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AIA: Talking to Chris Yessios about Bonzai 3D

Chris Yessios spoke with me at AIA about the new Bonzai 3D and why it offers users differences and advantages to SketchUp, while still be compatible with Google’s popular modeler.


Like last year at AIA this year I had a sit-down with Chris Yessios, president and founder of auto-des-sys, Inc., the makers of the famous formZ application and the new Bonzai 3D.

Bonzai 3D was auto-des-sys’s primary focus at AIA this year, the entire team wearing bright red Bonzai 3D tee-shirts at the booth. The new software is essentially at its first release beyond the public beta stage. Interestingly, Bonzai 3D was being shown right next door to the Google booth, which of course focused on SketchUp, Bonzai’s primary competitor. 

However, Chris Yessios doesn’t like to make simple comparisons between SketchUp and his team’s new Bonzai 3D. I asked him why and he remarked because fundamentally Bonzai 3D is much more robust in its modeling technology. Bonzai 3D, he explained, is built using the same core modeling kernel technology behind formZ. So the question next was, what is that exactly?

Bonzai 3D’s uses a combination of ACIS (by Spatial) for advanced curved forms and similar items and auto-des-sys’s own proprietary modeling geometry engine for everything else. I asked Chris Yessios why not ACIS for everything? He said because their technology was faster. This topic of speed at the geometry kernel has real teeth when one considers what is really happening inside of Bonzai 3D. 

01 - Bonzai 3D

01 - Bonzai 3D performs real-time boolean operations to true modeling solids during push/pull operations leaving water-tight solids and historical seams that can be optionally made invisible or left shown. This is different than SketchUp which generates 3D planes in space with a front and back side.

You see, Bonzai 3D is a real first class NURBS modeling program, just like formZ but with less functionality than its big sister app. That means it is a “true solids modeler” as Chris Yessios emphatically points out. This part is important because you need true solids if you want to talk directly to things like CNC milling machines and 3D printers. 

The speed issue is important because Bonzai 3D has push-pull technology that works just like SketchUp. Yessios explained to me that essentially what is happening when you push out a cube, for instance, off the surface of a bigger cube, the program is actually performing a Boolean operation (addition, substration, union, etc.). The results of the push-pull immediately become a solid for the whole, yet there is a history of the operation still there, so the user has the ability to show or hide that line between what was added or taken away. This is different than what SketchUp is doing. As our Baltimore Vectorworks 2009 reports indicate in a chart Nemetschek North America put together for that press day event, SketchUp is not a true solids modeler.

Bonzai 3D History

Yessios told me that Bonzai 3D developed under a tight beta program consisting of a select number of formZ users. This meant that from a certain point of view Bonzai 3D was aimed at asking currently happy formZ advanced modelers how to envision a simpler, more sketch-oriented modeler. Yessios said auto-des-sys, Inc. had it view on this too, and there was debate internally about what features to put in and what to leave out. And some of the formZ-based beta testers asked for certain formZ tools in Bonzai. This made the development process tricky but the company feels very good about the feature set in Bonzai 3D today. 

02 - Bonzai 3D has some innovative live texture editing capabilities.

02 - Bonzai 3D has some innovative live texture editing capabilities. It also has the ability to input people, trees and cars and similar objects as both 2D and 3D items. As 2D items these can be automatically configured to face the camera for all rendered views and animations. Like Sketchup, Bonzai 3D is primarily an OpenGL-based rendered modeler with decisive and responsive live interaction in 3D.

Back in January of this year the company broadly expanded the beta testing phase to an open-public beta. Thousands of users downloaded Bonzai 3D and the feedback from that phase was important, as Yessios noted, it helped to get the bugs found and solved.

Bonzai 3D and its Noteworthy Features and Items

In addition to the more robust modeling technology behind Bonzai 3D, there are several other aspects that distinguish it from Google’s SketchUp. Some of these are small but important and others are larger. On the small side are items that deal with modeling per se. For instance, numerical input and precision in schematic modeling are key items that are different in Bonzai 3D, offering the modeler more options in precision location of key vertices that begin or end modeling operations–especially within the field of a given surface. Because of the underlying geometry engine Bonzai 3D can create complex combinations of spline-based 3D surfaces and more importantly solids and can provide editing modality options that are not existent in SketchUp. 

03: Bonzai 3D uses ACIS for complex surved surfaces and its own engine for faceted solids.

03: Bonzai 3D uses ACIS for complex curved surfaces and its own engine for faceted solids. The user never knows the difference between the two.

The formZ folks have also done great by embedding instructional videos directly into the application’s main interface. Video instruction is one of Google SketchUp’s main strengths and auto-des-sys, Inc. has gone far in this department as well. Chris Yessios was quick to point out why this is important. “Professors don’t teach software anymore.” said Yessios. “Today the kids are expected to learn software on their own.”

Yessios’ comment reflect the trend for design schools to focus less instruction on the ins-and-outs of software and more on the applicability of a range of tools. This is both a bless and a curse–good for the students in terms of flexibility and applicability to use the skills and tools they know and love and a curse for the younger students who may need specific instruction in applications that they have not encountered before. 

With a combination of strengths ranging from robust modeling kernel technologies to advantages in modeling creation and editing–to solid strengths in learning the application–Bonzai 3D is clearly the front-runner rival to Google’s popular SketchUp, and is well worth reviewing for anyone interested in an easy-to-use but powerful modeling application. 

To learn more about auto-des-sys, Inc.’s new Bonzai 3D please click here.

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