Bluestreak and the birth of a collaboration kernel

Successful Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) collaboration depends on the timely dissemination of relevant information throughout the project team. This task is made difficult by the number of collaboration interactions that occur and the diverse range of digital tools used to support them. To improve this process it is proposed that a collaboration kernel could weave together these disparate interactions and tools. This will create a more productive and efficient collaboration environment by allowing design discussion, issues and decisions to be efficiently and reliably exchanged between team members and the digital tools they currently use. This article describes how Project Bluestreak, a messaging service from Autodesk Labs, can be transformed into an effective collaboration kernel. To guide this transformation, the principles of the Project Information Cloud have been used to evaluate the existing service and identify areas for future development. These fundamental digital collaboration principles are derived from lessons learnt in the formation of the World Wide Web. When these principles are embodied within a digital collaboration tool, they have demonstrated an ability to improve the timely delivery of relevant information to members of the project team.

Seamless collaboration within a fragmented digital environment

A successful AEC digital collaboration environment brings multiple parties together so that they can productively work towards a satisfactory and achievable design outcome. During this process participants must engage in a variety of interactions between team members and the digital models used to describe the design. These interactions, and the technologies commonly used to enable them, are summarised in the following diagram and table.

Note: The term 'model' refers to a CAD or BIM digital model that represents the proposed design. Digital models play an important role in the collaboration process as they communicate ideas, impose restrictions and can be manipulated to reflect a participant's opinion.

Google O3D may finally bring 3D to the Web

Today Google released a very early preview of O3D, a cross-platform, open source plug-in that enables OpenGL accelerated graphics within Web browsers. Delivering 3D graphics within browsers is not a new thing, (remember VRML?) but what makes this initiative promising is that it works on all platforms and is backed by Google. Performance-wise O3D seems very snappy when compared to alternatives such as Flash 3D. As a result some of the initial demonstrations are very impressive, and it hints at a future where Google Earth and SketchUp leave their desktop roots behind to become pure web applications.

Autodesk Dragonfly emerges from its larvae

Project Dragonfly is an Autodesk Labs technology preview of a web-based, simple to use architectural planning tool. It represents a step towards a future where CAD and BIM model editors are not considered bloated, complex, or desktop-bound. Whilst the current functionality of the tool is limited, it is technically impressive, and the underlying concept hints that Autodesk’s broader web strategy (as discussed in ‘Autodesk Beyond Desktop CAD & BIM’) is proceeding at a slow, but steady pace.

Autodesk Seek gets a new look and more content

Autodesk has not yet abandoned their web-based services endeavours in spite of a wilting construction industry and sinking global economy. Just prior to Autodesk University 2008 their Seek service received a significant makeover. Now this week it was announced BIMWorld has been acquired by Autodesk so that its BIMLibrary catalogue can be folded into Seek's. These events all sound good on paper, but how do they stack up, and more importantly is this a step forward for the Seek service?

The new user interface

The old white on black style of Seek has disappeared in favour of pastels on white. Overall this is a welcome change, but more importantly the overall appearance has been tidied up, with more attention paid to the rendering of onscreen elements. The result still feels very database-driven, but compared to the previous interface it does have a better flow and a less haphazard look. The Javascript-based Yahoo! User Interface library has been used to good effect and overall it feels very snappy. Unfortunately under this new coat of paint some things have not changed, for example the URIs for each product are shockingly bad. The option to email a link of the product has improved, but most people are used to simply copying and pasting URLs from the browser. If Autodesk expect others to link to content they need to resolve this problem. Until then it is very difficult for people to collaborate using Seek as a point of reference.

Autodesk Beyond Desktop CAD & BIM

or: How they Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Internet

It is my opinion that Autodesk is in the early stages of implementing a bold Internet-centric strategy that if successful will position it as the Software + Services giant within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry. Excluding the spin-off and re-purchase of Buzzsaw during the Dot-com bubble one could say Autodesk's attitude towards the Web, like the rest of the AEC industry, has been tepid at the best. In a similar manner to Microsoft, the historical and financial foundations of Autodesk lie in the traditional, desktop software market. Here its catalogue of heavy-weight tools compete for domination of the competitive CAD, BIM, animation and rendering markets. Unlike Microsoft vs Google, Autodesk and its competitors (such as Bentley Systems) have yet to face serious competition from an Internet savvy, AEC software heavy-weight. Rather than waiting for such a competitor to emerge Mike Haley, Jeff Wright and the rest of Autodesk's Content division are building it 'in-house'.

Autodesk Seek talk by Mike Haley

A day after posting my critique on Autodesk Seek I came across this presentation Mike Haley of the Seek team gave in March. Boy I wish that I had come across this last week as it answers some of the outstanding questions that I posed. The video covers the technologies that Seek is composed of, i.e. Atom syndication feeds (PartAtom), schema design, Amazon EC2 and open source modules. The entire thing looks surprisingly good (and open) for a big company like Autodesk. The presentation is an hour long but worth watching as it is probably the most significant thing one of the big-AEC software vendors have attempted on the Internet.

Another interesting thing Mike mentions is that Amazon are working on Windows-based EC2 instances...

Autodesk Seek steps towards ubiquitous AEC search

Note: Before reading this critque I would recommend checking out this Autodesk Seek presentation as it answers many of the questions raised here.

In May Autodesk released a beta of Autodesk Seek, a web-based Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) specific, 3D model and specifications search tool. Rather than a free for all model index in a similar guise to Google's 3D Warehouse or CADoogle, the service is focused on exposing the model and specification catalogues of AEC suppliers. This is hardly going to interest the armchair designer, but for architects and engineers the ability to quickly locate, access and reference specifications and 3D data could potentially reduce design development time and costs significantly.

Gauging by the initial contents of Seek it would appear Autodesk have partnered with some large U.S. suppliers in order to kick-start their index. Whilst the index signals a clear sign of intent its current contents is hardly awe inspiring. That being said raw index size itself does not ensure success, to really make a mark and stand the test of time the Seek team need to execute on three things:

  • Quickly build out this index with up to date and relevant content so that it becomes the first place AEC professionals head to.
  • Create a compelling user experience which overcomes the idea that a specifications catalogue must be dull, unhelpful and always two months out of date.
  • Work to integrate Seek into as many aspects of Autodesk's existing modeling and drafting tools. By doing so the line between desktop and Web will be blurred and Seek will become a natural extension of their professional digital toolset.

What differentiates Seek from the crowd?

The idea of an online product catalogue for AEC specifications is certainly not new. However Seek is unique in that it is the first online product catalogue backed by a large company who's primary customer-base is not AEC suppliers. In the past online AEC catalogue initiatives have been spearheaded by suppliers or third-parties financially dependent on these suppliers. This close association has hindered growth and because for a Web-based, universal product catalogue to be successful it must stand independently from its data suppliers. This independence establishes trust which is important because users do not want the relevancy of their search influenced by who is paying the bills, nor do they want a 'walled garden' where only products from selected (paying) suppliers are on show. Consequently even though many supplier-backed catalogues exist, none can be considered the Google of the AEC world.

Seek has the potential of filling this 'Google' void because Autodesk's primary income is from people who make material purchasing decisions (architects, engineers and contractors, etc.) and not the suppliers themselves. This difference places Seek in the position of being able to design a catalogue that acts in the best interests of the search consumer. At the same time suppliers are practically forced to take part given Autodesk's vast global audience. The challenge facing Seek it is that Autodesk are not known for producing search indexes or successful Web products.

So given this background and the potential rewards on offer what works and what doesn't in this early beta release? Let's take a look...

Upcoming Revit Technology Conference in Sydney

There is an upcoming Revit Technology Conference in Sydney in June. The venue looks very nice although I doubt June is the best time of the year to be hitting the beach, even in Sydney. The schedule covers just about every conceivable functional aspect of Revit. If you can't spare the time or money to attend Autodesk University then this is probably the closest thing you'll get in the southern hemisphere.

Why Autodesk should 'Open' DWF

Beyond the Paper's Scott Sheppard recently pointed to McDwiff as the first partial example of a Mac-based DWF viewer. Unfortunately for the DWF starved Mac community McDwiff is simply a wrapper around a WebKit browser window pointed directly at Autodesk's own Project Freewheel web service. It fails to qualify as a true desktop application for a number of crucial reasons:

  1. It does not (yet) add functionality beyond what is present in the Web-based Freewheel viewer.
  2. DWF files must be first uploaded to the Autodesk web service.
  3. There is no off-line mode or local caching to improve performance.
  4. The lifespan of the software is entirely dependent on the existence of the host service.

Note: These limitations are not the developers fault as they have obviously only just initiated the project. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Reviewing Autodesk Design Review

Recently Autodesk dropped the price tag off their Autodesk Design Review package making it far more accessible to the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry. Design Review is a DWF-centric tool for viewing and reviewing 2D and 3D design documentation. Prior to becoming freely available Design Review appeared to the casual observer as a useful tool for those heavily into Autodesk products but not the mainstream audience. This pricing shift changes the game and enables the software to compete against Adobe Acrobat as the primary, general purpose viewing tool for design documentation. With this in mind I took a fresh look at the software and what follows is what I found.