Best Programs to turn your Studio Portfolio into a Real-Time 3D Experience

While the entertainment industry has long used 3D graphics to create an immersive experience for audiences, other industries, such as AEC, have notably been slow to adopt these technologies to their business models.  This is starting to change. Autodesk, a pillar of the AEC industry with their popular design programs AutoCAD, Revit and 3ds Max, recently partnered with game engine company Unity. The collaboration is part of an effort to streamline the architectural design process into the game engine technology developed by Unity.  They are looking to help AEC professionals create immersive architectural experiences where a viewer can access all corners, sides and small details of a design. This partnership signals a growing trend in the industry: real-time experiences are no longer just for entertainment–they hold significant value for the AEC industry as well. 


Below are some of the more popular software platforms which can be used in the process to turn a sketch in your notebook into a 3D visualization capable of providing a real-time tour of your design. 



Building Your 3D Model

These tools focus on the creation of your 3D model before transferring to a game engine for the final real-time experience. 


3ds Max


Autodesk 3ds Max is a professional 3D computer graphics program used for making 3D models. The software’s capabilities make it a valuable tool for everyone from architects to Hollywood animators and video game developers. The newest version has particularly useful lighting and shading functions, enabling the user to create a more realistic result in their work. 3ds Max also has a direct link to Revit and can import Revit files for rendering and visualization. The changes on a Revit file can be applied live on a 3ds Max file. In summary, 3dS Max is a great 3D modeling tool. It is used in multiple industries, and was once the go-to application for game design.





SketchUp is a fantastic platform for new designers because of its relative simplicity and easy learning curve for new users.  The software was developed by Trimble Inc, a company with AEC ties, and is designed for the creation of 3D environments, including building and landscape design. The software comes with an online warehouse of goods such as windows, doors, and cars to place inside your design for extra layers of realism. The platform even lets you place your model within Google Earth.

Sketchup also has a free web-based application, making it quite appealing to students and smaller studios. Although it started as an entry-level software with limited features, today the platform has a host of professional features and thousands of addons to extend the functionality of the software. So it’s a preferred choice for most architects and architectural design studios specially at the conceptual modeling phase.





Revit is specifically meant for architects and is a mainstay at larger firms and studios.  It is the industry standard for Building Information Modeling (BIM) and its integration with other software and collaborative tools make it easy for large groups to work on a single project. Until recently, Revit files could not be directly imported into a game engine, and it needed to go through another digital content creation application like 3ds Max or Maya. This changed with the addition of Datasmith Exporter plugin for Revit (which is in Beta) by Epic Games. The plugin is available for download, but keep in mind that your results are likely to have some issues for now.  Before the plugin can be a totally seamless addition to your workflow, you will likely have to manually adjust for scene hierarchy, pivot points, light, cameras, materials, textures, UV coordinates, texture sizing, survey points, and project location. 



Maxon Cinema 4D (C4D)


Cinema 4D is a 3D modeling and rendering application developed by MAXON Computer. It is capable of modeling, animating, lighting, texturing, rendering, and common features found in most other 3D modeling applications like Maya and 3ds Max.  In a recent (July 2019) update, Epic Games introduced support for Maxon’s Cinema 4D in the release of Unreal Engine 4.23.  C4D connection can now be enabled in the free Unreal Studio Beta via the Datasmith plugin.





Also built by Autodesk, Maya is an industry leader in 3D animation, asset creation, and visual effects workflow management. Maya has a free-form approach to 3D modeling and has a feature called Paint Effects which allows the user to draw 3D shapes free-hand, a feature architects in particular are drawn toward.   For the same reasons Maya is widely used for cinematic animation, it can be used to create dramatic architectural visualizations. Although Maya’s uses in architecture production are limited, it is a fantastic tool for architects to create conceptual ideas. 





Blender, while not commonly thought of for its AEC functionality, has a wide suite of 3D modeling tools to create projects that can be transferred to a game engine to create real-time experiences.  The platform is free and open-source, making it an ideal tool for students and small studios. Its free nature means there is no professional support and it lacks interoperability with AEC standards such as Revit, so it is not (yet) widely adopted for enterprise application. 





Computer-Aided Design Software




Officially Rhinoceros 3D, but commonly referred to as Rhino, was designed with industrial manufacturing in mind and makes it a tool ideally designed for creating precise shapes and models. Rhino makes the journey from concept to fabrication an efficient and enjoyable process. It can handle large and complex projects and is an invaluable tool for architects; structural engineers, urban designers, building envelope engineers, and landscape architects amongst others. There are also dozens of plug-ins on Rhino to assist the user with terrain creation, parametric architecture, and rendering. 




Complementary Toolsets to Enhance your Model for a Real-Time Experience

While the above tools are focused on building your model, these tools can be used to add realism to your project prior to running it through a game engine to create your real-time experience. 


Substance Designer and Substance Painter


These two programs often get used together; as such it’s easier to understand them by looking at their differences(given away partly their differences).  Substance designer allows a user to design unique textures or substances (think wood, tile, or brick for an architectural design). Substance Painter is a 3D painting software allowing you to texture and render your 3D meshes. With its non-destructive workflow, it allows users to paint textures on 3D model in real time.  This makes the combination of the two a useful way to create a more efficient workflow. 





Quixel is redefining how realistic designed environments can be. They have a library of scan-based, ready to use, and photo-realistic assets to be used in design platforms like 3ds Max, Maya, Blender and game engines like Unreal Engine 4 and Unity.  Their unique photo-capture process allows them to create textures and assets based off the natural world to unprecedented levels of quality, but still optimized for performance in real-time experiences. 




Engines to Turn your Model into an Real-Time Experience

These are the tools that can create an immersive experience that will blow your clients away.  While the above tools help craft the details of the environment, these platforms mesh the details together in a way that allows the viewer to move beyond the conceptual sketches and delve into what it feels like to be in the designed environment. 


Unreal Engine


Although still thought of as predominantly as a game engine, Unreal Engine is already being used in the entertainment, real estate, and architecture industries.  It is attractive to AEC professionals for three big reasons. First, Unreal Engine is seen as a universal language for real-time development– in sense a platform that is compatible with the most common design platforms you need to create a truly immersive experience for a user.  Secondly, Unreal Engine provides highly photo-realistic projects. For AEC students and professionals trying to present projects that could be turned into real construction, this is a key aspect. Lastly, and most importantly for students and smaller studios, it’s free. Accessing certain features or customer support requires a paid plan, but much of what you need to create stunning designs can be done with the free features (if not all).  Unreal Engine is also famous for its community support and you’re likely to find answers to your technical questions from the community.





As mentioned earlier in this article, Unity and Autodesk are now partners.  This relationship brings together one of the biggest players in the architectural design space with one of the most powerful game engine producers in the market.  The two working together have the opportunity to transform how the AEC industry views architectural presentation. But with the free nature of UE4 and the great community that has been built around it, at this time there is little reason to choose Unity over UE4 when it comes to architectural visualization at this time.



With major players like Apple, Google, Facebook, HTC and Samsung all pushing forward on virtual reality and AR and MR, it will become more and more common for consumers to want digital experiences that give them in-depth information about a product.  For architects and studios, the demand will be similar. Clients will expect to see projects that they can digitally experience before construction and understand the effects of lighting and design options on the project. AEC professionals who can create real-time experiences will be able to meet this demand and set themselves apart from their competitors.