Snow Leopard: Collada Support

While Snow Leopard isn’t being sold on its new features, it probably could be. Here’s an interesting snippet of Apple’s Snow Leopard pages that a post on Cheetah 3d’s forums put me onto:

Collada Digital Asset Exchange (.dae) files are a popular way to share 3D models and scenes between applications. Preview now displays these files with OpenGL-powered 3D graphics, so you can zoom and rotate around a 3D scene and play viewpoint animations. You can also print the scene or save it as an image or movie file. And you can use Quick Look to display them as well.

A quick Googling of “Snow Leopard Collada” reveals that this little announcement is creating quite a buzz, and not without reason.

What’s Collada? It’s a rich 3d file format that — like FBX and unlike 3DMF — doesn’t suck and — unlike FBX — isn’t proprietary and subject to bizarre incompatibility issues every time Autodesk squeezes out a new version of the SDK.

By “rich” I mean that it enables 3d programs to store almost any information they would store in their own proprietary formats. By “doesn’t suck” I mean that other programs are generally able to get that information out again.

If Apple’s support for Collada goes deeper than simply being able to render .dae files in Preview and QuickLook, e.g. allowing programmers to relatively easily load, retrieve data in usable form from, save, and render Collada files, it couldĀ lead to a renaissance of 3d on the Mac, and deliver the benefits that Quickdraw 3D promised and so spectacularly failed to deliver.

The second bit: “retrieve data in usable form from” is the tricky part, since Collada is a very hairy format, which means that an ideal implementation would support all the hairiness, but allow you to access raw data in a lowest-common denominator way — e.g. load in complex NURBS objects and then acquire them as meshes at a specified detail level. One thing Apple might do is pick which bits of Collada to support thoroughly and — if they pick well — effectively create a compatible subset of Collada which different software developers can depend on and treat as the defacto standard (kind of the way Photoshop 4.0’s file format is a defacto standard for interoperable Photoshop documents).

Apple’s support for Collada could also help give Collada the momentum it needs to gain stronger support in the 3d world. Right now, a lot of programs have so-so Collada support and superb FBX support (in large part because Autodesk makes supporting FBX pretty easy). But Collada is richer and less proprietary than FBX. In a sense, Collada is analogous to QuickTime in that it can serve as both a format for storing raw and working content as well as delivering optimized end-user content.

Supporting Collada at OS level could be a great “judo” move on Apple’s part. It would allow the Photoshop wannabes to easily offer Photoshop-like 3D support (easily embed 3d objects in layered documents, and provide texture-painting capabilities), and encourage everyone on the Mac — or interoperating with people using Macs — to support a single rich 3d file format. It creates an ecology where indie developers can create “do one thing and one thing well” 3d tools on the Mac that doesn’t really exist on any platform right now.

We’ll see.