When you gather more than 10,000 BIM managers, AEC technologists, and software vendors in Las Vegas, the hype around digital design tools can overwhelm even the most enthusiastic participant. The 2016 Autodesk University (AU) convention, held Nov. 15 to 17 at the Venetian hotel, had no shortage of glitz and bombast to celebrate the software developer’s new products and workflows.
As a regular AU attendee, I tried to imagine the perspective of those unfamiliar with the AEC industry. After an afternoon walking the convention floor, one might believe that virtual reality (VR) was a staple of design practice, that big data was integrated seamlessly between architecture and construction, and that design teams, enabled by the array of powerful technologies on display, were operating at peak productivity, creativity, and efficiency.
The reality is much less idyllic and much more problematic. “Imagining Constructions Digital Future,” a recent research article published by McKinsey & Co., found that large construction projects “typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled,” and that “construction productivity has actually declined in some markets since the 1990s.”
While the less-than-impressive numbers may lead to skepticism about technology’s impact, they seemed only to fuel Autodesk’s ambitions to disrupt business as usual. These ambitions were the most pronounced in the themes of this year’s keynote addresses and product announcements: expanding uses for data, virtual reality, and new application programming interfaces (APIs).
Interactive Visualization Goes ‘Live’
Creating an interactive, game-like visualization of a building or interior environment frequently costs more than what a design contract allots. To make these types of presentation tools more broadly accessible to architects, Autodesk introduced Live Design this summer—and it was in the spotlight at this year’s convention. Touting an easy “click-to-cloud” process, Live provides a workflow for converting Autodesk Revit design models directly to an interactive visualization that can be presented to clients with minimal setup and computer requirements.
Interactive presentations hold high appeal for architects, who are always looking for new ways to market their ideas. However, managing client expectations about deliverables is also on their minds. Some designers I spoke with noted lingering concerns about the increased production pressures of delivering complete, “interaction-ready” models over more commonplace perspectives and animations.
Regardless, attendees were excited by the potential for Live to make interactive environments accessible to a wider range of firms that already use Revit.
Virtual Reality Moves Towards Collaboration
This year, conference attendees would have been hard pressed to avoid bumping into someone wearing a VR headset. In previous years, VR technologies had a healthy representation on the convention floor. This year, they were nearly ubiquitous.
This should come as no surprise after augmented reality (AR) and VR investments reached $1.1 billion in just the first two months of 2016, far surpassing 2015’s annual total of nearly $700 million. The result is a torrent of AR and VR products from Autodesk and companies, such as Iris VR, offering different experiences and advantages. For example, Autodesk Live provides easy connections into VR hardware such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
One of the more compelling VR demos came in the form of Autodesk’s VRED (Virtual Reality Editor), a photorealistic real-time visualization tool for reviewing designs now available commercially. The most interesting part of the demo was not the impressive rendering engine, but in how VR technology was used to facilitate collaboration.
Donning a VR headset can often be an isolating experience: You are wearing a clunky set of goggles and navigating through a building model alone while your colleagues look on incredulously. With VRED, Autodesk is hoping that VR can be a tool for designers in different locations to collaborate in the same virtual environment.
Many of the VR demos focused on automotive design. Two participants could interact with the same virtual car and modify the model together. While the demonstration was not related to architecture, building industry attendees were unfazed. “We’re getting a lot of architects and engineers coming up and trying this out,” remarked one demo supervisor. “You can see the wheels turning in their heads as to what this could mean for collaborating on a space together in VR.”
APIs Will Connect Building Data Workflows
A common thread throughout many of the latest product presentations this year was a platform called Forge. First introduced last year, Forge represents a push by Autodesk to integrate products and services under a common set of application programming interfaces (APIs). For example, the Forge “Data Management” API let software developers customize cloud tools and workflows for connecting models, external data, and Autodesk’s A360 collaboration platform. Autodesk has clear ambitions to use the Forge platform to address new data opportunities while continuing a longstanding strategy to move subscription products in the cloud.
Data interoperability continues to be a growing concern in the building industry and Autodesk seems to be positioning its newest platforms to address this issue. Architects and builders are often faced with compatibility issues, which lead to time-consuming rework and manual data integration. Autodesk highlighted a compelling case study by a contractor, JE Dunn, which used Forge to create a single dashboard that integrated cost estimation, 3D coordination, and enterprise resource planning.
At the Product Innovation keynote, Autodesk unveiled the beginnings of an AEC-specific product built with Forge APIs, called “Project Quantum.” The tools appeared to be early in development—I found it surprising that they were showcased on a mainstage keynote—and demonstrated discipline-specific “workspaces” that will streamline data flow among a team of diverse stakeholders. While the details on Project Quantum remain thin for now, attendees were both intrigued and slightly confused. Does Project Quantum signal an entirely new platform for building design and delivery? Or is it a tool that will need the integration of other desktop products, such as Revit? I certainly look forward to hearing more about Project Quantum in 2017.
Motivating the Change-Adverse
For the final keynote, Autodesk senior vice president and chief marketing officer Andrew Anagnost summarized the convention themes as part of a call to embrace change. He recalled the opening remarks of chief technology officer Jeff Kowalski that described a design process built upon heady tech concepts such as “machine learning” and “generative design.” He also referred to the keynote of CEO Carl Bass that highlighted the importance of cloud technologies in improving team efficacy. “We are building tools for your teams, not individuals,” Bass said. “Unless your teams are collaborating well, you can't compete.”
Anyone who has attended Autodesk University in the past five years will find these ideas more than familiar. The bolder proclamations were made more grounded this year with new project examples, such as the space planning tool by The Living, an Autodesk Studio based in New York, which used generative tools to find optimal configurations. Meanwhile, an impressive Generative Design pavilion utilized computational techniques to derive complex limestone forms and a fabric canopy.
At previous AUs, it was difficult to see how the big picture ideas discussed in the keynote speeches manifested in the Autodesk product line. This remains the case when looking at flagship tools broadly adopted by the AEC industry. For example, Autodesk recently published its first public development roadmap for Revit, which appears to be evolving along a path of incremental improvement, not radical disruption.
However, this year, Autodesk’s bolder proclamations have seemed to result in real traction behind platforms, such as Forge, and an expanded suite of VR tools, including Live and VRED. Autodesk will enjoy success in selling its data-savvy customers on the new products as well as in motivating software developers to build on top of them. However, the company will need to continue crafting its message around newer offerings, such as Project Quantum, as it is not entirely clear how it will support or compete with its more established tools.
Meanwhile, the task of motivating the greater AEC industry to embrace the disruptive ideas that Autodesk’s data-driven technologies can enable will fall to innovative professionals, like those in attendance at AU.