LAS VEGAS, NV - Within the sprawling billion dollar software factory called Autodesk which churns out megalithic software releases that take man years of labor to produce and a vast army of marketers to promote, there lives a small and agile group of developers that have somehow been allowed to roam free, work on projects of their choosing, who have succeeded in creating some of the most interesting and exciting applications I have seen in this market.
I met with Doug Look, Sr Strategic Designer of Autodesk Labs, as this group is called (http://labs.autodesk.com/). The concept appears similar to Google Labs, where the search engine giant hosts many "not ready for prime time" applications, many of them quite useful, all of them for free. Same idea here. Doug's group is also not constrained by profit pressures and gives away all its applications.
Autodesk Labs made the biggest splash with Inventor LT, a surprisingly robust solid modeler that differs from its commercial counterpart mainly in its limitation to parts (not assemblies) and geographies (can only be downloaded in US and a few other select countries). Though not developed by the Autodesk Labs team, the Labs site serves as its distribution center.
Here is a sampling of other projects Doug's group is working on:
- ProjectDraw. Web-based drag and drop drawing application like Visio (or should I say, like Actrix, an application Autodesk no longer supports). You can just go to http://draw.labs.autodesk.com and start drawing -- you don't need to download any software. You will need to register with Labs before you can save the drawing, but after that you can save to a few formats. Not DWG or DXF, though.
- The coolest application is a "multi-touch" screen that is at once a giant display and an interface. Not a big deal, you say? Sure, Apple has a touch screen on the iPhone and the latest iPod. But this baby is huge and it's called multi-touch for a reason: touching it at multiple points of contact can generate greater variety of commands. For example, touching the screen with 10 fingertips will reset the model and the view when used with Autodesk Design Review. I tried it and was able to zoom, pan, rotate easily and naturally -- something I have not been able to do with other 3D input devices. It's not cheap (the screen itself costs $100,000) but according to its manufacturer, the military is already a big customer. I can see it quite at home in a big corporate office. Certainly, no one would fall asleep during that design review. (see how it in action on Mark Kikers blog)
- Labs is also doing much with searches, both metadata (content) and visual (shape) searches. What a boon to be able to locate a part that already exists -- perhaps one your company already has designed -- rather than make it from scratch! Currently, the metadata search will look through a list of AEC content sites only, but a mechanical oriented search is being considered. The visual search uses VizSeek technology and can start with a sketch (you do it online), a 2D drawing, 3D model (assuming you have a similar shape, I guess) and even a photograph. The sketch input did not work so well when it was demonstrated but it is a work in progress.
If you have a few moments, you should definitely check out the applications available at Autodesk Labs. There are too many neat things to mention here. Even if you don't see anything you can use at the moment, bookmark this page because I expect Doug's industrious and motivated little group to unleash several more handy, gee-whiz gems in the future.
See a more complete list of Autodesk Labs technology on display at AU on here.