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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (January 15, 2008)

A Closer Look at Autodesk Labs

Happy New Year! Hope you had a relaxed and restful holiday break and are looking forward to yet another year of analysis, research, and reviews from AECbytes. Towards the end of last month, I published my report on Autodesk University 2007 which captured the highlights of the general and building industry sessions, along with an overview of some new products and updates that were on display at the Exhibit Hall accompanying the event. I promised to take a closer look at some of the intriguing new technologies and prototypes that were being demonstrated in the Autodesk Labs section of the Exhibit Hall, such as a web-based vector drawing application, a web service that allows search of generic or manufacturer-specific building products and associated design content, another service that allows search using visual input, and the touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display that was used in the “Project Chicago” video shown in Figure 2 of the Autodesk University article. Let’s kick off the New Year by exploring these technologies in more detail.

Before getting started, here is a brief introduction to Autodesk Labs for those of you who don’t know much about it. This is an independent division within Autodesk that was started a few years ago with the objective of bridging the gap between traditional product development cycles and community driven innovation. It allows Autodesk developers to come up with new technologies—either in response to customer problems or by looking ahead at what is possible—and allow free public access to them, but with the disclaimer that these are products in development only and therefore not guaranteed to be bug-free. In return, the Labs is able to get user feedback and use that to guide the further development of these technologies. Ideas that are not greeted positively by the user community can be shelved without the typical loss of time, revenue, and resources that goes into developing a full-fledged commercial product. One example of a technology that was initiated in Autodesk Labs and eventually “graduated” into a commercial product is Autodesk Impression, which was reviewed last year in AECbytes shortly after its release.

Let’s move to look at some of the technologies that are currently available for user testing at Autodesk Labs.

Project Draw

This is a basic web-based drawing application designed for creating simple floor plans, electronic-circuit diagrams, network diagrams, flowcharts, user interface mock-ups, etc. What is most impressive about it is that it works on a JavaScript-enabled Internet Explorer or Firefox browser without the need for any plug-ins or downloads. You can launch it by going to http://draw.labs.autodesk.com. Setting the browser to full-screen mode, as shown in Figure 1, helps to work with it better. There is a Properties palette where you can start by specifying the drawing properties such as page size and orientation, drawing units, scale, grid settings, snap, and so on. Then you can drag and drop predefined shapes that are grouped in categories for creating different types of drawings. The ones relevant to floor plans include Floor Layout, Office Layout, Kitchen and Bath, Furniture, Basic Shapes, and Callouts/Arrows. Figure 1 shows some of the shapes in the Floor Layout category, which includes rooms of various shapes, walls, different types of doors and windows, spaces, elevator shaft, and even three different types of staircases. These can be dragged and dropped into the drawing and then re-sized and positioned as required. You can also draw lines and curves. The basic drawing can then be embellished with text, shading, etc. All the common drawing functionality is available including the ability to specify the weight, style, and color of lines, and the color and opacity of fills; text font, size, and color; zooming in and out; aligning shapes; and changing the draw order.



Figure 1
. A set of simple floor plans created in Project Draw.

Even though the application is entirely web-based, it allows you to save to and open files from your local computer using the Export option. Registration on Autodesk Labs also allows gives you the option of saving files on its server, allowing quick access to saved files, and the ability to share them with others by simply sending them a URL. An additional benefit to registration is being able to upload images and insert those in the drawings. Whether saving locally or to the server, the drawing can be saved either in an editable format (MMD or FMD), or in image file formats including JPEG, PNG, and SVG. An alpha version of PDF export is available, but it did not work properly for some of the test drawings I created. Other limitations include the inability to Undo and Redo, which have become such a fundamental requirement in any kind of software. Also, the units can only be set to inches or mm, not higher units such as feet or meters, which makes it a little non-intuitive when creating larger-scale drawings such as floor plans. Another difficulty I experienced was that the wall thickness of the Room shapes was different from that of the Wall shape, which led to more work when both shapes had to be used in the same drawing. Getting walls to overlap properly was also an issue. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that the application is meant to be used to create a symbolic floor plan rather than a scaled drawing, which is best done in a CAD application.

While Project Draw is certainly an intriguing piece of technology, it cannot, unfortunately, also claim to be original. After trying it out, I did an online search to see if other web-based drawing tools existed, and I did find a few, of which at least one called Gliffy seems to have all of Project Draw’s capabilities, and in a more sophisticated interface (which is understandable given that it is already a commercially released product). Other more rudimentary web-based drawings tools are LithaPaint and ajaxSketch, of which the latter works only in the Firefox browser. It will be interesting to see if Project Draw eventually makes it past the graduation stage at Autodesk Labs and if so, what its “niche” as a commercial product will be.

Content Search and Visual Search

Content Search is a website, still at the alpha stage, aimed at making it easier for architects and engineers to search and find generic or manufacturer-specific building products or components and associated design content. This content could include 3D models, 2D drawings, specifications, and descriptions for that product or component. The system works by indexing and categorizing content from external sources as well as the content libraries that are provided with the Autodesk BIM applications. You can try it by going to http://cs.labs.autodesk.com and typing in the name of a product in the Search field. You can also choose to restrict the search by specifying a file type (DWG, DXF, DGN, RVT, DWF, etc.) or the type of content (2D file, 3D file, brochure, or specification).

Figure 2 shows the results that I obtained by searching for the term “bay window” without applying any kind of restrictions to the results. Once you have the complete listing, you can narrow it down by checking one or more of the filters located on the left, such as a specific manufacturer, file type, content type, or the catalog developer. Clicking on a specific search result takes you to another page with more detailed information about the product, as shown in the lower image of Figure 2, along with the ability to download the corresponding files.



Figure 2
. Using the Content Search website to search for content related to “bay windows.” The top image shows all the search results, which the lower image shows the detailed information of a selected result.

In the case of the example shown above, only one type of file is available for download, an ArchiCAD library object file in the GSM format. This shows that Content Search is not restricted only to Autodesk products, but can also be used by those working with other design applications. Of course, its long-term success depends upon how extensive its indexing and cataloging capability is and how regularly the content is updated to keep it current. Online search for product information and files is an effort that is also being attempted by content developers such as BIMworld and specifications software vendors such as ADS with some measure of success (see the article, Supporting Technologies for BIM Exhibited at AIA 2007). But a company like Autodesk has the resources to take this to an entirely new level if it decides that this is indeed an area it wants to get into in a big way.

The other search technology being developed at Autodesk Labs is Visual Search, which uses visual input such as a doodle (freehand sketch), a 3D model (in the DWF, STL, or Autodesk Inventor’s IPT format), a 2D drawing (in the DWG or DXF format), or an image (in the JPG or PNG format). This kind of search is ideally suited to the manufacturing field where you could use it to search for parts more easily, which is why the current focus of Visual Search is on the manufacturing industry. As you can see in Figure 3, my doodle of a window only turned up manufacturing objects in the search, and that too, the objects don’t really match the sketch as there probably are no manufacturing objects that look remotely like windows! But it is not hard to imagine a scenario where the same search would actually yield all the results for a four panel window. It should be interesting to see whether Autodesk takes this neat technology and tries to apply it to AEC.



Figure 3
. Using Visual Search by creating a sketch in its built-in Doodle interface.

Touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display

One of the major attractions in the Autodesk Labs section of Autodesk University was the actual demonstration of touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display. This is being developed by Autodesk Labs in collaboration with Perceptive Pixel, Inc., the company that makes the large screen display. Known as the “Touch Wall,” this display aims to become the most advanced multi-touch system in the world and is designed by Jeff Han, a research scientist for New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. While it is targeted towards a broad range of applications and industries (see the top image of Figure 4), the Autodesk Labs team is working to ensure that this technology will also work for CAD and BIM applications (see the lower image of Figure 4). To this end, it has implemented a special version of Autodesk Design Review to work with the multi-touch capabilities of the Touch Wall. For 2D drawings, you can pan with one finger and zoom with two fingers, where moving the fingers apart zooms in and moving the fingers closer together zooms out. For 3D models in Design Review, zoom works in the same way, rotate works with one finger, pan happens with two fingers together, and three fingers can be used to orbit the model. There are additional capabilities associated with using additional fingers.



Figure 4
. Video snapshots demonstrating the various uses of the Touch Wall. The top one is from the Perceptive Pixel’s website, while the lower one is from Autodesk, showing the Touch Wall being used for building design.

I had the opportunity to try out the Touch Wall myself at Autodesk University, and it felt remarkably intuitive to be manipulating models with your fingers. Thanks to Apple’s popular iPhone, touch-based applications are now catching on, and technologies such as Touch Wall can dramatically change the way design teams collaborate on projects, including developing design concepts, making selections of materials and features, exploring what-if scenarios, conducting reviews, and so on. Eventually, we might see this technology also make it to our desktops and laptops, and while the mouse will probably never be fully replaced, it could be very nicely complemented by touch-based interaction.

Other Products

Another Labs prototype product that I had the opportunity to see was Project Showroom, the focus of which is design visualization for consumers rather than design professionals. It is currently available in the form of a sample project, a residential bathroom, that the user can move around in and make changes to various materials, as well as select from a list of upgrades and accessories. Making a selection places it within the rendered scene, allowing the user to have a better idea of what it would look like (see Figure 5). Each of the options also includes a cost, which can be used to price the total cost of the selections that are made by the user. The application is fairly simple, but it can certainly be useful to a homebuilder demonstrating options to potential buyers, or product manufacturers allowing prospective customers to visually experiment with different options. The fact that it is web-based and does not require any client installations makes it easy to implement. However, I think that the quality of the rendering needs to be greatly improved before it can be commercially successful.



Figure 5
. Selecting an upgrade from the list in Project Showroom and visualizing it in the actual scene.

One technology that has been in development at Autodesk Labs for a while is Project Freewheel, a zero client DWF viewer. I first saw it demonstrated at the opening session at Autodesk University 2006 (see AECbytes Newsletter #28), where it was used to show how easily models in any design field could be shared with clients. Since then, a version of Freewheel has made it to the commercial release stage, known as Autodesk Freewheel. It includes features such as File Open, Email, Print, Zoom (In, Out, Fit), Pan, and 3D Orbit. At the same time, Project Freewheel continues to be further developed at Autodesk Labs, and it includes many additional features such as Full Screen mode, Navigation Wheels (3D and 2D), Collaboration (Share, Join, Markup List), Markup (Sketch, Highlight, Callout), and others (see Figure 6). It is both a Web site where you can type in a URL to send your own design data for interactive viewing, as well as a Web service that allows you to embed an interactive viewer of your design data in your own Web pages. Recent updates to the Project Freewheel technology include a “Share Now” utility that allows 3D and 2D designs to be published directly into Freewheel from AutoCAD 2008 and Revit 2008, real time collaboration sessions where changes made can be seen by everyone, and the ability to see artistic renderings of 2D designs using the technology from Autodesk Impression.



Figure 6
. Exploring a sample DWF file of a Revit sheet set posted on the Project Freewheel website.

Conclusions

It is always heartening to see a leading vendor in the field invest significant resources in research and development. With Autodesk Labs, Autodesk is taking a cue from other major technology leaders including Microsoft, HP, and Intel, all of which are well known for their dedicated R&D departments. I hope that Autodesk Labs can expand to explore a lot more ideas and concepts going forward rather than just the handful of key projects that were described in this article. Autodesk’s AEC users should also be gratified to learn that Douglas Look—who had spearheaded the Autodesk Architectural Studio project that was launched with much fanfare in 2001 but ultimately shelved in 2004 (see AECbytes Newsletter #13)—is now back at Autodesk and is in the Autodesk Labs team. Perhaps the same mind that came up with the clean, innovative, and stylish interface of Architectural Studio can come up with other cool ideas for tools we could use. Who knows, perhaps we might even see a revival of Architectural Studio at some point, which would be welcome news for the many fans the application made in the few years of its existence.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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