Traditionally computer modeling has been a lengthy and complicated process so companies are trying to change the amount of time and skill it takes to create them.
Naturally there are evolutionary changes to existing modeling programs that make it easier to create complex objects. But, these improvements don't make it much easier for modeling newcomers to get started. Generally you still have to adjust control points, instead of affecting the model directly.
Computer modeling will probably never be easy, but it could be more intuitive.
The University of North Carolina is using SensAble Technologies' haptic interface to research new ways of improving computer modeling. The project is called inTouch. Computer Graphics World reported on it in the March issue.
Steven Schkolne, a Ph.D. student at Caltech, is working on a new technology called Surface Drawing. The technology was on display at Siggraph in August. It allows artists to sculpt 3D models with their hands instead of using a mouse. Ultimately this could make it much easier to create organic objects.
Surface Drawing is defined as "A method for creating shapes in which surfaces are created by moving a locally two-dimensional object through three-dimensional space." It is an additive process, which means the user creates an object from scratch as opposed to traditional sculpting where you start with a block and remove unwanted material.
So basically, you wave your hand through the air and a three dimensional surface is automatically created in the computer.
In the Surface Drawing white paper Schkolne explains how this process could help artists and designers.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have taken this concept a step further. Instead of sculpting air, like Surface Drawing, the user sculpts actual clay and the ModelGlove translates those actions for the computer. Here's a quote about the technology from e4engineering.
While there is no product available for sale the technology is far enough along that the developers have filed for a provisional patent. According to an EE Times report wireless support will be one future improvement.
Other ways to use your hands
In their October 2000 issue Computer Graphics World writes about a system that uses Lego like building blocks to create computer models. It would be hard to create sophisticated models using blocks, but these models could be used as a base and later fine tuned. Similar to how polygon box modeling is done today, but with a large head start.
It is also easy to envision this technology being incorporated into toys. Allowing kids to create their own computer models. Something kids aren't able to do with today's complicated software.
The research is being headed by the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratory (MERL). Visit their website to download the technical paper on tangible modeling.
From an end user perspective here is how the system works. After the blocks are connected the model is attached to a computer. Information is then downloaded to the computer, through a master block, and processed to create a finished model. Processing time could take anywhere from seconds to hours.
This tangible modeling system is still far from commercialization, but it shows promise. Some obvious areas of improvement include cost, size, and speed. It took close to an hour for software to acquire data from a 560 block model.
Keep trying MERL. You're getting close to developing a very cool modeling interface.
Update: it's now 2008 and MERL seemingly hasn't continued development of their tangible modeling project. However, Carnegie Mellon University has developed a system called Posey that is similar in spirit. A New Scientist story describes how Posey can be used to create and animate a 3D model in real time.
Sculpt first, digitize later
Advances in scanning hardware and software are making it easy to create computer models from physical ones.
In their special effects work for The Lord of the Rings Weta Digital created custom software to make scan data easily useable. The software was based on a 1996 Siggraph paper titled "Fitting Smooth Surfaces to Dense Polygon Meshes." Clay maquettes were scanned with a Polhemus handheld scanner which created millions of data points. The custom software created a base mesh and displacement map from the scan data. The comparitively low resolution base mesh could be interacted with in realtime and used to setup animations. The displacement map added back the original detail at rendertime. The main author of the paper founded Paraform, a software company that commercialized the techniques from the paper. For more information on effects techniques used in The Lord of the Rings see the December 2001 issue of Computer Graphics World.