We have been using Sketchup, the Playup plugin and CryEngine for a few years now with some wonderful results for first-year. The process is bearable and the visuals are stunning. As the software in this pipeline keeps changing, some things get better while others break or get more complex. So yesterday we were chatting about various options in this space as we already use other tools for research projects and in other courses around the various degrees.
CryEngine is well known to us despite its odd pricing structure (or lack thereof). It is a serious piece of game development kit and comes armed with superlative visuals and some nice tools for managing projects. It is complex though and a step well beyond the level of investment many designers are keen to go. The Unreal UDK falls into a similar bracket with its own advantages and disadvantages (would be nice to have their new engine as an option when it becomes available).
[CryEngine 3.5.8 via official site]
[UDK visialisation by Luigi Russo via official site]
[Unity3D Stadium Project via official site]
Lumion is clearly designed to fill this exact role, it makes the process simple and the visual results are impressive. They have blasted a huge hole in their foot however with the huge annoying watermarks that not only plague the free version but the base educational one as well. While this might work for a company selling short training sessions with Lumion, for a design class it kills it as an option. sigh...
[Lumion render via Lumion3D.be]
But wait, there are many more still.
Sketchfab is a browser-based 3D model viewer that has some very nice qualities. The visual quality is only ok however and the walking around was very clunky in the tests I did.
Revizto looks as though it might be trying to do exactly what we are talking about. Built on the Unity3D engine itself but with tools and an interface to help with this specific application it does some thing right. The end result still doesnt look gorgeous enough perhaps, but it is affordable and neat - tempting? There are stills of nice looking models, but the downloadable samples were a little disappointing...
[LumenRT via RonenBeckerman's review]