I'm a dabbler in many design software programs. I taught myself Photoshop, InDesign and Quark Xpress to a pretty reasonable degree (since I do it for a living, and my boss may read this, let's assume "reasonable degree" means "highly polished, professional level user."). To a lesser extent, I've learned stuff like Illustrator, Corel Draw, Arts & Letters and some various CMS systems, blog engines, wikis, etc. To a certain extent, learning new design programs is game-like for me; I enjoy discovering how they set up the UI, what kinds of capabilities are easily learned, where they burried the button to turn on/off background code, etc.
A few years ago, Caligari made an early version (I forget... 2.?) of their highly cool 3D design software, trueSpace, available for free download. The idea being, you use it, get hooked, then update to 4.? or whatever. I did and I did. It was, I don't know... a hundred bucks or something and I was having a blast using it to design some walk-through renders of a museum of my father-in-law's paintings. Yes, highly geeky.
The big plus for trueSpace was the ability to design in a "real" 3D space; you basically move around the design area the same way you'd move "you" in a first-person shooter. Many earlier 3D programs required that you work in one or more 2D "slices" (orthogonal views), rather than in something more natural. While designing in trueSpace is not for the faint of heart (steep learning curve), the experience becomes, in time, much more fluid and intuitive.
When the next big version (I think it was 6.?) came out, I did not step up and buy it for $200 or so. Nor did I do so when 7.? came out at $400 or more. Could have even been $700. I just remember thinking, "Wow. Well, I have hit the ceiling on what I'm allowed to spend on this hobby."
But today I come to find out (through my Twine on virtual words) that Caligari has released very 7.6 of trueSpace and all their tutorial videos (formerly $79 each) for free.
I do not know why. Excpet that Roman Ormandy -- the CEO -- is insanely cool.
Here's the link for the program. Click on download now to download now.
Update: On searching for info for the insanely cool Roman Ormandy, I discovered that Microsoft has purchased Caligari. Hopefully many of the neat trueSpace features will find their way into Microsoft Virtual Earth. If they use trueSpace as their version of a free 3D design program -- comparable to Google's SketchUp -- they may end up with a LOT better content in their worlds. trueSpace is to SketchUp as Photoshop is to MS Paint. Then again, that ol' learning curve may keep folks out. I'll play around with this new versioin and let you know what I think in a few weeks/months/years.