Which 3D tool should I use for AR?

6 min read
Blog Author

Which 3D tool should I use for AR?

Blog Author
6 min read
The 3D team at Zappar have put together this handy post to help guide you into choosing the right tool for your objectives. We are going to evaluate what we believe are the most common tools, and look at several important considerations such as price, usability, availability of tutorials, as well as how suitable it is for the type of 3D development needed for ZapWorks

One of the most fundamental 'wow factors' of AR is the ability to bring static objects to life. From promotional flyers to business cards to product packaging - witnessing the transformation of a passive surface to an active, dynamic experience that dances before your eyes is one of the key reasons so many creators are inspired to experiment with this rapidly evolving medium.

The integration of 3D models into AR experiences is one of the most impressive visual elements of this - enabling users to explore fantastical environments, interact with their favorite characters and generally enter a higher level of immersion than previously possible. However, creating 3D assets for mobile AR brings its own specific challenges - and the desire to create impressive 3D experiences has to be optimized to be both accessible and awesome on a wide range of user devices.

That's why I've consulted our in-house 3D and design teams to give you an overview of the tools they use to implement 3D into AR using ZapWorks Studio. When you're starting out, it can certainly be overwhelming - with a large range of tools, price points and levels of complexity to contend with. Plus, a lot of choices are not fully objective. As you'll see from the diverse opinions of our expert team, your own preferences about workflow and usability can play a big role in a decision - after all, sometimes a certain tool can just feel 'right' to you!

But with our support, we hope you will be able to make a more informed decision about how to move forward on your journey to bring 3D to the AR digital canvas - along with a sprinkling of our own 3D AR creations to spark your interest along the way!


Our collaboration with Shackleton Whisky showcases the power of 3D models for AR experiences, telling an exciting story of Antarctic exploration



Price: $1,236 per year
(Correct as of 18th April 2019)

Autodesk's Maya is a very popular and versatile choice for people utilizing 3D across a wide range of industries and use-cases. The chances are, if you're in game development, animation or working in a film studio environment, you'll already be alongside staff making use of its impressive rendering, 3D animation and simulation functionality.

When it comes to features, the reasons for that popularity are abundantly clear, with the toolkit covering rendering, lighting, modeling, UV mapping, sculpting and rigging.

But it's Maya's animation tools which are particularly well regarded by our 3D team, alongside its support for a wide range of easily implementable plug-ins. And if you're just starting out on your 3D journey, the fact that it's free for students and educators is a huge plus.

However, as you may expect from something possessing so many features, getting to grips with Maya can be a bit overwhelming. Plus, while the toolkit is very well supported by comprehensive updates, those changes also bring changes to functionality that can take a bit of re-learning. Fortunately, there's a wide range of tutorials on hand for support, as well as a particularly active community online who often publish their own user guides and workarounds. Fundamentally, if you have the budget, this is broadly considered the 3D tool.


“Maya is a great piece of software that is very popular with the team here at Zappar. It is easy to adapt the tool to the project and style that we need it to. Once you understand how the different user flows work and how the pipeline needs to be put together, Maya becomes really powerful. Like any software, Maya has room for improvements, however, it is as close as we have in the 3D games / AR world to being an ‘industry standard’ and there are always loads of people in the community that are willing to help you out.”

- Joe Coggins, 3D Artist at Zappar


Learn more about Maya


Open your mind! The AR-enabled 'Layered Report' showcases the impact of AR on the human brain using 3D models


3ds Max

Price: $1,236.00 per year
(Correct as of 18th April 2019)


Also from the Autodesk stable of products is 3ds Max, a very powerful tool that shares a lot of commonality with Maya in terms of its use cases for rendering, animation and 3D modeling. Generally, Maya remains the go-to for character 3D animation, though 3ds Max has certainly carved out a niche, particularly when it comes to design visualization work. Like Maya, it retains the positives of supporting a wide range of plug-ins and being free for students and educators.

There's no real 'wrong' reason for favoring 3ds Max over Maya and this is a very good example of where 'feel' is an important differential - your experience with similar toolkits and how you get on (or don't!) with the UI will likely play a big role in your decision to take 3ds Max on.

Some find the layout of 3ds Max problematic due to the tools and modifiers being ‘hidden’ in drop-down menus and behind ribbons. Though it’s important to point out that where some users see this as obtuse, plenty of others see a streamlined, methodical layout that suits their workflow. With a free 30 day trial, it’s worth seeing if it suits you first.

Regardless, once a user has an understanding of where the basics are located, the general consensus is that getting going with creating models is straight forward with the tools and wide range tutorials on offer from the community. But when asking around our 3D team, modeling is probably the key concern that comes up, with some bringing up how the dependency on stacked-based modifiers and functions can sometimes make the modeling process feel a little 'sticky'.


Autodesk's 3ds Max in action


“3DS Max is a very agile and powerful tool for creating content here at Zappar. It offers me a lot of choice, unique tools and modifiers for varying projects, which often require different outcomes. For modelling, UV Mapping and rendering 3DS Max is my go-to software, however, its suite of animation tools fall short when compared to Maya’s, in which I prefer to do my animation.”

- Ed Aubrey, 3D Artist at Zappar


Learn more about 3ds Max



Price: Free 

In terms of making an adoption decision, it can be pretty hard to look beyond that very attractive price point! Blender is by far your best option when it comes to free 3D software and that comes down to its powerful open source engine that is supported by a very active and innovative community.

From scratch, our team considers learning Blender to be fairly difficult, particularly as the UI and GUI can be rather confusing at first. But if you are coming off the back of using another form of 3D software, you'll likely recognize some of the common functionality and find the step-up a bit more intuitive.

The vast and active Blender community can be a mixed bag once you dive in. On the positive side, there's a lot of community feedback available and a really diverse range of tutorials available to you as you begin to dig deeper. But by the same token, the sheer range of community authors can make guidance inconsistent and finding tutorials that match your particular version of the toolkit easier said than done, compared to paid-for tools.

That being said, it's a great platform for creating painted assets and stylized art in particular and with a bit of persistence and the incentive of the non-existent cost outside of your own dedicated time, this could be a great fit for you.


Blender's open source engine has encouraged a highly engaged creative community around its powerful free platform


“Blender can be a tricky tool to get the hang of for beginners in 3D, and can also be pretty frustrating for those that have used other 3D software and are attempting the switch over. It’s UI and GUI is completely made through an open source community, hence why things may not particularly work in line with other parts of the software. Saying this, it’s free - so if you’re on a strict budget, this is easily the best one on the market for the price - or lack of!”

- Lucas Perez, Creative Director at Zappar


Learn more about Blender



Price: $179.95 per 6 months
(Correct as of 18th April 2019)

From the start, it's important to point out that ZBrush is not generally used to create full 3D models ready to import into ZapWorks Studio - so it's not a straight comparison with the other tools listed here. However, many of our team find it very valuable for finalizing details on high-poly models, particularly when dealing with organic objects such as humans and animals.

ZBrush is great for creating really lovely painted textures and intricate, high-poly 3D models. However, it doesn't tend to optimize well for game engines, so bear that in mind. But for a particular set of jobs and if you have the budget, it's a fantastically useful complement to the more fully fledged toolkits, with a wide range of tutorial and support content on-hand direct from its manufacturer, Pixologic, as well as the wider user community.

One particularly useful element of ZBrush is using it to add a higher level of detail onto a 3D model. This may sound counter-intuitive as that would mean a very high poly model, which would fall foul of our technical limitations. However, it can be used to generate texture maps from the high-level mesh - which you can combine with an existing, more AR-friendly, low poly model. The end result is essentially a high-quality asset simulation - the generated texture maps project details from the high poly mesh onto the low poly model, making it look very detailed.

Or in other words, the polygons don't do the hard work - the textures do. So if high asset quality is a key part of your AR project but you don't want to lumber your users with an unfriendly large package size, this is a great way to solve the issue!


ZBrush's particular set of features can be utilized in combination with other 3D toolkits to great effect for AR


“ZBrush is a very popular software that is used by many 3D artists in the industry. It will often be a 2nd or 3rd tool that a person would learn, meaning it is used primarily by those Mid-weight to Advanced category. The software doesn’t specifically create models that work straight in games/film/AR, however it is frequently used for heavy details on the 3D model itself which is especially useful for organic objects such as humans, animals, and other organisms. ZBrush has a lot of features which make creating things easy and hence why we have listed it, although we will not recommend exporting straight from the program into Zapworks.”

- Joe Coggins, 3D artist at Zappar


Learn more about ZBrush



Price: $1,995 per year (though varies significantly depending on which package you go for and your work situation)

(Correct as of 18th April 2019)

Houdini is a pretty diverse 3D toolkit that's garnered a lot of experimental interest from our team, as well as the industry more widely. The most notable difference from its competitors is its commitment to iterative design and teamwork, which is baked into every facet of the product design and has made it particularly popular in the game design and VFX space.

Using a 'node-based workflow', Houdini essentially creates a 'recipe' for a design process based upon every action taken being stored inside interconnected nodes. These can be shared between your team too, meaning you can share best practice and tweak or completely re-shape a design based upon what happened in a particular point in the design process - or in other words, you don't have to start all over again if you've had some negative feedback!

Of course, such a different way of working is exciting but fraught with a pretty big learning curve for newcomers - its individual strengths against its 3D modeling competitors can also make it feel a bit impenetrable when you first start to dig in. Plus, many of the more recent benefits, such as enhanced hair and fur frameworks, are impressive but often operating with poly counts far higher than what would be appropriate for an easily accessible AR experience using smartphones.


The Houdini 3D toolkit is certainly different, but is gaining a lot of traction in the game development and VFX space


“You can go back at any point in time and change the parameters of anything in the history of the event, including the source object. This is the core principle of Houdini and why it has had such success in the VFX industry. This also makes Houdini great for dealing with feedback from clients, as you very rarely have to start over from scratch when changes get thrown your way. ”

- Simon Holmedal, Creative Bloq


Learn more about Houdini.


Our latest iteration of ZapWorks Studio integrates Sketchfab directly into the toolkit


Sketchfab integration with ZapWorks Studio 6

Price: Included with ZapWorks Studio 6 (though features paid-for assets provided by the Sketchfab artistic community)

An option we are incredibly excited about with our latest iteration of ZapWorks Studio is the integration of Sketchfab. While not a 3D toolkit, this integrates an easily accessible and frequently updated archive of hundreds of thousands of high-quality 3D assets from the Sketchfab community directly into ZapWorks Studio.

This means that with a simple search, you can find a 3D model that matches your design vision and import it within seconds into your existing project, without having to design a 3D model yourself!

There's a lot more information on our recent announcement blog and our in-depth documentation to get you started.


“Sketchfab integration has made rapidly designing levels, well...even more rapid! I'm able to create full-blown, high-detail level prototypes with placeholder assets in minutes.”

- Deimantas, AR Developer, Zappar


Final thoughts 

ZapWorks Studio is a powerful AR creative toolkit that's designed to make bringing 3D into immersive experiences straight forward and intuitive. Handling all common formats, including FBX, OBJ, POD and GLTF, means bringing 3D models into ZapWorks Studio is a zero-fuss process, particularly with our Sketchfab integration taking the strain if you wish to import a wide arrange of 3D assets without even leaving the toolkit. We've got a great range of documentation on hand to support you, with in-depth tutorials and video walkthroughs that cover all you need to know about bringing 3D to your AR projects. And don't forget, our community of friendly and well-informed AR enthusiasts are on-hand for feedback and inspiration in our ZapWorks Forum, alongside our dedicated expert support team.

Of course, if these examples have inspired you but you don't have the time to handle 3D models yourself, our HQ creative team is highly experienced in delivering incredible AR content for some of the world's biggest brands, so get in touch to see what we could do for your business.