1. How to get started with Blender

All of the modeling software written for the Tactile Universe makes used of Blender, an open source 3D modeling and rendering program.  In this post we will be going over how to set up Blender for the use of our software.  For the most part I will not be covering how to navigate/use the user interface, to learn about that check out some great tutorials from Blender Guru and CG Cookie.

Step 1: Download the software

To begin, download and install the latest version of Blender from https://www.blender.org/download/ (currently v2.79b), and download the latest version of the Tactile Universe’s software from  our GitHub page (currently v3.4).  This download will be a zip folder containing the various scripts and plug-ins needed to make models.  The README.md file contains a description of each file.

EDIT (Feb 24, 2020): For Blender 2.80 or higher make sure to use v4.0 or higher of the plugin.  New features have also been added since these posts were made, updated version will be available soon.

When you open blender you should see the following default scene:

A screenshot of the default scene for Blender. This consists of a cube in the center of the screen, a light to the upper right of it, and a camera pointing at the front-left corner of the cube. Various UI buttons surround this scene.
The default scene for Blender

Step 2: Changing the User Preferences

Now that we have Blender working we need to adjust some of the user preferences.  These can be found by going to File > User Preferences:

A screenshot of the Blender UI showing the `File` dropdown menu open and the mouse cursor hovering over the `User Preference` option.
File > User Preferences

Step 2.1: Increase the font size

I find that the on my laptop the default font size is quite small.  To increase it go to the Interface tab and under Display increase the Scale to the value that works for you.

A screenshot of the `User Preferences` window. There is a red rectangle in the upper left corner indicating the font scale slider used to change the font size of the UI.
Increasing the UI font size



Step 2.2: Change some input settings

You will likely only have to change these settings if you are using a laptop with a trackpad, or a keyboard that does not have a numberpad.  First Go to the Input tab.  If your keyboard does not have a numberpad check the box next to Emulate Numberpad, this will treat the regular number keys on your keyboard as if they were coming from a numberpad.

If you are using a Mac trackpad instead of a mouse check the box next to Natural Trackpad Direction to activate proper detection of multi-touch events used to navigate around scene (NOTE: this option will not show up for Windows).

A screenshot of the `Input` tab of the `User Preferences` window. Red rectangles are place around the tab button, the checkbox for `Emulate Numberpad`, and the checkbox for `Natural Trackpad Direction`.
The Input tab


Step 2.3: Activate Import Images as Planes plugin

Next we will had over to the Add-ons tab to activate the `Import Images as Planes` plugin.  This plug in will allow us to import an image as a texture applied to a plane, the starting point for creating a 3D galaxy.  Use the search box in the upper left of the window to find the plugin and then activate it by clicking the checkbox next to it.

The `Add-ons` tab of the `User Preferences` window. There are red rectangles around the tab button, the search box, and the checkbox for activating the plugin.
Active the Import Images as Planes plugin


Step 2.4: Install and activate Emboss Plane plugin

Next we will install the Tactile Universe’s custom plugin for making models: Emboss Plane.  Click the Install Add-on from File... button at the bottom of the window and navigate to the emboss_plane.py file you downloaded from our GitHub page.  Once selected, click the Install Add-on from File... button.

The file selection window showing the `emboss_plane.py` plugin being selected. There are red rectangles around the file's name and the install button.
Install Emboss Plane from the file

Finally we need to activate the plugin in the same way as the previous step.  Once activated click the Save User Settings button to make sure these settings are remembered the next time you start Blender.

The `Add-ons` tab of the `User Preferences` window. There are red rectangles around the the search box, the checkbox for activating the plugin, and the `Save User Settings` button.
Activate Emboss Plane plugin

Step 3: Creating a startup file

You may have noticed when you first opened Blender there was already a cuber, light, and camera in the scene.  This is not very useful for creating tactile models, so we are going to delete them an create a more useful startup file.

Step 3.1: Deleting the default objects

First we will delete the default objects from the scene.  Move the mouse into the 3D viewport (the large section in the middle of the screen), press the a key twice to select all the objects (once to de-select all object, a second time to select all object) followed by the x to prompt you to delete the objects, click Delete to confirm their removal.

A screenshot of the Blender UI showing all the default objects selected and a confirmation dialog box for deleting them.
Delete the default objects from the scene

Once they are removed we will move the 3D veiwprots camera to a more useful position.  Press 5 to enter “orthographic” mode (this adds a useful measurement grid in top-down view), and 7 to enter top-down view.


Step 3.2: Using real world units

Next we will set up Blender to use real world units.  Most 3D printers will assume that the files will use the scale 1 unit = 1 mm.   Blender defaults to 1 unit = 1 m, we can change this by going the scene tab in the right hand side of the UI.  Set the Units to Metric with a scale of 0.001.

A screenshot of the Blender user interface. There are red rectangles around the options needed to set up real world units in the UI.
Use real world units


Step 3.3: Save the file as the Startup File

The final step is to make this the new startup screen by saving it as a Startup File.  Go to File > Save Startup File and click Save Startup File on the confirmation screen that pops up.

The Blender UI with the `File` menu open and `Save Startup File` selected.
Save as a Startup File

The setup is now complete and you are ready to start making tactile models.  Keep an eye out for our next post that will go over how to use the Emboss Plane plugin.

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