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Using SketchUp to create an interactive, virtual art exhibition

Meet Eric Sargeant, trained in landscape architecture and urban design, he’s a long-time SketchUp aficionado, trainer, and content developer for SketchUp Campus. He’s been working in SketchUp for over 14 years and has grown fond of solving the most complex site design challenges through 3D modeling. In his most recent project, Eric sits down with us and details his experience and workflow using SketchUp to create an interactive virtual exhibit for the San José Museum of Art.

Interactive virtual exhibit for the San José Museum of Art

Give us some background on your recent project.

With social distancing requirements in place, the San José Museum of Art was looking for a way to showcase their end-of-summer camp exhibition that would typically take place in the museum. The kids (and their parents) were really looking forward to this, so it was important that we made this as normal — and fun — as possible given the current conditions. My wife Amy and I came up with the idea to put this exhibit together completely virtually using SketchUp. We didn’t know a lot of building details as we couldn’t physically be there, but we wanted it to be as realistic as possible. Thus, the challenge began: how do you make something in-person, without being in-person, or without having those essential building details?

Tell us a little bit about how you got started and what your workflow in SketchUp looked like. 

To begin with, I imported and scaled various reference images of the outside of the building and made them transparent so I could model over it. I started on the outside and once I was finished with that section, I worked my way inside. Even though modeling the whole museum exterior was a bit overkill, I learned a lot about accuracy in the process so I’m glad I did it.

Workflow in SketchUp
Workflow in SketchUp
Using reference images to model the outside of the building
Using reference images to model the outside of the building. 
For the inside, I only had a basic floor plan to work with. This was challenging because I needed my model to accurately line up with the actual dimensions of the museum space — so details were essential! I modeled the inside using a floor plan, a few reference images provided by the museum, and my working knowledge of typical door, window, and stair sizes.
Inside the gallery rooms using a section plane in SketchUp
Looking inside the gallery rooms using a section plane in SketchUp. The blue circles represent where 360-degree panoramic views will be taken from.

Once the outside and inside were complete, I added in all the details including archways, handrails, textures, and materials. To incorporate textures and materials, I used V-Ray to render 360-degree spherical panoramas for each room in a sequence, leading the visitors from the outside through the main lobby and into the gallery rooms where the art was displayed. This sped up my delivery time, and of course, made it look more photorealistic which was an added bonus.

Final 360-degree render of the interior lobby
Final 360-degree render of the interior lobby.

After all the details were in place, I imported the artwork from the kids’ submissions. This part of my workflow was a bit slower because there were so many pieces to import – 75 per show multiplied by two shows! Fortunately, I was able to place them all with the scale tool and fit them behind the frames seamlessly, which took little to no time at all.

All the artwork showcased throughout the exhibition
All the artwork was showcased throughout the exhibition.
From start to finish, it took me about 40+ hours to create the full exhibit. It was a lot of work, but SketchUp made it manageable for me — and I learned a few tips and tricks to help move it along a litter faster next time. 

What are some tips you can give readers that are experimenting with virtual spaces right now?

First and foremost, you can do all of this work in SketchUp. SketchUp made it easy (and fun) to create a virtual space that we can visit at any time. The best part is that the hard work of modeling the building shell and interior is done so adding new art for future exhibitions will be a breeze. 

For others looking to create their own virtual spaces, here are some tips that I can pass along from this experience:

  1. Get good references to model from such as floor plans, photos, Street View, etc. If you can’t physically get into the space to measure it yourself, the more references you have to work from the better.

  2. Try and pick your render camera angles first so you don’t waste time modeling the backside of the building, or other parts of the space that won’t show from your views. This will save you tons of unnecessary modeling time.

  3. Consider the small details. Little things like crown molding, furnishings, and signage may add a bit more time to the process, but their effect is cumulative and goes a long way to reinforce the realism of the [virtual] space.

  4. Once you’ve done the bulk of the work, it’s easy to switch out the artwork and other design details. This is great if you have more than one space to create, or if you want to showcase another exhibit down the road.

  5. Use any appropriate extensions to help speed up your workflow.

  6. Be patient while rendering. Keep in mind that a 360-degree view is really like rendering multiple views all at once for each scene, and therefore, requires a bit higher resolution than a static image. For me, I rendered my scenes at 9000 pixels by 4500 pixels.

What were some extensions and other tools you used to speed up your workflow and finalize your design?

I used the Pipe Along Path extension to create the handrails on the exterior façade as well as Fredo’s Round Corner to soften the sharp edges of the building’s sandstone blocks. And of course, I used V-Ray for the photorealistic rendering of the VR panoramas for the tour. 

Although not extensions, I also used Google’s Tour Creator for the final VR tour of the space and 3D Warehouse for some of the furnishings like the tree grates and lobby benches. However, most of the elements were so specific to the museum that they needed to be built from scratch.

Creating ‘one-click’ handrails with the help of extensions

Creating ‘one-click’ handrails with the help of extensions.

Since these exhibitions are normally done in-person, how did you make it fun and engaging for the audience?

The exhibition is live now and you can take the full tour here, but before we launched it to the public, we had a mini “opening night”. We got everyone together and hosted a Zoom meeting where we thanked everyone for their participation and showed them how to navigate the virtual museum before sending them a link to explore themselves. This brought some of the excitement and anticipation expected at the grand opening, resulting in a successful night for both the kids and the San José Museum of Art. 

To view the complete project, check out the exhibit here.

About the Author

When Cara's not writing copy or learning about customer workflows, you can find her on top of a 14,000 ft mountain, hitting up those Colorado ski slopes, or binging Netflix shows on her couch.

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