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.

Dragonfly in flight

Dragonfly runs on any operating system that has a web browser which supports the latest Flash plug-in, for example Windows, OSX or Linux. Designing a floor plan primarily takes place within a constrained 2-dimensional space, but limited 3-dimensional views are available. In a nod towards its Autodesk lineage the toolbar and view controls aesthetically mimic those found in AutoCAD and Autodesk Design Review. As a result the tools are intuitive to use, but slightly limiting for those used to the responsiveness and flexibility of a desktop application. For a web-based tool in its infancy this is unsurprising, and there are certainly no fears (yet) that Autodesk is cannibalizing Revit or AutoCAD sales. However there are very strong signs that with continued development a unique and compelling product will evolve.

At Dragonfly’s core is a Flash-based model editor that enables users to manipulate architectural elements using traditional mouse gestures. In practice this editing process works best when in the 2D viewing mode, but moving of some objects whilst in the 3D view is possible. The graphic performance when making modifications is not up to par with a CAD or BIM desktop application, but for simple tasks it works quite well. What is impressive is the use of visual dimensioning aids to help quickly position elements in their correct location. Although not as powerful as the coordinate-based positioning systems used in most desktop CAD tools, for general layout it does the job admirably.

Beyond basic modeling the most visually appealing aspect of Dragonfly is its library of architectural furnishings and surfaces. Each element in the library has a detailed 2D and 3D representation that adds a level of scale to an otherwise blank canvas. At the moment this library is small, but there is enough there to get an idea of its versatility, and given time this will undoubtedly grow. Like the modeling tools, library components can be dragged and dropped into place and rotated to suit the designer’s needs. An issue at the moment is that once a component is placed there does not seem to be a way of displaying its name or meta-data information. From the perspective of layout design this would be useful as it would enable details such as the exact shower model and cost to be recorded.

Learning to fly: Where Dragonfly can improve

Whilst a promising initial release, a lot of development needs to take place before Dragonfly can transition from interesting preview to productive tool. Online collaboration is a key area where the Web-based Dragonfly holds a huge advantage over contemporary CAD/BIM modeling tools. Whilst further development of the modeling toolset is needed, being able to save designs as traditional 2D and 3D files is also critical for adoption. Finally expanding the component library through integration with the Seek product index would seem an obvious evolutionary step for both services.

Collaboration is key

The greatest development and deployment advantage a tool like Dragonfly has is that was conceived and built with the Web in mind. In contrast most desktop-based CAD/BIM tools use a file-based paradigm which cannot fully leverage the collaboration possibilities of the Internet. As a result sharing or collaboratively working on a design with Dragonfly is made very simple because the data and the tools are online. Unfortunately the current collaboration feature-set is limited to either exchanging an email link, or exhibiting the design within the public gallery. Whilst both are useful options, this is just the tip of a functional iceberg when it comes to professional architectural collaboration possibilities. Arguably the “holy grail” would be the inclusion of a multi-user, concurrent editing mode like that found in many Flash-based white-boarding tools. But even if technically infeasible, adding configurable read/write privileges and groups functionality would substantially increase Dragonfly’s value.

Exporting the layout for further development

The obvious market for a web-based architectural layout tool would seem to be in pre-design where clients are able to explore ideas by themselves. Once they have something they are happy with they need to be able to share it with their architect in a way that can promote further development. The first step in this process would be the ability to export scale 2D drawings in both DWF and PDF formats for printing and discussing over coffee. Architects should then be able to export the 3D model as a DWG so that more complex designs can be created within AutoCAD or Sketchup. Whilst this would probably not be used as the basis for production drawings, as far as visual exploration goes it would make an ideal starting point.

Growing the component library with Seek

An architectural layout tool is only as good as its component libraries, thus integration with Autodesk Seek would make Dragonfly very compelling. Seek is Autodesk’s product search index which contains a broad range of product descriptions along with 2D and 3D models. Integration with the Seek service would be very challenging, but if it was executed well the result would be far greater than the sum of its parts. The benefit to Dragonfly is that users would instantly be able to access a vast catalogue of components which they could add to their layout. For Seek and its content providers Dragonfly integration would provide that next step in the procurement decision making process beyond search. i.e. I have a product that I am interested in, but how does it physically sit within the space I am designing?

Where will Dragonfly land?

Dragonfly is a great example of how powerful the web browser has become, but how will this materialise into a financially viable product offering? There would seem to be three markets; a value-add service for desktop software, an advertising platform, or an engine for third-party development.

Adding value to existing products

Microsoft refers to this as a Software + Services strategy where online tools are provided alongside desktop software to extend its functionality. In the case of Microsoft this is Office Live, but for Autodesk this could be a version of Dragonfly that allowed Revit models to be interacted with online. In the foreseeable future Dragonfly is never going to match Revit in functionality, but it could allow architects to collaborate on plans with clients. For example an architect could export multi-story office plans to Dragonfly so that clients could experiment with office fittings and layouts. Once determined the Revit model could be synchronised with Dragonfly so that detailed production drawings or light renderings could be produced.

Autodesk as an advertising platform

Dragonfly’s component library would be an excellent advertising vehicle for manufacturers of furniture, fittings and surfaces. It is becoming common for these manufacturers to invest in web-based visualisation tools in order for potential clients to see what they will get. Rather than developing these tools, Dragonfly could be licensed to suppliers and the component library tailored to their promotional needs. These customised visualisation engines would be embedded into websites around the world in a similar manner as YouTube’s video player. Potential customers would then be free to experiment with how products would look and integrate within their own home.

A Dragonfly API: Third-party application development

Dragonfly’s underlying 2D layout and 3D visualisation functionality is something that can be applied to other tasks beyond basic architectural layouts. Google Maps is a great example of an innovative, web-based engine that has spawned a vast market of third-party applications. The underlying Dragonfly engine could fulfill a similar role if the API was exposed and developers were able to layer on functionality and information. Third-party development could be simple as tools for calculating the tiles needed in a space, through to applications in non-architectural domains. What the killer application would be is impossible to say, but being able to leverage Dragonfly within other web applications would be very powerful.

The big picture: bringing Dragonfly, Seek & Showroom together

Dragonfly is a nice technology preview, but its real value will only be realised once all of Autodesk’s online initiatives are seamlessly linked together. What will be most impressive is when Showroom renderings can be produced from a Dragonfly model built using components sourced from Seek. Judging by the state of these three services this day may not be too far off, and once it arrives it will stand as a remarkable online milestone. In the space of ten years something that required dedicated computer hardware and expensive software will be possible from anywhere for free. This will result in significant business model changes and the increased use of architectural modeling and rendering tools by the public.

An unexplored opportunity: consolidating a user’s Autodesk identity

As Autodesk’s web services grow your online identity will be instrumental in monitoring activity across these different applications. Beyond Labs, Autodesk has a lot of identity-centric services, such as discussion boards, license management and an online university. As these elements coalesce it is important that Autodesk make it easy for users to manage their online identity and the information related to it. The most basic step being to ensure each online application uses the same single sign-on (SSO) service in order to create a consistent experience.

Beyond basic plumbing, a user “portal” is required that stitches together the latest news and collaboration updates from all these sources. For example as Dragonfly or Seek content is shared with others there is a need for a central location where this can be managed and monitored. A significant opportunity Autodesk has in this regard is that the majority of their online customers use their desktop software on a daily basis. Integrating online profiles within these desktop tools would add value to the customer, and promote the use of its new online services. It would also mean that no matter what Autodesk application was open, a user’s shared content and their collaboration connections would be available.


Project Dragonfly is a promising release that offers a glimpse into a future where CAD and BIM tools are not the exclusive domain of architects. Assuming development continues and the tool is integrated with other Labs services the end product will break a great deal of online ground. Unfortunately at this time until its collaboration and export options mature, early adopters will struggle to find productive uses for Dragonfly. Still as a technology demonstrator Dragonfly performs admirably and provides a promising glimpse into the future.