In the second part of our exploration of the changes in Autodesk’s AEC development, Martyn Day reports on the company’s forays into cloud, big data and programmatic design
Out of all the software vendors in this industry, Autodesk is by far the most fixated on moving to the cloud. Every product the company has, or rather, is going to keep, is in transition to having a cloud-based equivalent. For now there are fully featured mature Autodesk desktop products and relatively new cloud variants, deemed ‘360’, as well as some intermediate ‘virtual’ technologies, such as the recently launched Autodesk Remote. Autodesk firmly believes that customers want, and would benefit greatly from, their data and applications being available everywhere.
Autodesk Remote is a standalone application for Autodesk subscription customers using Windows 7/8 (32-bit and 64-bit) and is compatible with all Autodesk products. Remote is installed on a target PC and enables Autodesk software installed on the main workstation to be run from a remote computer over a standard network.
There is a companion iPad version of Remote, still in development, which enables Inventor or Revit to be run from the workstation virtually on the iPad, with the Remote iPad version featuring optimised touch interface, dependent on the speed of the wi-fi connection.
There is an element of smoke and mirrors to this technology as it is ‘virtual’. Autodesk has not rewritten Revit to run on an iPad, it is being manipulated by the compressed graphics over a streamed network.
Virtualisation is something that many AEC firms are currently investigating as project teams work across the world on common Building Information Modelling (BIM) data sets. Using technologies like Autodesk Remote, it would be possible to host the data centrally and have teams log in remotely to licenses hosted on powerful centralised workstations. This would secure the design data, as the model information never actually leaves the building and aids offshoring or 24/7 project work. The main drawback is the reliance on the Internet and bandwidth, as it is essential to access both the data and authoring application.
However, Autodesk Remote is just the start of the application of this technology. Autodesk is also experimenting with delivering applications like Revit, direct to web browsers, bypassing the need for a workstation with a corresponding software license.
Combining HTML-5 with a Java-based streaming technology from OTOY, with Nvidia’s Keplar GRID GPUs running on Amazon’s servers, Autodesk can deliver demanding applications like Revit to a Chrome, Firefox or Safari browser at speeds in excess of 35 frames per second, which is seamless to the human eye. Thus enabling Windows, Macintosh and yes, iPads/tablets to run any of Autodesk’s applications. There are rumours of a 13-inch iPad next year, perhaps we are not far away from design computers being just large thin touchscreens?
Make the connection
With Amazon’s server farm, it would certainly enable customers to make savings, purchasing low-power, low-cost workstations. However, this necessitates the best possible, stable Internet connections.
Reliance on the Internet as essential infrastructure is something that users are exceptionally wary of. In many developed countries around the world, bandwidth is variable and connections are constant. Take that to emerging countries like India where the majority do not have the Internet, let alone fast broadband Internet and the concept of the cloud and virtualisation ring hollow.
At Autodesk University at the end of last year a press member from India asked how Autodesk’s cloud vision would work in a country of Internet “have nots”. Autodesk chief executive Carl Bass could only suggest that mobile phone networks could perhaps pick up the data slack.
One of the most prevalent messages in Autodesk’s sales pitch on the future of design computing is the immense amount of processing power available by moving to a cloud-based infrastructure. And what do we do when we have excess capacity of CPUs? Why we quickly evolve ways of using it.
Brian Mathews, VP / AEC Group CTO, head Reality Capture & Design Viz teams, has made it clear that Autodesk is positioning its portfolio of products to be able to handle huge datasets. While we may consider a multi-gigabyte Revit model to be today’s big data, advances in the pricing and adoption of 3D laser scanners mean we soon could well be dealing with terabytes or petabytes of highly accurate, captured data. With advances in point cloud handling and meshing, Autodesk is developing a new generation of tools that will change the way we use reality-captured data.
Before we create new buildings, roads and bridges, we have to capture the existing condition, which can be time consuming and expensive. Terrestrial laser scanners can measure millions of 3D points in seconds and multiple scans can be combined to cover huge areas. The prices of these devices has dropped from $100,000 to $35,000 in the last few years, leading to increased usage and interest in the potential of using point cloud data. Nearly all the main CAD systems now support point clouds as a native format out of the box.
With increasing capabilities to apply ‘knowledge’ and allocate object properties to shapes within a ‘dumb’ cloud of points, scan-to-BIM will eventually become much easier and less of a manual process.
Mr Mathews’ team is developing Autodesk Recap and Project Memento. Recap is Autodesk’s reality capture software and looks to be revolutionary in many ways. Recap can sit on a laptop and take streamed point clouds from laser scanners. As the data builds up, Recap gives live feedback as to where possible occlusions may be (gaps in the point cloud where perhaps an object has shadowed the laser scans).
Recap can also dispense with the targets that surveyors use to geo-reference the point cloud datasets to accurately merge them. Instead it uses real-world objects to map and merge multiple scans. According to Mr Mathews, under test conditions Recap is at least as accurate as traditional target-based surveying, if not better.
Project Memento is aimed at downstream users that have to handle huge meshes and textures that are created from laser scans or photogrammetry processes. Despite being able to handle huge data sets, the software uses “hardly any RAM”, according to Mr Mathews and provides all sorts of mesh diagnostic and analysis tools with auto-fix and sub-sampling capabilities.
Recap has since been quietly launched with Memento finding a home on Autodesk Labs. Both these products have to be seen to be believed and places Autodesk in an interesting position when laser scanners drop to the sweet spot for volume adoption
Mr Mathews’ team has previously developed 123D Catch, which can stitch multiple camera views together and create a 3D meshed model of a building or object. With 3D sensors such as Microsoft’s Kinect, Leap Motion being embedded in games consoles, phones and laptops, our whole computing world is going to become 3D aware.
Naturally, Autodesk’s cloud vision also plays a part here as the datasets involved can be many times larger than the average hard drive and so storing point clouds remotely on Autodesk360 servers and streaming these to anyone, anywhere could be a massive benefit.
Dynamo is a visual programming environment for Revit and Inventor and probably all Autodesk tools in time. Dynamo was originally created by ex-Buro Happold engineer, Ian Keough in his spare time. Autodesk has since snapped it up and thrown a lot of resources at it, to make it an official product. Dynamo is essentially Autodesk’s version of McNeel (Rhino) Grasshopper, borrowing heavily on the plug and play visual scripting interface that Grasshopper championed.
However, Dynamo appears to be a wider playpen, with Autodesk, unusually deciding to make it open source as well as enabling Dynamo to mix and match scripts from a number of sources: Autodesk’s own DesignScript, Python (which means it can automatically take a lot of stuff scripted for Grasshopper) as well as its own scripts.
While predominantly emanating from the AEC team, its links with Revit are being added to constantly and it can be used to create complex geometry or defined object behaviours (such as pannelisation).
There is still plenty of work to do. I wonder what would happen if Dynamo was controlling Revit, but Revit had parametric constraints applied to the design that contradicted Dynamo’s script? Those kind of conflicts are not yet catered for but I suspect that Dynamo is going to spark its own fan-base community and possibly appeal to those of competitive systems.
Sadly, it seems that Dr Robert Aish, father of GenerativeComponents at Bentley Systems and DesignScript at Autodesk, had left the company at the time of Autodesk University, with the Dynamo team getting all the ‘computational design’ focus.
I suspect that the new programming language that Dr Aish created at Autodesk will lack promotion and development as a result.
Another relatively new code stream, Autodesk FormIt, seems to have survived its first year in the wild with Autodesk now having big plans for this conceptual modeller. There will finally be a desktop variant to go with the original iPad version.
It seems that much of Autodesk Vasari’s analysis capabilities is due to be added into the product, making it Autodesk’s first coherent conceptual design for architects, enabling massing, modelling and analysis.
There was even talk of FormIt being added to Dynamo at some point in the future to create a standalone scripting and analysis conceptual tool, capable of lightweight generative designs which could be brought into Revit for the detailed design and documentation phases.
Historically, Autodesk has never been hard to keep up with, as it was so AutoCAD-centric. Now, it is all topsy-turvy, as products appear from nowhere (and some vanish without so much as a goodbye).
AutoCAD is the one product that rarely gets mentioned by an Autodesk employee, yet its revenues still make up a hefty chunk of the balance sheet. I guess the good news is there are still a lot of conversion sales to be made. Autodesk is now brought to you by the word ‘cloud’ and number ‘360’.
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With the continuation of this article, which was based on my visit to Autodesk San Francisco HQ, I have subsequently attended Autodesk University where some of the products I had seen were released, updated or more information was made available
Read Part one of this article HERE