There’s a new 3D modeler in VR town and it feels like a game-changer — MakeVR was released today by Vive Studios and Sixense. We tested early versions on the HTC Vive system and I can testify it’s an amazing experience, very intuitive and so natural feeling — you just pick up your two controllers and start pushing, pulling, stretching, and scaling 3D objects to create solid models in virtual space, using a powerful CAD engine. And it exports STL files that are watertight and ready for 3D printing (at home or at Shapeways) or for export to Max, Maya, or other design programs.

Starting this morning, you can get MakeVR for $19.99 at viveport.com. It’s well worth your time and ducats to grab a copy and start doing real CAD in a totally immersive virtual world. MakeVR is based on the well-known 3D ACIS modeling kernel by Spatial Corporation (Dassault Systems), the same one used by industrial-grade CAD programs. We’re fascinated with the potential of MakeVR and other virtual modeling tools and we’re excited to see how makers are going to use it. Sixense and Vive Studios are also keen to see how you’re going to use it — they’re promising a MakeVR Pro version later this year, adding more precision tools based on the feedback they get from makers. So here’s your chance to help build the exact virtual CAD tool you’re dreaming of.

The MakeVR interface, virtual-reality view.

Export your designs as STLs you can make on your 3D printer — or have Shapeways do it for you.

Screenshot of a sample MakeVR creation

We’ve been following MakeVR’s development since 2013 when Sixense debuted an early version — running on Razer Hydra controllers and the Oculus Rift head-mounted display — and showed it off at Maker Faire Bay Area. Since then the arrival of the HTC Vive system has upped the ante for room-scale VR using two-handed motions, and the two companies formed a partnership to develop MakeVR fo Vive. Last year they invited us into their San Francisco skunk works (an unmarked building somewhere south of Market) and gave us a sneak preview that immediately impressed. Earlier this year they visited Make: headquarters and showed off their 3D print integration. I modeled some simple objects and exported them for 3D printing in our office; the STL files were watertight, error-free, and printed perfectly.

Testing MakeVR at HTC’s San Francisco location.

I chatted with the HTC Vive and Sixense teams to learn more about MakeVR, how they created it, and what it means for Makers; here’s our conversation.

Make: Steve Hansted, you’re Sixense biz dev, so go ahead — sell me. I’ve got a shiny new 3D printer on my workbench and I want to design things to print. Looking around, I see a crowded market of CAD and 3D modeling software out there — some are super high-powered, some are easier on-ramps for beginners, so why would I choose MakeVR? What can it do that other software can’t? How does it make my life easier or better?

Steve Hansted: Excellent question! Simply put, MakeVR is the best of both worlds: super high-powered with an easy on-ramp for beginners. It’s professional-grade CAD engine with a very natural and intuitive two-handed interface. You’re right that there are a lot of CAD and 3D modeling packages out there, but only MakeVR offers you a fully developed solid modeling CAD engine with a 3D multi-touch interface that allows anyone to jump in and start creating content that can be sent directly to their 3D printer on day one. It’s got a very shallow learning curve.

Make: Why target an “early access” version of MakeVR to Makers and hobbyists? What do you see in this community that you’re hoping to connect with? Will you be tapping their ideas for improving the software?

SH: The first release is simply targeted to get a highly functional version of MakeVR into the hands of Makers and hobbyists as soon as possible. We hear from a lot of people in this community who, much like yourself, have a shiny new printer awaiting some content to be sent to it. With a seven minute learning curve and a little bit of practice, any Maker or hobbyist can start making their printer a little less shiny. All of their feedback is very important to us, we want to make the tool as usable and attractive as we can.

Make: Why should Makers jump on the early access version rather than wait for a more robust version later?

SH: The first release of MakeVR is a fully functional modeling tool. The suite of Boolean and freeform tools that are included will allow people to make some really cool content. The following release, the Pro version, will include precision tools, but this first version has more than enough functionality for people to jump in and let their imaginations fly. And again, whatever is created can be sent straight to a 3D printer.

Make: Chris Chin, you’re an HTC guy — why go with Sixense and MakeVR rather than work with the AutoCADs and SketchUps of the world?

Chris Chin: Sixense has been a great partner for us from the beginning, and we were attracted to them because they’ve had a great history pioneering the VR industry and because of their passion for MakeVR. Amir [Rubin], Paul [Mlyniec] and Steve have been at the forefront of VR for decades and they’ve really had the progressive view of how VR is transformative. They had the foresight once the HTC Vive came out last year to partner with us to make MakeVR a reality. We also liked the fact that MakeVR is powered by an industrial-grade CAD engine, which has the capability to empower users and Makers to pretty much do what they’d traditionally do using a keyboard and mouse, but in a much more natural and intuitive way using Vive’s room-scale VR. Sixense has already invested years into developing MakeVR, and we wanted it to become available for the Vive because it is such a great tool and enabler of content creation.

I also want to note that we are strong partners with Autodesk and Dassault on the enterprise side and work closely with them on a number of fronts, so we are actively working with multiple partners and always open to working with more. We want to enable modeling and design tools for the Maker, hobbyist, and ultimately the end consumer as well, so that’s why we’re excited about our partnership with Sixense and MakeVR.

Make: Chris, I know you’re also a longtime Make: subscriber with your daughter, and you’ve got a background in education — where do you see MakeVR fitting into education? Is it envisioned as an easier on-ramp for beginners than competing VR products?

CC: MakeVR is perfect for education. If you think about it, 10 years ago we really didn’t know about touchscreen user controls such as pinch and zoom until the iPhone came out. We’re at a similar crossroads right now where the Vive has such natural intuitive controls for a design and creativity app like MakeVR that it’s definitely an easier learning curve. So in terms of creating a new generation of Makers and creators, MakeVR is really ideal. As an example, from the hundreds of demos Steve has done, he’s seen many kids step into a Vive and pick up MakeVR really quickly — basically in a matter of seconds — to create some really cool stuff. So we know this has the ability to change things.

From an education standpoint, schools are really asking for tools like MakeVR. They love the creativity and design aspect from a STEAM standpoint, and schools, libraries, and Makerspaces all are very excited about MakeVR. It really serves as the perfect bridge between imagination and reality by enabling students to conceive a creative idea, step into the Vive and use MakeVR to realize that concept, and then immediately print it out on a 3D printer. So we’re really excited about MakeVR in education and we look forward to offering this out to schools and universities for their feedback and seeing what kind of amazing content they come up with.

Make: Steve, what were some of the challenges porting a burly CAD engine like ACIS into a VR environment? In that regard, do you feel you’ve solved any specific problems that your competitors haven’t solved yet?

SH: There were a number of hurdles, I’ll give you three. The toughest was taking the precision tools from ACIS — they’re very deep and complex — and making them easy and natural in a virtual environment. This is a really complex issue that we are the only ones tackling. Not to disparage any of the other tools out there, but surface deformations are relatively easy — porting precision tools in a natural-feeling interface is a challenge.

Navigation: Creating object and space movements that are much faster and easier than standard interfaces, using the two-handed interface and 3D multitouch. Just watching kids use the interface was fascinating, I would watch these kids who grew up with 2D multitouch just intuitively figure it out. To scale themselves, move themselves around.

Performance: All this complicated CAD functionality running in VR at 90 frames a second, so you don’t get nauseous in a high-frame-rate virtual environment, was definitely a challenge!

Make: I loved using the early access build of MakeVR because the feeling of freedom was amazing — freedom from keyboard commands that make CAD programs usually feel so clunky and mediated — using your whole body to manipulate objects and space, and to inspect any portion of the object at any scale. It just felt like “this is really the future of CAD.” I think VR CAD is going to liberate a lot of creative energy that’s been frustrated by the keyboard/screen interface. It’s as if two generations of 3D designers have been trapped behind a keyboard and now they can model and sculpt in the real world again with complete freedom of motion.

SH: Exactly. MakeVR was designed by an artist for artistic interactions, from an artist’s point of view — how things should feel, how tools should work. We often refer to MakeVR as a “3D content creation experience” — without the burden of using a traditional CAD tool.

Make: I also tested the 3D printing integration — I didn’t send my files to Shapeways (though I love that option — model it today and get it in your mailbox tomorrow) but exported them directly as STL files for my own use. The STLs of the simple objects I modeled were watertight and error-free, and our prints came out perfect. But we did have to take the extra step of doing the scaling afterward, using the STL file, instead of inside MakeVR. What kind of precision measurement tools can we look forward to in the pro version? I’m dreaming of snap grids with sub-millimeter precision so I know my prototype parts will fit on the first try with existing circuit boards, fasteners, hardware, etc.

SH: Yes, the solid modeling basis of MakeVR allows for watertight models that can be sent directly to a 3D printer. We will be including measurement tools will allow for accurate scaling for 3D printing within the tool.
But, MakeVR – the upcoming versions at least – is not intended to be a replacement for Solidworks. There is a distinction that must be made between precision and dimensioning. While you will be able to accurately position geometry, you will not currently be able to do actual engineering design to sub-millimeter precision.

Make: Last year Sixense CEO Amir Rubin told Make:, “We can expose any tool from ACIS in MakeVR — it’s basically Solidworks with an HTC interface. We want a transparent and open conversation with the Maker community.” So, again, how much of that underlying ACIS CAD engine are you going to give us for $99 when the full version of MakeVR launches? And how can Makers steer the development of MakeVR to enable our most-wanted new tools and capabilities in future versions?

SH: Yes, we have the ability to bring any of the existing ACIS tools into MakeVR. The initial focus for the next release will be precision tools that allow for accurate object placement: grids, jigs, snap points for positional and rotational alignment, etc. We want to unlock the tools that will be most beneficial to the Maker and hobbyist community and will certainly listen to their input along the way.

Make: Point blank, because our readers will want to know — how does MakeVR compare to Oculus Medium? Because our guy Caleb Kraft really liked Medium. (And he’s our resident expert in both VR and 3D modeling, so I’m going to have him reality-check this blog post for me.)

SH: This is a bit of the old apples and oranges, or more like comparing Word to Excel. Both have their focuses and while there is a bit of overlap, for instance you can do some Excel things in Word and some Word things in Excel, each has a different design, function, and purpose.

Medium, like many other tools out there, is a freeform sculpting tool. You can do some really excellent things with Medium, but the end product will look it was sculpted in clay. MakeVR, while it will offer surface deformation tools as well, allows you to create hard surfaced content with precise angles. MakeVR is a solid modeling, industry standard, CAD engine with (upcoming) precision tools and collaboration.

Make: Anything else we can look forward to?

SH: I just want to point out that MakeVR is going to be ever evolving, with more and more tools unlocked, features unlocked — it’s not just 6 or 10 Boolean functions, go have fun — we’re constantly going to be making it bigger, faster, stronger.

We’re also working on a MakeVR store where people can share and buy each other’s content in a community built around Vive, MakeVR, and 3D printing.

And the collaborative aspect — coming soon, we’ll open up a multiplayer environment where you’re working on the same object together, with coworkers or clients. I talk to CAD users and they’re blown away by those aspects.