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AECbytes Newsletter #49 (Dec 9, 2010)

Autodesk University 2010: General Session and AEC Industry Highlights

This year’s Autodesk University (AU), held last week in Las Vegas, had over 7,000 attendees compared to last year’s 5,700, which was an impressive increase given that the economy has far from rebounded. In addition, the number of virtual attendees jumped to 40,000, up from the 16,000 who availed of the virtual attendance option last year. This shows that Autodesk users are still very interested in their software applications and continue to see the value in traveling to attend the conference in person, or attending it online if they are not able to travel. In addition to the increased number of attendees at the US event, Autodesk also reported increased attendance at AU China and AU Japan held earlier this year, both of which attracted close to 2,000 attendees, more than double the number who attended these events in 2009. Providing a welcome contrast to the dismal economic news that we are otherwise pounded with on a regular basis, it was energizing to be at Autodesk University and learn of the many developments Autodesk is making to its product portfolio as well as witness the unabated enthusiasm of its users in its technology offerings.

The theme of this year’s event was “The Power of the Possible” and it was focused on showcasing what is possible with the tools that are available today, as opposed to some of the past events where Autodesk emphasized future technological trends. At the same time, the gaining momentum behind cloud computing and the emergence of tablets and other mobile devices were key themes this year. Also notable was the resurgence of AutoCAD as a design authoring and review tool, given its recent release for the Mac platform and the iPad (covered in AECbytes Newsletter #46). The basic format of Autodesk University remained the same as earlier years, with the opening general session, the different industry-specific keynotes, over 500 classes covering the broad spectrum of Autodesk applications, and close to 120 third-party exhibitors showcasing software and hardware solutions that work with Autodesk products. In addition, there were 150 virtual sessions recorded this year for the benefit of the virtual attendees. This article captures the highlights of the general session, and the main new initiatives announced for the AEC industry. An overview of the exhibitors most relevant to AEC will be covered in a separate article next week.

Innovators Profiled in the Opening General Session

In contrast to the keynote session at last year’s event in which Autodesk CEO Carl Bass gave an extended presentation on new and upcoming Autodesk technologies, he did not talk extensively this year, but instead turned the stage over to highlight several professionals that have made an impact on society through innovation in different ways. Not all of them had a direct connection to Autodesk products, but for the most part, they were designers that were bridging the gap between invention and innovation, often using technology to amplify their capabilities. Collectively, they made for a fascinating and inspiring glimpse into a diverse array of design-related ventures.

For example, we learnt about Studio H, a high school design/build curriculum for rural communities, from Emily Pilloton, who founded Project H Design of which Studio H is the core educational initiative. Both Emily and her co-founder, Matthew Miller, are architects by training and wanted to focus on design that has social value. Project H Design has been working in Bertie County, North Carolina, since February 2009, and is currently based there. Its Studio H project is a one-year program that is offered to Junior-year students of the Bertie County school district, providing college credit, a summer job, and a hands-on opportunity to build real-world projects for the community. It was heartening to see how students taking the course have been transformed by the opportunity to learn and apply design and construction skills, which is likely to have a significant impact on their future success as well as the future of their communities. Project H Design has earned significant recognition for its work, and so has Emily. She has published a book called Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, appeared on the Colbert Report to talk about humanitarian design, and lectures worldwide, including presentations at the TED Global conference and others.

Figure 1. Glimpses of the Studio H project that is currently being offered to high school students in Bertie County, North Carolina. (Courtesy: Studio H website)

Other speakers included Dmitriy Tseliakhovich, co-founder of Escape Dynamics and a graduate of Singularity University, who described his obsession with space travel that has resulted in a venture to create a plane that can fly into space to open it up for large-scale commercial, social and scientific exploration. Unlike older space travel technology that uses chemical rockets, Escape Dynamics is developing a space launch system based on the concept of external propulsion. It uses a microwave beam to power the space launch vehicle, making the launch much more simpler, efficient, and cheaper compared to the traditional space launch that is dependent on chemical energy and is therefore prohibitively expensive for large scale commercial and scientific exploration of space.

Another transportation-related venture that was featured was Tesla Motors, which is already well known for its ground-breaking work on the development of all-electric cars. We actually had Franz von Holzhausen, Senior Design Executive of the company, drive up on the stage in a Tesla Model S, which is the world's first all-electric sedan. It provoked oohs and aahs from the majority of the car-enamored attendees in the audience. Apart from the undoubtedly classy look of the car, what is more important is that it consumes no gasoline and is therefore seen as critical to the move to reduce our addiction to oil. The movement is gaining urgency, as it is estimated that all our current oil reserves will be depleted by the year 2052 if we continue at the current consumption rate. In addition to being all-electric, the Tesla Model S has been designed to be one of the safest cars, and can be quickly charged in 45 minutes. It also allows a 1 minute battery swap, which is faster than filling gas in a traditional car. While design tools were not mentioned, it was evident that Autodesk solutions such as Inventor played a key role in the design and visualization of this car.

Figure 2. The top image shows early artist drawings of the Tesla Model S, while the lower image shows a photorealistic 3D rendering of the same car that enable designers and manufacturers to more precisely visualize it before physical prototypes were constructed. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Other more AEC-specific projects that were presented at the General Session include the use of virtual simulators developed with immersive technologies to communicate information about new projects. This was demonstrated by Bart Ney, public information officer for Caltrans, California’s public rail organization. He showed a real-time interactive driving simulation of the Caltrans Presidio Parkway project (which was also featured in last year’s AU and covered in AECbytes Newsletter #42). The simulation has been developed by the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is also involved in the reconstruction of this major route running through San Francisco’s historic Presidio district. In the past, we have seen 3D models and animations of this project; now it is possible to actually experience what it would be like to drive through it. Of course, in addition to the simulation content, this does require the use of a special chassis hardware, which was also available in the Exhibit Hall at Autodesk University, giving attendees the opportunity to try it out.

We also heard from Ron Paananen, project administrator at the Washington State Department of Transportation, who showed how they were using model-based processes to design and build new infrastructure projects as well as educate the public on how the new systems would look and work. A case in point is the ongoing Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project in Seattle, which involves upgrading the aging viaduct structure to meet seismic safety standards. The viaduct is an important freight and commercial vehicle route, connecting the Duwamish industrial core to Ballard/Interbay and north Seattle. The use of 3D modeling enabled 90 different replacement options to be explored for the viaduct, as well as allowed the design team to study aspects such as traffic patterns, shading impact, and so on. The firm Parsons Brinckerhoff was also involved in this project and, similar to their work on the Presidio project, they created highly detailed transportations models that allowed all interested parties, including the city residents, to better understand the project and the impact it would have.

Figure 3. The south end of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, which is being upgraded with the use of 3D modeling technology. (Courtesy: Washington State Department of Transportation website)

The last two “innovators” that were profiled in the General Session were Cliff Plummer, CEO of Digital Domain, who talked briefly about the use of technology to create the digital effects for the upcoming movie “TRON: Legacy” (which, in my opinion, paled in comparison to the special effects of Avatar that was showcased at last year’s event); and Scott Summit, CTO of Bespoke Innovations, a company that specializes in the design of prosthetic devices that are custom-made rather than mass-produced. It was extremely interesting to see how 3D parametric design technology was being applied to create unique prosthetic devices for people that were an extension of their personality, thereby directly impacting the quality of their lives. It allows them to actually display their artificial limbs as if they were fashion statements instead of always hiding them under clothing. In addition to 3D design software, the firm also makes extensive use of 3D printing to create and test physical prototypes of the designs before they are manufactured.

Figure 4. A custom prosthetic device designed by Bespoke Innovations. (Courtesy: Bespoke Innovations website)

The Power of Infinite Computing

The General Session concluded with a brief presentation by Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski who highlighted some of the most exciting present-day technology trends and how Autodesk solutions are taking advantage of them. The most significant of these is cloud computing, which can also be thought of as “infinite computing” in terms of the mind-blowing opportunities it provides. It calls not only for a toolset change but also a mindset change, as users have no need to try and conserve computing resources any more. The potentially infinite resources of the cloud can be harnessed to tackle a task, allowing designers to become more innovative, efficient, and productive. An example of an upcoming Autodesk solution that takes advantage of cloud computing resources is Project Photofly, currently available as a technology preview on Autodesk Labs. It allows a 3D model to be automatically created from a set of digital photos capturing all sides of a building or any other object, providing a practically no-cost alternative to capturing as-built condition in contrast to expensive laser scans. The actual processing of the model from the set of images happens in the cloud, which is what makes it possible, rather than running on an individual desktop computer that has limited computing resources.   

There are several other examples of Autodesk solutions that take advantage of the “extends everywhere, accessible anywhere” capabilities of cloud computing.  For example, AutoCAD WS enables DWG drawings to be viewed, annotated, and even edited on the iPad and other mobile devices, as we saw a couple of months ago in AECbytes Newsletter #46. Autodesk is working on extending this to the Android platform as well. Its SketchBook Mobile digital painting and drawing app is now available for use on Android devices (see Figure 5). There are also initiatives such as Project Twitch, which would allow users to run applications like AutoCAD, Revit, and others remotely from Autodesk’s servers through the Internet rather than by installing them locally; Project Neon, a cloud-based rendering service that allows infinite computing resources to be applied to generate photorealistic renderings much more quickly and cost-effectively than using local, expensive hardware; and Autodesk Homestyler, which is again a browser-based application that allows consumers to design their home interiors and visualize them in rich 3D. A mindset change, as mentioned earlier, is needed to take full advantage of these new tools—users can actually do something new with them instead of simply doing something old in new ways.

Figure 5. SketchBook Mobile is now available on Android devices in addition to Apple’s mobile platform. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

New Initiatives for the AEC Industry        

Some of the new developments for AEC that were shared at the AEC industry keynote at Autodesk University include Revit’s new server and conceptual energy analysis capabilities, which were part of its subscription release in October and were covered in depth in an AECbytes feature. In addition to these, Autodesk announced a brand new initiative called Project Vasari, which is a Revit-based conceptual modeling solution that also includes energy analysis capabilities. The idea was to develop an easy-to-use building modeling tool that does not have the complexity of a full-fledged BIM application like Revit, but which can be used to create early stage design models that are “building-aware” and can be analyzed to see if the design satisfies desired performance criteria. While Vasari aims to be as intuitive and easy to use as SketchUp, it would be more powerful as it supports both geometric and parametric modeling and carries the building intelligence needed for analysis. The application is currently available as a technology preview on Autodesk Labs. While AEC users might question if they need an additional tool to add to the surfeit of tools they are already expected to master, Vasari does seem like a promising solution to the problem of a BIM-aware conceptual design tool. Since it is Revit-based, the conceptual design developed in Vasari can be brought directly into Revit for further design development.    

Figure 6. The new Project Vasari combines conceptual modeling with energy analysis. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Another similar new initiative, but at a larger scale, is Project Galileo, an easy-to-use planning tool for creating 3D city models from civil, geospatial, and building data, and 3D building models. Galileo also enables users to sketch conceptual infrastructure ideas within the 3D city model. The application can be used by city planners, GIS analysts, project managers, and architects to better understand infrastructure projects and plans in the context of the built and natural environment, as well as communicate these concepts more easily to the public and other stakeholders.

Figure 7. The new Project Galileo facilitates city planning. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Additional developments in AEC solutions that were shared at Autodesk University include closer integration between the physical and analytical models in Revit Structure and the ability to run analysis more quickly and efficiently in the cloud; the ability to create more detailed fabrication models in Revit MEP; support for precast concrete fabrication; the ability to separate monolithic objects in models coming into Navisworks into separate elements based on how they will be constructed, making it easier for a design model to be used for construction scheduling without requiring to create a separate construction model; support for point cloud data in Revit, which would be very helpful for renovations and retrofits; integration of Revit with FM Systems’ applications for facilities management; and a similar integration with IBM’s Maximo application for asset management. Sustainability, of course, was a hot topic, and Autodesk talked about its research project recently discussed at the AIA TAP 2010 conference (see AECbytes Newsletter #48) that ties a BIM model with building control systems for real-time building performance monitoring. We now learnt the name for this research initiative—it is called Project Dasher.

On the sustainability front, Autodesk also highlighted a remarkable project—the Masdar Headquarters near Abu Dhabi, UAE, which will be the world’s first positive-energy building when it is completed, actually producing more energy than it consumes. It was designed using the Revit BIM platform, which allowed team members to integrate architectural, structural, and building systems from the project outset. It also enabled more efficient design of the building’s sustainable features and systems and allowed for reviewing strategies in place, such as real-time tracking of the project’s total carbon content.

Figure 8. A model of the Masdar Headquarters in the UAE, set to become the world’s first positive-energy building. (Image Credits: Top left © Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Lower left © Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Lower right courtesy Thornton Tomasetti)


I found this year’s Autodesk University more vibrant and interesting compared to the last couple of years, where the focus was on future technologies such as generative design and optimization for which we still have to see actual solutions. While Autodesk’s lack of progress on these two fronts continues to be disappointing, it was more than offset by the large number of new initiatives the company had to show this year. Cloud computing certainly seems to have a great deal of potential and Autodesk has demonstrated both business savvy and technological foresight to jump on this bandwagon and develop so many solutions that can harness the “infinite” computing power of the cloud. While most of these solutions are still in the form of technology previews available on Autodesk Labs, they should eventually become mainstream products that users can apply to real-world projects. It also has made Autodesk Labs emerge to the forefront as the most exciting and happening place in Autodesk!

Stay tuned for the follow-article on the third-party applications being displayed at the Exhibit Hall, to be published next week.

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

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