Robert Curet, the owner of Little Wonder Studio in Burbank, Calif., has all the high-powered software you'd expect a modern toy developer to use: Rhino 4.0 for industrial modeling, Autodesk 3ds Max for animation, ZBrush for digital sculpting, and Maxon Cinema 4D for graphics, for starters. But one of his most recent creations didn't require any of them. Instead, Curet turned to the free tools available in the virtual world called Second Life, sketching out a model and mechanisms for a windup toy and making a rough estimate of the size of the parts. "It took me about half an hour to create the 3D model, where it would have taken me a week to do it before," says Curet. In the next hour and a half he took some pictures of the model, cleaned them up in Photoshop (ADBE), and sent them on to a factory in Hong Kong.
Soon he was meeting an engineer from the factory in Second Life, answering questions about the toy while the two men—each represented by animated avatars—looked at the virtual model, rotated it, and took it apart piece by piece. After that meeting the engineer was able to fabricate a real model and give Curet an accurate estimate of how much the toy would cost to manufacture.