Vail, Colo.: The setting for SketchUp Basecamp 2014

Vail, Colo.: The setting for SketchUp Basecamp 2014

Credit: Sean Burke

Yesterday was day one of SketchUp 3D Basecamp 2014, and if the snowstorm, delayed flights, and road closures weren’t enough to remind the approximately 300 attendees that we were in the throes of Vail, Colo., then the constant warnings of altitude sickness did it.

The three-day educational and networking event kicked off that morning with three concurrent classes covering basic, intermediate, and advanced SketchUp Pro 2014 topics. These three-hour-long, hands-on workshops are not for the faint of heart. Limited-term licenses for Mac OS or Windows users were provided for all attendees, who were expected to bring their own laptops.

The first day kicked off with a series of intensive workshops for SketchUp users of all levels.

The first day kicked off with a series of intensive workshops for SketchUp users of all levels.

Credit: Sean Burke

I attended the intermediate class, which focused on organizing groups and models with components in SketchUp, and on understanding the modification tools in more detail. SketchUp has been around the block, and although it looks rudimentary, it can surprise you with something new—like its parametric capabilities through a plugin available on the Extension Warehouse named Dynamic Components.

Three keynote speakers kicked off the afternoon sessions: Mark Sawyer, the general manager of Trimble Buildings; John Bacus, product management director of architecture, Trimble Buildings; and Nick Ierodiaconou, a designer at London-based architecture firm 00:/ (pronounced “zero zero”) as well as a co-founder of WikiHouse and OpenDesk. Fun fact about Sawyer: He was the former CEO of @Last Software, SketchUp’s original creator.

The announcement earlier this year that SketchUp 2014 introduced information exchange protocols, using a feature called Classifier, adds the capability to embed BIM data with the IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) schema. This news caused a bit of a stir in the AECO (architecture, engineering, construction, owner/operations) world. In laymen terms, the geometry in a SketchUp model can now be invested with meaning—that crucial “I” in BIM.

Showing off the modeling capabilities of SketchUp 2014

Showing off the modeling capabilities of SketchUp 2014

Credit: Sean Burke

A SketchUp model exported to IFC can be shared with any current BIM software, such as Autodesk Revit, Graphisoft ArchiCAD, or Bentley Systems AECOsim. This capability has created debate on whether that’s enough to qualify SketchUp a BIM tool. Personally, I think it does. Even a spreadsheet can be a BIM tool, provided the data is managed and curated to that end.

In his presentation, Bacus encapsulated the position of Trimble on this BIM feature by noting that SketchUp gives users the freedom to decide what is a wall, floor, or column. They can model anything and add meaning to it. Meanwhile, other BIM vendors give users a set of predefined tools for those elements, with their associated meaning in the model. This idea of adding meaning is a new and freeing framework for how we design and build our models. It’s too early to tell whether design teams will want this freedom—and the responsibility that comes with it.

If SketchUp is 3D for everyone, SketchUp 2014 with IFC is BIM for everyone else. That is, SketchUp may not be in a position to compete with existing BIM tools for the same tasks, but it does complement them. Adding data management tools to SketchUp simply enhances and extends its capabilities in the overall project workflow.

So once again, SketchUp has positioned itself as a disruptive technology, which may be causing some unease among the established players in the AECO world.

On the topic of disruption, Aaron Westre and Phil Rader, both research fellows at the Virtual Reality Design Lab at the University of Minnesota, showed off technology created with the conference’s namesake software in the afternoon session “Immersive Social Virtual Reality with SketchUp.”

Virtual environments in academia have been around for some time. Typically, they involve a CAVE (computer assisted virtual environment) room in which a large video screen immerses a viewer into a design experience. Westre and Rader took this a step further into virtual reality (VR) by bringing a SketchUp model into a gaming engine. The result is a hybrid convergence of VR headgear in which each participants gets an individual screen as well as the benefits of a social experience of actually walking through the virtual building.

University of Minnesota researchers showed off their virtual reality headgear, which allows users to navigate through virtual environments.

University of Minnesota researchers showed off their virtual reality headgear, which allows users to navigate through virtual environments.

Credit: Sean Burke

Users donning head-mounted screens and LED sensors (to track their location) can move through a virtual space simultaneously, equipped with proper depth perception and a full 360-degree range of view. Because of the overhead tracking system mounted in the physical room, the virtual avatars can navigate the virtual space without fear of bumping into walls or other people while fully immersed. This is similar to the digital movie sets director James Cameron creates except, in this case, everyone gets to direct their own experience.

What made this headgear unique were its components: an iPad mini, 3D-printed parts, and some specialized lenses. These devices are less expensive than most commercial VR headsets—the original prototype cost only $6 in materials. And the iPad mini has better pixel density as well. Someday, the program software may include a stereo camera for augmented reality applications.

After a day of intensive learning, my fellow attendees and I gathered for dinner and watched volunteers go head-to-head at—what else?—SketchUp Pictionary.

Sean David Burke is the digital practice - BIM leader for NBBJ as well as a futurist and tiny house enthusiast. Based in Seattle, Burke also blogs about BIM and sustainable design tools on ParadigmShiftHis views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to state that Aaron Westre and Phil Rader are part of the Virtual Reality Design Lab at the University of Minnesota.