Architects represent only a small portion of Autodesk’s billion-dollar global technology and software empire, but the developments unveiled at this year’s Autodesk University (AU), held at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas from Dec. 1 to Dec. 3, have significant professional consequences. Though several products and tools were introduced there, including the noteworthy sustainable design and analysis program Insight 360, the big-picture takeaways were the architectural implications behind Autodesk’s vision for the future of work.
After the keynote’s rousing opener, which brought together nothing less than thumping club music, strobes, glow sticks, break-dancers, and a dozen Stormtroopers to a proudly nerdy and enthusiastic audience of 9,000-plus software developers, CAD managers, architects, and engineers clutching mobile devices, Autodesk's CEO Carl Bass and its chief technology officer Jeff Kowalski got down to business. They set out a challenge to designers: "Let's shift the focus from making people want our stuff to making stuff people want. … We’re in the augmented age."
What is the augmented age? Kowalski reviewed the history of rapid shifts in digital design tools for context. First came what he called "passive design tools," which only work with the user's explicit instructions. Then came generative design tools, where the user establishes goals and constraints that direct a computer to develop a solution set of possibilities. Following was intuitive design, in which the tools are, as Kowalski put it, like loyal dogs ready to walk at the sight of the leash. That is, they can pay attention, remember what happens next, and understand patterns.
Which brings us to today—and tomorrow.
Autodesk is predicting a turn toward what it calls empathic computing. The next
generation of digital tools will learn from the user and from user behavior. Instead
of "you learning a design tool, the design tool can learn you," Kowalski said. Along
that vein, here are a few themes that stood out at this year's event.
The Future of Work
Architecture is very much about selling a vision—something that Autodesk does well. At the construction symposium keynote, "Construction Launchpad: Start Here, Go Anywhere," Autodesk product manager Nicolas Fonta urged users to “put your hero building into the right context and let it help you tell your narrative.” The link between architecture and storytelling was emphasized several times, coinciding with the announcement that the real-time gaming engine Stingray (formerly Bitsquid), a recent acquisition of Autodesk, is now integrated with 3DStudio Max and Maya to power Live Design, a new ecosystem of apps and services for interactive presentations.
I visited the AU exhibit hall to experience Live Design for myself. The demo featured a Revit model brought into 3DStudio Max and then made fully interactive in virtual reality by the Stingray engine. Wearing a headset, I walked around a massing model of San Francisco and entered a penthouse apartment, where I could point and click to see the structural framing and ductwork behind partitions, adjust window shades to see patterns of light and shadow, swap in different furniture or materials from a specified interiors library, and move walls and windows. In the future, Autodesk insinuates, immersion will be a design deliverable.
Role of Wearables in Experience and Expertise
Many wearable technologies were on display at AU, including the Smart Helmet prototype by Los Angeles–based augmented-reality developer Daqri, which sells itself as "the gap between potential and experience." The Smart Helmet looks like a standard construction hard hat, but it integrates cameras, sensors, and GPS information to enable a remote user to see a worker’s viewpoint and to help construction sites become safer and more efficient.
In the construction forum keynote and later
in the exhibit hall, Daqri CEO Brian Mullins described how the Smart Helmet can
also bring analog data online by allowing a worker examining a quality-control
issue in the field to ask a remote expert for advice in real time. The expert
can then virtually guide the worker firsthand through a repair in an "amplification
of expertise," Mullins said. Daqri recently sent 250 helmets—the company’s
largest shipment to date—to a steel mill in Kazakhstan to test the technology.
Workers found the helmets comfortable enough to wear for their entire shift. Mullins believes that in the future wearable technology will become a typical part of
Streamlined Collaboration between Designers and Makers
Another example is Hive, a full-scale architectural pavilion designed using Dynamo and constructed of bamboo and threaded fiber to compose tensegrity modules embedded with wireless LEDs. Any AU attendee could participate in its construction over the course of the event, wearing watches loaded with a custom Hive app that tracked their progress in order to provide interactive instructions, including photographs and diagrams of each step of assembly, and lasers directing them to a part of the pavilion that they should interact with. No additional training was provided.
Once the tensegrity modules were added, robotic arms hoisted the overall form while a digital "foreman engine" dashboard tracked, monitored, and coordinated all aspects of the human-to-machine collaboration. The robots’ speed, accuracy, and a tireless work ethic complemented the contextual awareness, creative design skills, and assembly finesse of humans, exemplifying the thesis that Kowalski laid out in the keynote: "Robots can augment our ability to design and make things."
These are just some of the many stories from this year’s AU. Additional highlights include MIT Media Lab professor Hugh Herr’s talk on how he designed his own prosthetic legs; the story of Amsterdam research and development group MX3D’s robotic work that they say allows them "to draw and build in steel"; the inspiration behind Autodesk’s Edyn sensor prototype for a connected garden that analyzes soil types and tells users what to plant where; and the collaborative work by Autodesk's The Living studio, which worked with Airbus researchers to use what founder David Benjamin described in the design-computation symposium as slime mold–inspired digital algorithms and additive manufacturing to develop a prototype for stronger and lighter bionic partitions for airplane interiors.While Autodesk continues to set the pace in developing—and acquiring—forward-thinking tools and software, it also consistently provides conceptual and intellectual leadership in architecture, technology, and multidisciplinary communication. By bringing together individuals and firms that are spearheading change in the profession into an annual, colossal event, Autodesk is proving that we are in fact closer to the augmented age. And that’s not such a scary thing.