TL;DR summary: Experienced Minecrafters will have no trouble navigating the interface, but Li needs more documentation or a tutorial mode for inexperienced users. This beta is well on its way to dual-purposing the Minecraft learning curve as a way to create 3d models. No STL export capability as of 9/10/13, so for now it’s a curiosity while we await the release of the Lionhead 3d scanner/printer. This could be big.
There’s phrase from Dao De Jing : 千里之行，始于足下, or, “A journey of 1000 li begins with a single step.” (A li is a Chinese distance measurement that’s roughly 1/3 of a mile.)
One must undertake the grandest journeys on one’s own initiative, and that’s what Radiant Fabrication plans to do with its much-anticipated Lionhead All-in-one scanner and printer.
Li is the name of the Lionhead’s scanning, modeling, and printing software. Li uses a Minecraft-like interface to build 3d models locally, without the internet connection required by services like Printcraft. In theory it’ll run the Lionhead 3d printer/scanner, but I haven’t tested that capability yet.
Li gets its name not from Laozi, but rather from the rabbits of Watership Down. In the world of talking rabbits, li translates to “head.” In our universe, the one sadly lacking anthropomorphic hares, Li is the one tool, the head, if you will, that you’ll need to run the Lionhead when it ships: scanning, editing, and printing will all controlled from Li.
Big old caveat: Li is a Beta, and it had been released for less than 24 hours when I got to it. Expecting a completely polished user experience would be unfair.
So! I launch the software and start my stopwatch. The goal is to mark my metric for 3D software accessibility: Time To Cube. How long does it take to design and export a 1x1x1 cube in a format that I can use with one of my 3d printers?
And, go! The UI looks a lot like Minecraft, or at least what I remember Minecraft to be circa mid-2012.
Blink and you’ll miss a small notice that says “Press F1 for Help” on startup. This notice really needs to be made more clear on first launch– I only noticed it after quitting and restarting a couple of times once I’d backed myself into a corner. This notice seems to go away on its own if you leave the application alone for a few seconds.
Li doesn’t ship with a README and documentation as of today appears nonexistent, so I’m on my own for figuring out how things work. I’m not a Minecraft guy, so I go with what seems intuitive and press the 2 key to give myself a cube and plunk it down. I click on the ground and get bupkis. No cube.
AH! Left-click to Remove, Right-click to place. This seems really non-intuitive to me but I’m reminded this is the way it’s done in Minecraft. When in Rome and all that.
It turns out the tools at the bottom of the UI are best thought of as volumetric brushes. Right-click to place a sphere comprising a bunch of Minecraft blocks, left-click to carve a sphere’s worth of blocks from an existing structure. Now it makes sense. It looks possible to make custom volumetric brushes, too, which conjures fevered dreams of painting with ZOMG VOLUMETRIC SQUIRRELS
The software defaults to a single voxel placement/deletion mode, which will be handy for making simple models or trimming a little bit here and there from a model built from bigger primitives.
Heads up: with a few exceptions for illness, vacations, zhengspawning, and funerals, I’ve been using Maya for modeling almost every day for the last 15 years. I’ve got Maya reflexes, Maya muscle memory, and Maya expectations. My existing 3D experience is going to taint any interaction with new software. I also haven’t played Minecraft in over a year, so while I’m familiar with the basics my WASD+mouse navigation skills are mushy.
So I floundered around in Li’s UI for 26 minutes (!) before turning off my stopwatch and handing Li over to Elder zhengspawn, who is twelve years old and recently stopped playing Minecraft in favor of WoW.
She made a 3x3x3 cube in less than 25 seconds. Then she made a 正, and was well on her way to sculpting that rocket motor Elon Musk’s been Tony Starking with lately before I kicked her off the laptop to try again.
Having observed the master at work, I threw myself back into the Time To Cube test. Twenty seconds this time, now that I know what I’m doing.
I’ll just export this model as an STL so I can take a look at it in netfabb and evaluate the mesh, and…
…phooey. There’s no way to export one’s model from the current version of Li. This is a little disappointing, because I was hoping to evaluate the mesh and maybe give it a test print on my Replicator.
One can save an model as a .radiant file, but as far as I can tell doing so creates a closed binary. I’ve tried to open the .radiant cube with Textedit, Netfabb, Meshlab, and even cat and got nowhere. Opening up the .radiant format to experimentation from the outside could foster all kinds of creativity, so I’ll put that on my feature request list along with STL export.
A .radiant file containing a 3x3x3 block cube is 27MB. Lawdy, what’s going on in there?
I’m going to wait for the next version of Li before I try again, so #staytuned. This software’s got a lot of promise as a tool for younger modelers, but without an export option one can’t really use it for much beyond experimentation today. As long as I’m wishing, a Minecraft import would be a nice feature. I’m sure there’s a few epic structures people would like to print on their shiny new Lionheads without going through Printcraft.
Also, I’d like a pony, but I realize that may be an unreasonable request at this time.
One big plus in Radiant Fabrication’s favor: their email communication with me has been solid. I’ve been pinging my questions and bug reports off them all week and they’ve been ponging helpful responses back, which bodes well for their future as a 3d printer/scanner vendor. Together we squashed a couple of irritating OSX 10.6 bugs, so the software’s in better shape than when it was first released.
One thing I learned during my conversations is that one can hold down the Alt (option on OSX) key during startup and get this configuration dialog.
Check out the “PLAY!” button. Radiant Fabrication could have put any number of words into that button. CONTINUE. NEXT. PROCEED. OK.
But they chose PLAY, with an exclamation point. That gives me an idea of where they plan to go with their product line. They want kids to have fun with 3d printing. Grab a toy, scan that toy, tweak that toy, print a new toy.
This could work. It really could. I’m excited to see the next step on Radiant Fabrication’s thousand li journey.