The blackjack dealers watched as thousands of people swarmed the casino floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. The first clue that few in the crowd would be stopping by their tables was the large conference badges proudly hung around their necks, bedazzled with LEDs and pinned with buttons that screamed “NERD” and “I have super powers.” The second clue may have been the multiple laptop bags on their shoulders; if anyone wonders whether MacBook Pro and iPad owners also need an iPad Mini, the answer is yes.

Clearly the group was not in town to gamble. Rather, the roughly 8,000 attendees, predominantly male, were here for Autodesk University. Held this year from Nov. 27 to 29, the annual event—now in its 20th year in the U.S., with spinoffs around the world—attracts tech-enthusiast architects, engineers, manufacturers, industrial designers, modelers, programmers, and educators. Or as Case Design founding partner Federico Negro put it during his firm’s Tuesday TweetUp: “We are the geekiest of the geeks.”

His assessment was reaffirmed with pride by others who had come from 99 countries to ogle CNC milling machines, modeling software, and 3D printers on display by 150-plus exhibitors, to participate in the 800-plus classes—a conference record—and to join friends and colleagues in witnessing the latest products releases from the company behind the eponymous event. Autodesk CEO and president Carl Bass’s take: “We are seriously a nerdy company.”

Cloud is King
The longstanding perception of Autodesk, perhaps best known for programs such as AutoCAD and Revit, as “nerdy” was pertinent given the conference’s primary theme: the cloud revolution. (The official tagline is “Learn. Connect. Explore.”) For the company, which repeatedly emphasized its push to the cloud, the growing popularity of Autodesk’s cloud-based tools means that its users, traditionally in the building and manufacturing industries, have gone mainstream. Since its launch in September 2011, Autodesk 360, the company’s cloud platform, has been accessed by nearly 15 million users who have created nearly 1 million visualizations and logged more than 3.5 million rendering hours. The number of users of its professional cloud-based services, such as Autodesk BIM 360 Field and PLM 360, and consumer-friendly mobile apps, such as SketchBook and Autodesk 123D, is also rapidly growing, the company announced.

Make no mistake: “Our main mission in life is to provide professional-based tools,” Bass says—a wise strategy given that these products comprise the vast majority of the company’s $2.3 billion annual revenue. But, he adds, it’s hard to argue with the potential of the consumer market now in reach, due to the connectivity proffered by the cloud.

Company Notes
During the conference, Autodesk launched several new cloud-based services and showcased success stories of users of its cloud-based tools. Its focus on mobile technology and programs in the cloud underscored the changing nature of design and construction: architects, engineers, and contractors collaborating from day one of building conception via cloud-based BIM tools, and construction workers toting iPads instead of drawing sets around job sites.

At Tuesday’s opening keynote, Autodesk introduced FormIt, a free iPad app for designers to conceptualize buildings on their actual project site; think digital napkin sketch with 3D modeling, real-time measuring, and shadow-study capabilities. Notably, designers can take their preliminary sketch models from the app directly into the BIM workflow to programs such as Revit and Vasari.

Autodesk also launched Fusion 360, a cloud-based 3D modeling program that supports an open-design environment, allowing designers to import and edit CAD data from other programs. Fusion 360 has a social media component that allows virtual collaboration, and it ties into the company’s portfolio of industrial design and manufacturing products, including PLM 360 and Simulation 360. The price point will appeal to small businesses, Bass says. “You only pay for what you use.” Fusion 360 will be available in early 2013.

Autodesk also announced a collaboration with Topcon, a manufacturer of precision positioning, surveying, and mapping products, to streamline the former’s BIM software with the latter’s on-site field positioning tools. And for designers and engineers involved in infrastructure design and construction, Autodesk debuted Project Mercury, a suite of programs, including Infrastructure Modeler, that will come out in 2013.