(This post was edited to reflect a discussion Ben and I had)
A constant request for XPlane2Blender and other exporters maintained by Laminar Research is an import OBJ feature. So, one last time, here is the news: by now an importer is basically never going to be a part of XPlane2Blender, but it could be its own project! It could take years of development to make it very well polished, however.
There are a few projects started on the forums you can checkout if you’d like!
Why Is This Such A Hard Problem?
It is simple to read the vertex table, attributes, animation keyframe table, and turn that into Blender data, some projects can already do this, in fact. The trouble is getting the exact or nearly the exact .blend file back.
OBJs Don’t Save Everything You Want And Need As An Artist
Some of the things things you could never import from an OBJ
- Window Settings
- Text Blocks with scripts, notes, or annotations
- Any non-XPlane2Blender Blender settings we don’t care about
- Object, layer, material, and texture names
- A bunch of settings that can’t easily be inferred (more on that later)
- Blender’s parent child relationships
If the OBJ was produced with comments and correct indentation, you might be able to get some of these things back (likely just a few names.) A large complex Blend file without this stuff is a nightmare of an unorganized mess and would make the rest of the manual reverse engineering process even harder.
Multiple .blend files Can Produce The Same OBJ Content
If A.blend, B.blend, and C.blend can produce the same OBJ, which one should the OBJ be reversed engineered back into? The relationship between XPlane2Blender settings and what appears in the OBJ can be very esoteric and there is not always a 1:1 relationship. Some ATTR_s only appear when certain combinations of settings are used. You may find there are absolutely no good defaults.
A Moderately Smart Importer Would Need To Know Massive Amounts of History Of All Exporters
In order to perfectly solve these ambiguities and produce .blend files that are similar to what originally exporter the OBJ file, it would be incredibly useful to know about the behavior of the exporter that exported the OBJ in question. This means an importer would need to know all the bugs and features of every exporter, and we don’t even know that after developing the exporter. Bugs are waiting to be discovered, or used by artists until they have to be turned into a feature. Our exporter currently struggles to take into account past bugs, and that’s the exporter!
This turns into it’s own ambiguities to solve: “Is this OBJ’s mention of deprecated ATTR_s a choice the artist made. despite the deprecation warning, or was it a bug that this was still getting written, or was this OBJ written before it was deprecated?” Now you’re messing not only with valid or not, but what the OBJ is supposed to look like.
Optimizations Create Further Challenges
Exporters often take optimizations to improve an OBJ’s performance and quality. For instance:
- Removing duplicated vertices, keyframes, attributes
- Rounding or changing data on the fly
- Ignoring or appending ATTRs to handle deprecations or obsolete OBJ features
Now you will have even less information or, now, seemingly incorrect information! OBJs are meant for X-Plane, not humans. As such exporters can take many liberties with the content of OBJs as long as they match what the artist meant. This can result in very complex optimizations that might even break our own guidelines, all to deliver the best (and deliver on time) to the consumer and our artists. This makes developing an importer that reproduces the importer OBJ, either exactly or simply visually matching (let alone animated or textured properly) even harder.
In a raw .blend file, objects are like Lego bricks which get baked into one solid piece. Going in reverse will likely not get the same neat separation. Blender is not smart enough to tell what is a wing shape, what is a wheel shape, what is a throttle level shape. It may be impossible to separate the vertices back into these distinct meshes (especially after optimizations)! Making a “really smart” importer that is shape aware is a brutally hard algorithm that the world’s best computer scientists are still attempting to solve. It may not be challenge you want to take on.
We May Build A Reasonable Importer One Day!
With all these challenges, an importer would have to be willing to not handle all edge cases and not attempt to reverse engineer an OBJ back to the exact .blend file that made it. For instance, a 3 year old OBJ would not be reversed engineered into the .blend file that produced it 3 years ago, especially since an artist would want to then update their assets anyway! Having art assets “marooned” on other exporters or “dead” is a pretty terrible waste of time, likely be more painful than hand fixing all lot of little things. As Ben pointed out “If we can’t make a direct import [.skp->.blend, .ac->.blend] path, OBJ import is the least bad option.
2.49 to 2.7x Converter
A 2.49 converter is a much more manageable project (far on the back-burner.) The complexity of this tool is much more manageable, because the 2.49 is not in active development and you are converting .blend to .blend, not .obj to .blend. Blender to Blender is something which Blender is already very good at.