Google SketchUp Delights the Mind


In 2006, shortly after I started working as the public geek at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, Google released a free version of its 3D drawing program, SketchUp. SketchUp was originally designed for architects, but is so easy to use that first-grade students can play with it. Whoever designed SketchUp understands how the human mind works because within a few minutes of my using SketchUp I started giggling with delight. I don't have much talent at drawing, but one of the first things I designed in SketchUp was a simple 3D art museum.

Here is how I came to design that museum. At my public library job, I help youth and adults who use the 28 Linux stations we have available seven days a week. Into the computer center walks a community resident, Kwadjo Dixon, from Ghana. The town I work in, Takoma Park, has residents from 92 countries. That makes for an interesting workday for me.

Kwadjo had a gentle smile on his face and was carrying what looked to be an art portfolio. I asked him, “Are you carrying some of your drawings?” He said, “Yes.” I asked him, “Can I see your drawings?” He said, “Yes.” His drawings immediately captivated me, so I asked, “Do you have a Web site for your drawings?” When he said, “No,” I asked him if he'd like me to make one on the spot for him. We created a quick Web site for his drawings that day. A week or two after that, I downloaded the free version of Google SketchUp and decided that I wanted to build a 3D art museum. Right on my Macintosh laptop were Kwadjo's scanned drawings. I suddenly realized I could create a 3D art museum for Kwadjo – while teaching myself how to use Google SketchUp.

I documented this entire project using some screencasts I created with Snapz Pro X, an excellent screencasting program for Macs.

I'm quite proud that the only commercial software I used for this project was Snapz Pro X. Google SketchUp is free software. OpenOffice is free software. Blogger.com is a free Web service. Picasa Web Albums is a free Web service.

After creating that 3D art museum, I became intrigued by the possible use of Google SketchUp by elementary school children. I searched high and low for anyone blogging or writing books on this topic. Imagine my happy surprise to run into Bonnie Roskes' company 3DVinci a short distance away. Bonnie Roskes is a world authority on the use of Google SketchUp for kids – as well as an expert on the use of SketchUp for architects, engineers and other professionals. Not only that, Bonnie has written a bunch of books, ModelMetricks, on the use of SketchUp with kids.

I reviewed the ModelMetricks books for the Community Voices blog here on PCWorld.com, but yearned for some way that the books could be made more affordable. When I talked with Bonnie Roskes about this, she quickly agreed to sell the books in downloadable PDF format at a substantial discount. These $15 print books can now be downloaded for $5 each in PDF format, or purchased as a set for $15. The economics of these books becomes way more accessible -- and if you want to print out these PDF files on your own printer, you can.

My role as a reviewer is to steer you towards the good stuff. Of all these books, the two I learned the most from are "Kids as Architects" and "Strange Buildings." Do you have a child who already has a flair for computer graphics and design? For that child, I'd recommend the book "Crazy Shapes."

At this point you might be wondering, “What is the best way of getting into Google SketchUp without buying any books?" First, I'd browse through some of the excellent SketchUp screencasts on YouTube. I love showing people this YouTube video on how to create a chair using SketchUp.

The other SketchUp videos by the same YouTube producer are also excellent.

Then I would search YouTube for any of the SketchUp videos made by Aida Chopra, Google's chief evangelist for SketchUp. Aidan is the author of Google SketchUp for Dummies. He is an outstanding explainer. Here is a book review I wrote for PCWorld about Google SketchUp for Dummies.

After that, download SketchUp and dive right in to explore how the drawing tools work. Find yourself a SketchUp buddy (youth or adult) to explore the program with. Note: You'll need a computer from about 2005 onwards to use SketchUp. Older computers don't have sufficient processing power to run the program. The system requirements for SketchUp are listed on the SketchUp Web site. On the Mac side of things, you'll need a 1GHz PowerPC™ G4 or faster computer with 512MB or more of RAM, with Mac OS 10.4 (or higher).

The Windows requirements are not as high. You'll need a 600MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, Windows XP, and a 3D-class video card that supports OpenGL. Interestingly enough, a lot of Windows computers making their way into the donation stream here in the United States can run SketchUp. When you combine free computers with free creativity software (such as Google SketchUp and OpenOffice) and free Web services (such as Blogger.com, YouTube, and Picasa Web Albums), you end up in an interesting place.

For those who might be wondering, the free version of Google SketchUp has more than 90 percent of the features of the $500 professional version. I've never felt restricted by the free version of SketchUp, although I sure am curious to explore the features of the professional version sometime.

Currently, less than 1/1000 of 1 percent of computer users in the world have ever heard of Google SketchUp. That's a shame because this program truly delights the mind. Google should partner with Apple and other computer vendors to bundle SketchUp with every computer sold. By doing so, Google could raise awareness of SketchUp from 1/1000 of 1 percent all the way up to 1 percent of computer users. Now that would be a goal worth striving for. Our purpose in life is to set and then reach such ambitious (and modest) goals.

Phil Shapiro

The author works as the public geek at a public library in the Washington DC-area and is an adjunct professor of education at American University. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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