktops would have access to the same toolset as what you get in VR. A lot of time was spent to ensure feature parity while preserving what makes both platforms unique. 

The initial design for interactions on the desktop was vastly different than what users can see in the app today. The team had designed a clever system of working planes allowing you to build and arrange 3D objects using dynamic axes that mimicked more closely the feeling of freedom granted by VR. While it was powerful and opened the door to otherwise impossible interaction on a flat screen, it was ultimately deemed too much of a departure from traditional controls and scrapped. However, it did result in a few innovations in the gizmo UI that bring some of that gestural feeling to the desktop but with a more familiar packaging.

Feedback

Modeler has been in various stages of beta for almost a year and a half now. The interesting thing about approaching a well-established workflow like 3D asset creation with brand-new solutions is that we don’t know if they’ll work, and we’ve iterated a lot, sometimes scrapping entire parts of the app that didn’t work as well as we thought they would and going back to the drawing board.
 
At the end of the day, the feedback we had been waiting for and that we’ve been getting for the past few months is that artists who would try it could find their bearings quickly and, for 3D pros, produce art faster than they could before, while artists who had never modeled or sculpted before could actually bring their vision to 3D without frustrations. We know we’re seeing the end of the tunnel when you stop fighting against the software and you’re instead starting to have fun creating.

We engage closely with our users through our Discord and other social channels. We have been fostering a community of both seasoned professionals and creators who are new to 3D, and the hopes have been to build a community that supports each other, encourages sharing, and very direct feedback to the development team. Occasionally, if there is someone who has a certain background or is calling out workflows that need a more in-depth discussion, we try to engage with this person on a deeper level – either creating a side thread where we can ask follow-up questions or help to test a certain feature or fix, or even scheduling a meeting where we can have a real-time conversation to really dig into the problem they are highlighting that we want to solve. Finding people who feel invested in helping us make the tool better is also a good signal that we are heading in a promising direction or serving a specific workflow well, and we strive to make those paths even better.

Development at Substance 3D

Each product team is fairly independent in the way they organize themselves, and we really value this autonomy. That said, products are not created in a vacuum either, and a sizeable part of the Substance team doesn’t necessarily work on a specific product but on cross-functional initiatives, technologies, and APIs meant to be integrated into our various apps and projects. 

For example, Modeler shares its mesh decimation and UV algorithms with Sampler’s new photogrammetry feature, and future tools will be able to leverage those as well.

The Ecosystem

With Modeler, we have reached a goal we set for ourselves a long time ago to be able to offer a full end-to-end 3D pipeline, allowing you to create assets from scratch, texture them, stage them and render them, all in the Adobe Substance ecosystem. How we interact with other 3D tools and apps is also paramount, and we are investing a lot of effort and working with other major players in the 3D space to advance standardization around things like USD, which ultimately should improve interoperability for everyone. As for the future of the Substance ecosystem, Modeler is but a stepping stone, and we have a lot more projects in the works that will fill other gaps and needs we have identified in various 3D workflows. More news on this front next year!

The Roadmap

If we got the timing right, our 1.0 release should be today at Adobe MAX 2022! We still have a lengthy roadmap in front of us and some of our high-priority items include supporting the Mac platform and a broader range of headsets. Improvements to our buildup and crease tools as well as new sculpting tools are also high on our list, but really what will shape our roadmap will be the feedback from the community as it always has with previous Substance tools.

You can find out more about Substance 3D on Discord, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Jeremie Noguer, Substance 3D Ecosystem Product Director

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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