3D Format Wars! COLLADA (.dae)

WARNING: Geek-talk Alert! This article contains serious geek-talk. If you start feeling dizzy from this post, please consult your closest 3D artist/designer/engineer professional for an explanation. Be prepared for a lengthy response.

This may be some serious geek-talk, but it’s serious business for so many. With today’s computing power, Internet speed, and Web collaboration tools, the need for a standard 3D exchange format is serious business. Professionals need information quickly, and if that information comes to slow, you can lose money. In our world (of 3D), we cannot accept phrases like “we cannot export format XX, we only use YY”.

The Engineering industry has finally nailed down a good standard (STEP) for exchanging 3D geometry and project data (I know, IGES is still useful, but STEP is better in most cases–see my video on IES vs. STEP here). However, the Digital Content Creation (DCC) industry has yet to pronounce a clear winner. Also, there is a clear need for a standard from Engineering 3D models to DCC applications: What format is best here? The reuse of engineering data for marketing (renderings, animations, video, print) is a very common (and often problematic) function within our industry.

I believe there has recently been a front runner here: COLLADA’s .dae format. Yes, I know there are many other useful exchange formats, and if they work for you, use them, but I since I have been using COLLADA (.dae) as my exchange format, I have had no issues…seriously.

I believe that COLLADA is inching ahead, and will be the “STEP” for DCC. I’m sure I will receive a lot of rebuttals on this, but that’s good, we welcome the discussion. Why do I think .dae is the clear standard? Two reasons: 1) Most common 3D DCC applications can already import/export .dae, and 2) The format is not owned by a corporation, but a consortium – the Kronos Group, who handles COLLADA (.dae format) who will continue to expand the format for future uses (more on that here).

Let me give more detail: Photoshop users can import .dae files as 3D layers, Google’s .kmz format is really a compressed .dae file, and all the major 3D DCC applications for gaming and movies/video, can all import .dae. And recently, 3DVIA (so odd that I would mention 3DVIA, huh?) now allows download of any 3D model as a COLLADA .dae. This is BIG, because 3DVIA imports almost all 3D formats (click here for list), so 3DVIA can work as an online conversion tool.

Why is the 3DVIA download functionality important? Say you are a graphic artist, web designer working internally or externally for an engineering firm developing a Product-X. You were given the 3D model of Product-X from the engineer who built the model with an engineering application (i.e. SolidWorks, CATIA). You can ask the engineer to send you the 3D model (which will NOT open in your DCC application). You could ask for a .dae file OR you could upload the native engineering file to 3DVIA.com, where you could then download a .dae file to use.

Okay, that’s enough geek-talk from me, but I know there are plenty of you who have more to add on this topic. Maybe you have new information? I encourage you to add a comment, as it is quite possible I forgot to mention something…just maybe. ;^)

Also, check out my Cliff’s Clips video, which details more about the uses for .dae.


  • The availability of multiple free tools and APIs to read and write COLLADA files further proves that you are right. IGES and STEP had no open source implementations when they first started and with OpenCASCADE there is only a limited functionality available.
    The only thing from 3DS that I’m missing here is a working and official CATIA V5/DELMIA V5 exporter/importer. BTW: ask us if you want to see a working one 😉


  • There have been a few attempts to create a universal format, and I am happy too, what happened with Collada. Autodesk sponsored the development of i.e. the 3ds max Collada exporter but now I am not sure if they concentrate again on FBX which is unfortunately not open (only extensible via SDK).

    Other attempts were U3D or X3D (new VRML). I wondered why Daussault didn’t invest in extending COLLADA so it fits their needs and went for their own format: 3DXML.

  • Sebastian and Dom3D: This is the discussion I was hoping for…appreciate the comments. In my opinion, the advantage of COLLADA has more to do with adoption than the details of the format. Being adopted as a “common” exchange format will only help it grow. You agree?

    As for DS and the future of 3DXML and COLLADA, I am not the best to answer that one…I am looking into it now, and will get back to you on this. Thanks.

  • Wojtek

    OK, I have to respond on that. Not that I know anything about the subject of optimal data format for 3D but I am a GEEK.

    For the story: a few years ago while I was at CERN, some folks decided to show the reality of how geeks look like (you see where I am going to, yes, this is going to be about the picture in the post :)).
    So they made a calendar with us, the scientists — in scenes a bit different from the ones people normally imagine us (sleeping on a keyboard with a pizza as a pillow). The models were real scientists and I can tell you they they looked distinctly different from the ones in the picture of the post :)))). I was unfortunatly unavailable for the photo session, you understand 🙂

    I do not have, unfortunately, any trace left from the calendar (3 moves accross 3 countries = I just have memories from these golden years, nothing physical :))

    Wired also posted some time ago a picture of the new stereotypes of geeks (http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/magazine/16-04/st_geekster#). See for yourself 🙂


  • What do you guys think about that : WebGL a 3D standard for the Web.

    (French article, but there is some links to english articles in it)

  • Did you know that COLLADA was recommended as a STEP visualization format by ISO TC184/SC4?

  • Wojtek-
    Great story, thanks!

    “3D standards for the web” is a phrase I have heard since the VRML days (showing my age here), but this is another great topic. You should see a new post on this soon, also from me. More Geek-talk, I love it!

    Back to Dom3D on 3DXML: 3DXML format was designed to support easy sharing of 3D information for all types of usage.
    It is open based on XML, as COLLADA, but it also incorporates the necessary extensions to support some specific industrial needs, like displaying functional dimensioning and tolerancing information.
    Dassault Systemes supports COLLADA for usage in DCC market as you can see in the recent announcement of 3DVIA.com support:

  • Scott

    What about JT?

  • –warning–kinda long–

    I say this because I’m having a lot of problems with it.

    I LOVE 3DVia shape a bit more than I like Google sketchup fr a few reasons. 1. It’s a bit easier to understand 2.) it’s a bit more intuitive than sketchup is 3.) you can use it as an actual modeler because you can download and save your models as a .DAE which is GREAT 4.) It’s just prettier. … oh and 5.) the textures have bump and specular maps on them.
    Well when you DL the .DAE, they loose the bump and specular aspects on the textures and the .dae cannot open in anything… wel there was ONE thing it did work in, but not anything I could use.
    Oh and blender also couldn’t open the .dae files from 3DVia which is strange.

    The .DAE format is good because I think it supports bones, but I’ve not been able to find some good modelers that can correctly read them (or some versions ofthem??) I like Collada format, but it’s just not been going really well for me.
    3DS Max couldn’t read the .dae file and this other program called Carrara and DAZ Studio (Made by DAZ3D) only supports .dae for their itmes which is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You shouldn’t be able to take something that’s open source and tag it as their own by only making it usable on their products.

  • Cliff, I am aware that 3XML addresses industry specific requirements. I only wondered why they didn’t contributed to COLLADA, so it could meet those requirements, too.
    Btw. the Virtools Editor imports COLLADA, too. And it is said that mp use it extensively. So not only 3DVIA (website/community, confusing branding).

  • Interesting discussion, guys. I think future trend will be to make closer what you call geometry/project and DCC. Some of my thoughts about this are here – http://plmtwine.com/2009/03/31/should-plm-20-come-with-a-new-plm-format/.

    In addition, I think COLLADA is interesting, since it can connect PLM to Games technologies from user experience standpoint and this is missed link, in my view.

    Best, Oleg

  • Remi

    “What do you guys think about that : WebGL a 3D standard for the Web.

    It is a low level graphics API (ala OpenGL). A COLLADA viewer embedded could be built with this. See also O3D http://code.google.com/apis/o3d/ and Papervision http://blog.papervision3d.org/.

  • > What about JT?
    Even worse than a proprietary file format is a file format that calls itself “Open” but can only be read by one company/SDK. Take a look at the OOXML debate.
    Regarding JT: you do not only have to reimplement a obscure file format (supporting only Tristrips) and your own Parasolid kernel but will soon find out that the version that was reviewed by ISO is already outdated and an update to the latest version 9.x has not published. Wow… that thing is definitely not worth to be mentioned in the same context as real open standards…

  • The WebGL initiative that a couple people have commented on appears to be a recent Khronos addition:

    per the article they have both Google and NVIDIA member/participation

    WebGL is not a 3D format, but something similar to Google’s O3D — a Javascript based API enabling access to GPU based graphics.