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 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'.

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.

The SketchUp Show

If you are a current or potential user of Google SketchUp then I would recommend checking out the SketchUp Show. It is a regular video podcast that goes through how to use the various pieces of functionality avaiable in the free modeller. The production quality of the tutorials is very high and they go through at a pace that is easy to follow along with. Because these are video podcasts they are not small downloads (about 100meg each) so do not try attempting to download them via a dial-up connection unless you can wait a few days.

Internet enabling Generative Components for a new breed of AEC consultant

Generative Components, also known as Smart Geometry, is a technology for describing the underlying rule-set of a geometric form. Currently it is in its infancy but potential exists for it to become the basis of a new field of AEC consultancy centered around geometric exploration. Central to its success will be the ability for its proponents to utilise the Internet to improve its technical accessibility and enable consultants to deliver the benefits of Generative Components to any interested architecture practice no matter its size or geographic location.

Even though it is smarter, BIM is still dumb

Typical CAD or BIM modeling tools are relatively simple in nature because all the major design elements are systematically defined by the architect or drafts-person building the model. Unfortunately this process depends on the person creating the model having at least some idea of the intended outcome before undertaking the work. Also once the model is built the underlying geometric motivations behind it cannot be efficiently experimented with. Generative Components empowers the designer with the ability to almost effortlessly explore many different yet related iterations of the same concept in order to determine the strongest architectural response to the given situation.

Following up on CAD Collaboration

I have had a fairly positive response to my last CAD Collaboration post. Feedback has highlighted a couple of areas that need clarifying and developing a little further.

On Snapshots and Deltas

Paul Wilkinson of the Extranet Evolution blog put up a fairly long post that discussed many aspects of the article. Of most interest was his comments on the snapshots and deltas idea, significantly the fact that a similar approach had been adopted three years ago by BIW Information Channel from BIW Technologies.
BIW’s Accelerated Transfer pack condenses file revisions to a fraction of their previous size allowing faster transfer – up to ten times faster in the case of some files.

In the case of BIW it used delta encoding as a means of increasing data transfer speeds to remote, poorly connected places such as construction sites. This is slightly different to the concept I proposed because it deals with binary deltas rather than deltas at an abstracted digital model level. Binary deltas are great at a file level because they do allow changes to the same file be transferred somewhere very quickly. The problem is that binary deltas are intended to convert a file to a carbon copy of the remote source file from top to bottom.

Using delta's in a collaborative digital model is all about exchanging design intentions (i.e. rotated wall A 45 degrees) so that the model is updated but many properties of the actual file remain the same. In many respects it is more complex process than a low-level delta courtesy of a tool like diff. However this added complexity provides the benefit of enabling users to choose what design intentions they wish to inherit from other team members without worrying about the associated digital baggage that accompanies their team member's file.

Parallels update brings Windows CAD to the OSX desktop

Parallels released an update today for their Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualisation software which introduced 'coherence' mode and seriously improved video drivers capable of supporting DirectX. To give the new features a test drive I installed Autodesk Design Review, Revit 9.1 (trial version) and Bentley View on the virtual instance of Windows XP and had a play. All performed very well even with minimal RAM allocated for testing purposes. Quite possibly the only let down was that before you could start using the software the virtual machine first had to load Windows.

The screencast above illustrates the boot process, coherence mode, Design Review and Revit in action. The screencast was taken at a fairly low frame rate and YouTube just makes it all that worse. Please take my word for it that performance on a 1.83 Intel Core Duo iMac was fairly snappy even with only 256meg of RAM assigned to the VM. In a production environment you would certainly want to allocate at least 512meg of RAM to Parallels which would mean needing between 1.5/2gig of RAM in the Mac.

Whilst I would hardly recommend to architects that they should use their primary productivity application in a virtualised window, from the perspective of those Mac users who need to occasionally use a piece of Windows only software this level of functionality and performance from Parallels is perfect. Sure it is not nearly as quick as running natively, but then you don't have instant access to all of OSX's niceties that you begin to miss once forced to work on a Windows desktop for a little while.

CAD Collaboration

(or how I learned to stop worrying and love ambiguity)

This post covers the issues surrounding CAD collaboration and past approaches to resolving it. It then concludes with a concept of how decentralised digital model development could be undertaken in a manner that reflects the ambiguous environment in which collaborative design is experienced.

The Problem of Digital Model Orientated Collaboration

Modelling an architectural design in CAD almost never occurs in an isolated environment. Typically work is undertaken with at least one other person simultaneously in order to meet development deadlines. Unfortunately issues arise when participants wish to simultaneously change the same design element, or a set of design changes inadvertently effect another aspect of the digital model.

Recently I was asked to comment on a debate that was raging in the Vectorworks forums related to its minimal set of collaboration functionality. Whilst the forum thread initially begun as a feature request it soon evolved into rather heated debate over how collaboration functionality in CAD should function (if at all). Central to this online debate was the role internal offices processes and politics held in the success of a collaborative digital model. Whilst this is typically the most visible factor we must also keep in mind the mere introduction of digital models has significantly altered our collaboration psyche.

Web Searching of CAD content

Recently Scott Sheppard from Autodesk blogged about Docupoint Discovery, an intranet/Internet search engine for AutoCAD files. It works by parsing binary AutoCAD files and indexing their textual and numerical content. Whilst it is not super intelligent (i.e. it doesn't make spacial assumptions based on the actual models submitted) it does help Autodesk workgroup users find information faster. The upshot of the Docupoint Discovery system is that you don't actually need a copy of AutoCAD, it reads the binary files into the index and if you need a quick preview it uses Autodesk's own DWF viewer technology to show it to you (now that is really helpful).

A similar set of functionality can be provided if you are an ArchiCAD Mac user by harnessing OSX's Spotlight functionality and the freely available ArchiCAD Spotlight plug-in. With this plug-in installed OSX can index all your ArchiCAD files (alongside all the other relevant project data like PDF files). Then with the next version of OSX (Leopard) or the open-source Weblight server you can search your Spotlight index on the intranet/Internet via a web browser. It does not offer the DWF-based preview option of Docupoint Discovery but for a zero-cost, minimum configuration solution it is not too shabby.

Nemetschek become majority shareholders of Graphisoft

It would appear that the people at Nemetschek were busy over the Christmas holiday purchasing the majority of Graphisoft's shares. Nemetschek Vectorworks and Graphisoft ArchiCAD are two highly respected CAD/BIM packages that form a significant portion of the CAD marketplace (behind industry leaders AutoDesk and Bentley). At the end of December Nemetschek purchased all the privately held shares of Graphisoft and sometime during January they aim to capture the remainder which are publically held. The intital deal involved 5.7 million shares valued at 51.8 million Euros (approximately NZ$98 million). This purchase turns Nemetschek into a very serious AEC software vendor with a user-base of around 270,000 people.

What this means for the two competing CAD products is difficult to say. Vectorworks is very strong in the two-dimensional arena whilst ArchiCAD has a very mature 3-dimensional Building Information Model (BIM) core. It would be difficult for Nemetschek to continue marketing both products head to head considering the competition within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction space. It is also dubious whether the underlying software architectures are similar enough to warrant some kind of software merger considering both have a long development history. Given that it is unlikely that one of the products will be phased out (due to their entrenched users and functionality), a more likely scenario will see Vectorworks focus on the traditional 2D marketplace whilst ArchiCAD will continue to pursue BIM ideals at the expense of pure-2D functionality. This is the strategy employed by AutoDesk with their AutoCAD and Revit platforms and it seems to be working quite well for them. But unlike AutoDesk there is significantly greater functionality and ideology cross-over between Nemetschek's products which may prove harder to resolve internally in terms of where the two sit in the market and relate to each other.

Hopefully once the buyout is complete the long-term future for both entities will become a little more clearer. From a spectators position it certainly wouldn't be interesting to spend almost NZ$200 million and just maintain the status quo, but it may make the most business sense so I wouldn't be surprised if nothing exciting happens immediately.