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In a city world renowned for spectacle, a software conference would hardly be the first place you’d head to for crowd-pleasing showmanship. That, however, doesn’t seem to have deterred the team behind Autodesk University from taking a page or two out of the Vegas revue playbook. Held in the Mandalay Bay Hotel at the southern end of the Las Vegas strip, the first session of AU 2010 opens in the hotel’s Events Center, a venue more commonly host to rock concerts than geeky software get-togethers (Ozzy Osborne is scheduled for an appearance in January). Despite numbers being down on previous years (roughly 7000 this year, up on last year’s 6000 but down from a high of 9500 in 2007) the Center’s tiered seating was close to capacity with a quiet hum of excitement emanating from the crowd, and a slickly orchestrated combination of high profile speakers, rapid fire video montage and glitzy lighting, it had a more than a little bit of the ambience of a Vegas show about it.
Autodesk CEO Carl Bass began the opening sally of presentations with an introduction positioning them in relation to the idea of ‘impact’ a concession perhaps to the renewed interest in design with a social or environmental focus. Emily Pilloton, director of the humanitarian design practice Project H, gave a short introduction to her practice’s work, touching on both its failures (in particular its Hippo Roller project, which achieved a certain amount of notoriety after it was referenced in a Fast Company column on humanitarian design as ‘neo-imperialism’) as well as Project H’s more recent success establishing a design education program in underprivileged schools in North Carolina. In addition to Piloton’s presentation, we also saw a crowd-warming stunt from Tesla Motors’ Senior Design Executive Franz von Holzhausen, who drove onto the stage in the curvaceous all-electric sedan that has made Tesla a household name, and an intriguing look into the realm of customised prosthetics from Scott Summit, CTO of Bespoke Innovations, illustrating how digital prototyping is used to create personalised prosthetics with sex appeal (the ‘cyborg’ prosthetic leg made for a female motorbike enthusiast proved to be a particular hit with the audience).
These opening presentations were kept brief and perhaps as a result were a bit thin on substance at times. What they did serve to do though was provide an appropriately inspiring backdrop against which Autodesk could present its visions for the future and of course the products it thinks best address the demands that future will precipitate.
Infinite computing: design in the cloud
As its title implies, the main purpose of Autodesk University is the training and education of the company’s existing user base in its tools, but the presentations delivered by its leadership personnel provide a valuable insight nonetheless into where it sees digital design is moving.
Much was made during the conference of the possibilities of what several of the presenters referred to as “infinite computing” otherwise known as cloud computing. In his delivery, Jeff Kowalski, Vice President, Chief Technology Officer at Autodesk, spoke of how some technology allows us to see the world in a new way, or of how “a change in toolset can inspire a change in mindset.” This catchy piece of marketese would pop up several times over the course of the conference, but the point it embellished was compelling. Analytical and modelling tools are becoming increasingly potent, but most practitioners designing for the built environment do not have access to the processing power necessary to take full advantage of them. With a good broadband connection though, those practitioners have access to a near infinite level of computing power rented out for as little as seven cents an hour. As Kowalski pointed out, infinite computing, when combined with these tools, has the potential to become a radically transformative technology.
The way Kowalski spoke of it though, infinite computing in the context of Autodesk’s software suite was close to an actual reality. Bass’s press conference told a slightly different story Autodesk is still experimenting with the technology, and is yet to decide how exactly to deploy it. A rental or subscription model seems likely, and although it’s hard to imagine the company will allow access to its tools for seven cents an hour, this model would allow practices to rent the services they require, be they wind modelling, structural analysis or basic drafting, as and when they’re required, rather than force them to purchase the tools (and the computers necessary to run them) outright. As the range and quantity of software applications continues to dramatically increase, in tune with the ever-increasing demands we make of our buildings and their designers, it’s not hard to see why this strategy might have a lot to recommend it.
BIM and predictive modelling
Some of the tools that Autodesk are working on now are purportedly capable of performing some very complex tasks indeed. Kowalski presented devices that might allow for predictive and real time modelling of building performance criteria that include not just the environmental considerations we are now accustomed to (ie. solar paths, wind loads etc) but also behavioural modelling, such as foot traffic flows. On a more simple level, Autodesk has also just released a preview version of a conceptual design tool called Vasari, which seems to be its answer to SketchUp. Designed to bridge the gap between the quick and dirty early design stages and building information modelling (BIM), Vasari allows for the easy and intuitive development of multiple design iterations, but can also incorporate basic environmental analysis and is easily exported into Autodesk’s BIM platform, Revit.
It is very apparent that the shift to BIM remains Autodesk’s core focus, and is where they see the future for design in the AEC industries. As Jay Bhatt, Senior Vice President, Architecture, Engineering and Construction for Autodesk describes, the average amount of waste in most building projects accounts for around 20 percent of the construction budget. “There’s a convergence in the design industries that is being driven by a desire for efficiency, frankly,” says Bhatt. “Talk to someone in the manufacturing industry about this 20 percent waste coefficient and they’ll look at you like you have 16 heads on your shoulders.” As a result, Bhatt believes we’re likely to see increasing aggregation in the AEC sector, assisted in part by technologies such as BIM and digital fabrication. According to him, the construction industry buys more Revit than either the architecture or engineering industries the contractor’s desire for constructable design and an ability to better commodify that process is driving demand.
If this move towards vertically integrated construction allows for much greater economic efficiencies, when combined with the analysis tools designers now have at their disposal, it also facilitates a much more holistic approach to the challenges of sustainable design as Phil Bernstein, Autodesk’s Vice President, Industry Strategy and Relations, points out. Assuming, of course, you can get all of the tools involved in that project to talk to one another.
“What Ive started to talk about internally is that our focus now shifts from piles of data that are created by individual tools to this idea of a project,” says Bernstein. “What is a project? A project is about a bunch of process relationships, a bunch of data relationships; its about interoperability.”
As many of the users of Autodesk’s product suite will tell you, the company has made huge advances in recent years towards this goal of interoperability within it’s own set of tools at least. It has also made a few tentative steps towards better integration with some of its competitors in the AEC space. When I ask Bernstein about how seriously the company is taking the push by some to develop a common file format for the technology though he is unequivocal: “There’s just no way there’s going to be a common BIM file format. Autodesk has spent, by my rough calculations, $600 million on this BIM thing. The theory of building representation that that data format represents is the family jewels. Interoperability? All for it. Clear data exchange formats? All for it. Open BIM data formats? No way.”
Autodesk is ranked by Softwaretop100.org as the 25th largest (down from 16th largest last year) software company in the world, and is the only AEC focused software company that makes it into the top 100. CEO Carl Bass spoke of how the company is projecting year-on-year growth of 10 to 15 percent. As an integrated package, the tools shown over the course of the conference represented a very comprehensive set of solutions to the challenges confronting the AEC sector even if they manage to accomplish just a portion of the functionality Autodesk is predicting. The temptation for practices of course might be to rationalise their software tools into the one product suite indeed, several of the Australian practices I spoke to at the conference have already done just that. But while increasing convergence in the AEC sector could very well be inevitable, a similar convergence within the software space might bring with it a dangerous lack of diversity and have a potentially limiting effect on the possibilities for design in the built environment. It will be interesting to see just how serious the company is over the coming years about genuine, cross-platform interoperability.