From 2D to 3D with Windows 10's 3D Builder

10th August 2017

Last week I wrote a blog post on Exporting 3D from Photoshop for Unity. My intention was to highlight a method of creating 3D extrusions that can be used by graphic designers like myself who don’t have much 3D modeling software experience. The goal was to then use those extrusions for 3D user interfaces built in Unity. Well, after using this method on a project I’m currently working on I’ve found that there is another tool that is easier to use, gives better results, and is free for everyone on Windows: 3D Builder.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy tutorial since the process is actually pretty simple, but I wanted to update the record here since personally I don’t recommend using Photoshop anymore in the way I was describing. I’m also going to leave the “importing to Unity” portion in the previous post, so if you need any help there just reference that with the link above since it will be the same once you’ve got a 3D model exported. Anyway, let’s look at how we can make 3D objects from 2D images in a super simple workflow that anyone can use.

Import to 3D Builder

3D Builder is described by Microsoft as a model visualizer and 3D printing tool, but we’re going to use it a bit differently. One of the features that 3D Builder has is the ability to import images directly and convert them to a 3D mesh. Like I said above, I was previously using Photoshop’s 3D extrude feature to do this, but I found that the results were inconsistent, especially on shapes that had some kind of inner cutout or other geometry. 3D Builder on the other hand seems to give consistent and high quality results with the images I’ve thrown at it so far, so I’ve started using it when going from 2D -> 3D extrusion.

Importing into 3D Builder is simple - just pop it open, click Open, then Load image, and select the 2D graphic you want to use from the file explorer. Instead of the boring shape I used last time, I’m going to use a black and white version of our logo. It looks like this: 

Now unfortunately 3D builder doesn’t seem to have a way to produce extrusion depths based on color values, so the image you use should be black and white. Luckily there are tons of black and white images available online that you can use in your designs. Personally I often use for icons and other graphics.

One you’ve loaded your image into 3D Builder, you should get a view that looks similar to this:

Beautiful! You can use left click to rotate, right click to pan, and middle mouse wheel to zoom

At the top you will see some settings for the model you just created. The main two you will want to play with are Levels and Smooth. Naturally, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have any documentation explaining what these features (or many of the features in 3D Builder) actually do. Smooth seems to try and reduce the number of polygons it’s using to create the mesh, while Levels… well I honestly have no idea what that is doing. Either way, adjust the two sliders until you’ve got your model looking how you want. You can also try out some of the other options in the Method dropdown to see what kinds of monsters they produce. I also unticked the Textures switch.

Once you’re done tweaking settings, hit Import image

Adjust your Model

You’ll now get a view that shows your object, some transformation tools, and other settings on the right panel. I’m not going to go over every tool or feature here since most aren’t useful for this workflow, but feel free to experiment with them. What I do want to do is change the extrusion depth of the object I created. To do that, select the Scale tool in the bottom middle of the scene view. Next, click the set of double arrows above your object and drag upwards or downwards to change the height of your object.