It must be a surprise to most people, but you can represent three-dimensional objects in PDF, in spite of its strictly 2-dimensional imaging model. It turns out there are two ways to do it, with the older U3D and the more modern PRC. What makes them possible is PDF’s annotation feature, which allows capabilities to be added to PDF, and the Acrobat 3D API. Full support of these features requires implementation of at least PDF 1.7 Extension Level 1, or to put it in application terms, Acrobat 8.1.
The PDF/E standard for engineering documents, aka ISO 24517, includes U3D but not PRC. A PDF/E-2 standard is currently in development and is expected to include PRC. PDF/E, like the other slashes of PDF, is a subset of the PDF standard (version 1.6), so obviously it’s possible to do 3D work without reference to it. It’s intended for cases where long-term retention or archiving is important. This suggests some affinity with PDF/A, which is specifically aimed at archive-quality documents, and the PDF Association, which is heavily involved in PDF/A, has recently started a PDF/E Competence Center. Oddly, the competence center says that PDF/E-1 “does not address 3D,” though other sources say PDF/E does reference U3D. Perhaps this is a matter of what really constitutes “addressing” 3D as opposed to just acknowledging it.
Thanks for the write up on PDF/E and the Competence Center. And good catch on the comment about PDF/E and 3D. PDF/E does indeed does address a bit of 3D, but it primarily addresses drawings and related engineering documentation (also commonly referred to as 2D). PDF/E-2 has more 3D content and includes new 3D capabilities such as the inclusion of 3D data in the PRC format (ISO 14739).