How to integrate VR into your Maya professional 3D modeling workflow with Shapelab

VR is still a fairly new platform for 3D designers, and questions arise about what it can bring to the table for 3D modeling. In a publication presented at SIGGRAPH 2023, we listed the advantages virtual reality offers for beginners in 3D design. Now, we are also looking into how VR can be utilized in a more advanced 3D modeling workflow, combined with other 3D software, such as Autodesk Maya.

In the following article, we will discuss the advantages of adding Shapelab, a unique VR sculpting software, to your toolkit and some concrete steps for integrating it into a professional workflow for Maya – an industry standard for 3D design software.

Using Maya 2024 and Shapelab together, you can enjoy the advantages of sculpting in virtual reality using Shapelab’s fast and easy environment, mixed with the precision of Maya’s professional 3D editing tools.  From the fully detailed, high-resolution 3D model designed in Shapelab, you can create a game- and production-ready asset with perfect topology, utilizing the retopology tools that both applications provide. 

Alien model renders

What is Maya?

Autodesk Maya is a comprehensive 3D computer graphics software widely used in film, television, and video game industries to create visual effects, animations, and 3D models. Maya provides powerful tools for 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and simulation. It allows artists and designers to create realistic 3D models, intricate animations, and stunning visual effects. 

What’s new in the Maya 2024 modeling toolset?

  • ReForm update
  • Retopologize updates
  • Feature Preservation
  • Retopologize with symmetry
  • Mesh pre-check during Retopologize
  • Keep input mesh after Retopologize
  • Make Live updates: Quad draw
  • Unsmooth a mesh
  • Boolean improvements

What is Shapelab?

Shapelab is a highly efficient 3D sculpting software optimized for virtual reality devices. Shapelab takes advantage of VR technology to provide an immersive and intuitive interface that allows you to sculpt in 3D space, giving you a new level of control and creative freedom over your designs. With Shapelab, you can easily create organic shapes, from simple forms to complex designs. Visualize your creative ideas and print them in 3D or sculpt high-quality props, characters, and concepts for applications, games, and virtual worlds, as well as digital concept art and storyboards.

Why and how to integrate Shapelab into your Maya workflow

Adding Shapelab to your 3D modeling workflow comes with many advantages: VR allows for unparalleled freedom of movement and lets you discover your creations from different perspectives that you wouldn’t get using traditional desktop software. Imagine the power of viewing models at different scales – seeing a dragon as both a monumental beast and a tiny figurine in your hand!

Using VR’s ability to work with space, designers can now shape, mold, cut, and press using natural hand movements in 3D. This way is more comfortable and accurate than using a mouse and keyboard with a regular screen. It makes the process of creating detailed designs quicker and more fun.

Consider the difference between modeling a complex, twisted form like a snake, dragon, or octopus with a mouse limited to a flat plane versus shaping the same detailed, organic structures with your hands in a three-dimensional space. This allows your brush cursor to rotate and move across three axes, offering six degrees of freedom. It’s a vivid illustration of how VR revolutionizes the design process, making it more natural and aligned with how we perceive and interact with the world.

Shapelab, combined with Maya’s powerful tools, can also come in handy for retopologizing. In the following paragraphs, we provide a few suggestions for smoothly transferring your work between the two software, as well as a few pointers on how to best integrate Shapelab in your workflow.

How to import 3D models from one software to the other

Both Maya and Shapelab use industry-standard 3D file formats, so your work can be easily transferred between the two software. There are, generally, a few aspects to consider if you intend to use your work in a different program than the one you used for creating it, which is no different in this case. Here are a few tips to make the transfer as smooth as possible.

Setting up the correct scale

Maya’s default measurement units are in the metric system, similar to Shapelab. When importing into Shapelab, choose “Keep original transform” to keep the file as it is.

Model alignment and locking

It is advised to align your model in Maya’s environment in the 0,0,0 coordinates, the symmetry axis of the origin. You can easily set the 3D model’s position with Maya’s transforms, then use the Edit/Freeze transforms command to set the value of Rotation and Position to 0, and the value of Scale to 1 as a new default. In Shapelab you can set the Position, Rotation and Scale value of your model under Context Menu / Transform / Location, Rotation, Scale: Lock. You can lock objects in the Document Outline, using the lock icon to avoid unintentional manipulation.   

Exchange models between Shapelab and Maya

Use the File/Import command under the small menu icon to import FBX models in Maya. Under the dropdown menu General Options/File type, choose FBX. You can add characters before the names of objects in Maya by using the Modify / Prefix Hierarchy Names… function. Similarly to Shapelab, in Maya you can export your whole scene by clicking Export all or your selected objects by clicking Export selection.

Shapelab supports most of the industry standard file formats such as: OBJ, FBX, STL, GLB. You can import FBX files from Maya into Shapelab under the File Menu, by choosing the Import model option. At the options for alignment, choose Default translation to get the same orientation as in Maya.

Using Shapelab for sculpting your model in VR

Organic sculpting has never been Maya’s greatest focus. Although it is a very powerful software that especially excels in hair creation and quad retopology according to public opinion, there is a tendency for users to switch to other software for other parts of the workflow. 

On the other hand, Shapelab offers all the advantages of organic sculpting in VR: it can be extremely useful when manipulating and testing your work, especially high-resolution 3D models: the stable, reliable, and powerful polygon-mesh-based design engine of Shapelab ensures a fast and smooth operation, with lower system requirements than competitors. Shapelab can accommodate 3D models with millions of polygons and complex, heavy scan data, so you can easily take your 3D models or native Maya scenes to Shapelab to refine and review them instantly in virtual reality. 

Here are the parts of the workflow where Shapelab can offer the most advantages:

  • Ideation: you can quickly sketch objects and instantly test concepts in virtual reality
  • Blockout: 3D navigating in VR is easier than on a 2D screen. Users can blockout much faster, easily zoom in and out, and create complex shapes with a single brush stroke 
  • Detailing: you can create well-detailed designs in VR    
  • Painting, UV mapping and creating textures: you can vertex paint your models and generate and export texture maps (normal maps, PBR properties, and colors).


Shapelab also offers retopology tools that allow for modifying topology both globally and locally. In some cases, these could be well utilized to achieve an optimal result. The following paragraphs will introduce its toolset and options to integrate these into Maya’s retopology workflow.

Using Shapelab and Maya for retopologizing 

Shapelab’s retopology tools

Shapelab’s main focus has been organic sculpting from the start, but it also provides numerous options to restructure your models again and again. Some of its features detailed below can contribute to easier and faster topology manipulation of high-resolution models. Not only will you end up with an even mesh, but experience shows that automatic quad retopology of other software can run faster and better on a model retopologized first with Shapelab. 

If you want to work with a model with continuous polygon mesh in Maya, you might want to use Shapelab’s Voxel Remesh function first, as this feature offers an extremely fast way of optimizing your high-poly models. With its quick conversion from polygons to voxels and polygons again, it creates a continuous topology from the outside mesh while getting rid of anything inside, which is much quicker than using Bifrost or Maya Boolean to combine parts individually. Other than merging separate parts and removing unnecessary topology inside, it makes any extra vertices or unwanted holes disappear. You can set the Resolution of the tool as well as the Smoothing rate of it. The conversion includes a general Smoothing as the last step.

You can additionally use the Mesh Density/Regularize tool to achieve an all-around even topology as desired. The result can be perfectly used with Maya’s Retopo tools in our team’s experience.

Shapelab also offers other ways of dealing with topology. With the traditional Subdivide tool, you could increase the number of polygons while smoothing the results if needed. With Decimate, on the contrary, you could simplify the mesh while staying sensitive to the details.

See the video below to learn more about the tools used for retopologizing in Shapelab.

An example workflow with Shapelab’ voxel remesh and Maya’s retopo tools

There is a chance when working from high poly to low poly, or when passing on assets from one software to another, that the model you would want to retopologize will consist of numerous parts but seemingly only one object. 

For example, let’s take the Alien model created in Shapelab below; when looking at it from the inside, you’ll see it has multiple elements or segments, while in the document outline, you’ll only see it listed as the torso. This happens because of joining the parts in other software and not actually merging them. However, for retopologizing, you might want to clear that up – create one continuous mesh for each of the body parts or clearly and logically structured groups where it is needed. Generally, you wouldn’t want anything being calculated or rendered when not visible because that wastes resources. 

Although there is a Separate command in both Maya and Shapelab for when you’d want to reorganize your object hierarchy, in Maya currently, there isn’t any really efficient way to eliminate the intersection for when you want a single continuous mesh. Shapelab’s Voxel Remesh, on the other hand, does that with a click of a button. 

You can finalize the created surface model by importing the unified Shapelab model into Maya. There are two main tools for automatic retopology in Maya. Similar to Shapelab’s Regularize, you can create an even topology on each object with the Remesh command and instead of using the manual Quad-Draw option, you can create an auto quad mesh for your objects with the Retopologize tool. In some cases, the Retopologize tool of Maya has a better result when it’s used on a high-resolution model (>100k) that has an even topology. You can mess around with the settings to find the most optimal outcome. The Keep Original option keeps a copy of the unmodified object, so it is advised to keep this on for comparison. You can then turn on Scan Mesh for Issues to inspect the model before the modification. Thanks to the Voxel Remesh command, there are rarely any problems with 3D models created in Shapelab. However, if there is any known issue, Maya’s Mesh/Cleanup option will simply correct it. You only need the Preprocess mesh if your model has a very dense resolution (greater than 100k) or if the Retopology fails for some reason, as this could lead to losing detail. It is advised to try converting the mesh without preprocessing first. Finally, you can set the Target Face Count at the designated field, as well as the Tolerance rate, which sets how much the result can differ from that. You can keep an eye on the process in Maya’s Output field.  After setting the desired resolution for all the objects, you can modify them quickly one by one. 

If you didn’t merge the objects or used voxel remesh in Shapelab as previously suggested, you can merge the end result with Maya’s Boolean operation, if needed. After merging, you can give the auto Retopologize another go. If you are pleased with the results, you should always clear history with Edit / Delete by Type / History command in Maya. You can always tweak the results with Maya’s Modeling Toolkit.

Watch the video below to see this process in action.


Virtual reality can contribute to an easier, faster and more enjoyable 3D modeling workflow. You can quickly navigate and move around your 3D objects in VR, zoom in to create intricate details, and instantly test your work in ‘life-size’.  

Shapelab and VR could become great additions to your professional Maya workflow. Transferring your work from one software to another is smooth and easy, and you have many options to take advantage of both software’s great qualities. For example, you can use Shapelab to sculpt your 3D model from scratch in VR, then combine Shapelab and Maya’s retopology tools to create an editable, low-poly model. Or you can also use Shapelab to quickly review and optimize your existing scene made in Maya in virtual reality. Take advantage of VR and watch your 3D models come alive in Shapelab!