3D PDF Format
3D PDF is about embedding 3D models into good old PDF files. The PDF file acts as a container and capable viewers can read and display 3D models while showing documents.
The History of 3D PDF format
Although the initial release of PDF format itself dates back to 1993, the 3D option was added much later — in 2005, when a group of companies, including Intel, Boeing, Adobe etc agreed on the “Universal 3D (U3D)” format. The goal was to promote 3D content in manufacturing, construction and industrial design. The format is known as ECMA–363.
The first version of Acrobat Reader that supported 3D models was 7.0. The next 8th version got better support of 3D models and more options. Adobe Acrobat DC (Pro) lets users create 3D PDF files by embedding 3D models to PDF files. Many third–party applications provide export to 3D PDF options.
3D PDF Format Features
The underlying U3D format of 3D PDF is capable of storing vertex based meshes, lighting, bones, and simple animations. It also supports textures, colors and reflections.
The later specifications of U3D format added support for curved surfaces. Another underlying format of 3D PDF — PRC format — offers about the same set of features.
Although the format itself does not limit the maximum texture resolution, Adobe Acrobat usually limits it to 2048x2048 or less in order to provide better stability on low–quality hardware. Because of that high–detailed artwork may look somewhat blurry, unless the exporting software takes care about this.
Although the format’s features were quite impressive for its time, it doesn’t look that good today. First and foremost, probably because of the widespread adoption of HTML and open standards. PDF containers are quite complex and there were not so many alternative viewers, leaving the user with Adobe Acrobat Reader as the only solution to view 3D PDF files.
Multiple security issues with Adobe Reader application lead to creation of 3rd–party PDF viewers in most modern browsers, which do not support 3D PDF. More, Adobe itself has made both making and consumption of 3D content more complicated by hiding 3D options behind multiple warnings and tool panels.
The latest format update was around 2007 and the technology did not improve a lot since then.
Nevertheless, the format is still alive. Adobe still provides tools for both authoring and viewing 3D PDF, as well as many third–party vendors. 3D PDF is still an option to share a 3D model, especially if you don’t want to use cloud–based solutions. There are plenty of modern alternatives, though.
3D PDF Software
There is a plenty of 3D PDF authoring tools around, but not so many 3D PDF viewers. Adobe Acrobat DC (the professional version) lets you add 3D content to PDF files, but you need to convert 3D models to U3D or PRC formats first. Adobe Acrobat Reader lets you view 3D content in PDF files.
Most of the CAD software can export to 3D PDF natively or using plugins. There are converters to 3D PDF formats that read 3D models and export U3D, PRC or 3D PDF files directly.
Most of the alternatives to 3D PDF format assumes uploading 3D models to the cloud and then viewing them in browser. There are pros and cons of such approach, and also there are other options.
See our 3D PDF alternatives page for mode details.