Alternatives to 3D PDF

3D PDF format was invented in 2005, the last format update was around 2007 and there wasn’t much done about it since then. Mobile devices made a great advance, as well as HTML and open standards. Data is migrating to the cloud for easier management and sharing and this includes 3D content, too.

So what are the modern alternatives to 3D PDF when it comes to sharing 3D models?

Why Alternatives?

“Don’t fix that’s not broken” the say, so is 3D PDF broken enough so we really need an alternative?

On one hand, Adobe still supports 3D PDF in their products and you can make a 3D PDF file in Acrobat DC and open in in Acrobat Viewer. On the other hand, it is not 2005 anymore and many things have changed. Let’s see some of them:

Mobile Devices

Many people use mobile devices instead of good old desktops or laptops and unfortunately, there is almost no decent 3D PDF viewer available for mobile. Of course, there are some apps that can do the job, but they are far from being as popular as Adobe Reader on desktop. Basically, there is a zero chance that someone can look into 3D PDF on a mobile device.

Lack of Support

3D is not a first class citizen in Adobe PDF infrastructure since about 2010. The format gets no updates since 2007, Acrobat Reader displays warnings before opening 3D content and Acrobat DC can only embed two very rare 3D formats: U3D and PRC. More, Adobe itself in their recent products shifted towards different 3D formats and concepts.

They will hardly drop 3D PDF completely, but no new features since 2007 means the technology is more dead than alive.

Viewer is Needed

Back in 2005 everyone has a copy of Adobe Reader on their laptop or desktop. Today it may not be an option even on “big” non–mobile devices. Most of the modern browsers have their own PDF viewer for our convenience and those viewers do not support 3D content in PDF.

In other words you need to make sure that the person who gets a 3D PDF file from you has a proper viewer and uses it on a desktop or laptop. Again, this could easily become a problem.

Format Limitations

The set of features of 3D PDF format, especially when it comes to materials stuck back in 2005. As a designer you get texture, tint color, reflection level and very simple transparency and lighting. That’s all.

The artwork resolution is limited by Adobe Reader, so special tricks are needed in order to display high–res graphics.

What Alternatives?

So what format is supported by all the modern devices and doesn’t require a special viewer? Of course it is HTML. It doesn’t matter what device or operating system you use, you definitely have a browser there. Modern browsers provide a good support of 3D graphics and can get the most of the device hardware. Since about 2015 all the new 3D sharing solutions are based on HTML and WebGL.

There are three ways you can show up a 3D model in the browser:

  • to use one of the online services;
  • to use “re-invented 3D PDF” from Facebook or Apple;
  • to use 3D model to HTML converter software.

Let’s discuss them in more details:

Cloud Services

There are multiple online services where you can upload 3D model and get a shareable link in seconds. They are perfect for 3D content sharing and/or making a portfolio and usually requires zero knowledge of 3D formats to do the job.

The drawback is that as with any other cloud solution, your data is not so yours anymore. Even if the privacy policy is strict about sharing your data, the service may decide to stop operating or change their terms or simply have a hardware issue and lose your data.

Facebook and Apple Formats

Both companies came up with their own 3D formats for easy sharing/viewing 3D content. Facebook made a bet on GLTF/GLB format, while Apple used USD format by Pixar.

Both formats are quite flexible and may support all the modern materials and features, but both require a viewer and here come limitations. For instance, although the GLB format has plenty of features, Facebook viewer support just a subset of them. The Apple format does not get a lot of support outside of Apple ecosystem, so formats by themselves look more or less like “modern 3D PDF”, but this time limited because of the viewer, not format.

The good news is that there are 3rd party HTML 3D engines that can load those (and other) formats and display them the way you need. The bad news is that they require some coding. For instance, three.js is quite a good JavaScript engine that we used for our online GLB converter - it can easily load most of 3D formats and apply the materials the way you need. As long as you provide the code.

If providing the code is not a problem — this is the best way to go: you get open–source HTML 3D engine and open–standard 3D models. No vendor lock, no feature limits. If the code is a problem, there is another option.

3D to HTML Converters

These applications take your 3D models and export them to HTML, solving the “code is needed” problem mentioned above. They do that by merging their own or 3rd party HTML engines and your 3D model into a single HTML file with plenty of code inside. In the best scenario you get a single self–contained HTML file that will work in any modern browser that you can easily share, upload or send by email.

The number of features you get depends on the software you use. Some applications provide a very basic set of features, similar to 3D PDF. Others let you setup almost everything at the price of higher complexity. It is recommended to try as many applications as possible to get the best one.

Do not forget to try Koru — our software for converting 3D models to HTML.

So What to Use?

For simple one–off 3D model sharing, use any online service you like. As long as it does the job — it is good enough. For long–term 3D–to–Web options, consider owning your data by storing them yourself using open standards and open–source HTML 3D engines. If this is a problem, use HTML 3D converters and still host the data yourself. This way you get much less surprises in the long run.