Design Visualization

Umbra Levels Up to Take On 3D Optimization for AEC

30 Jun, 2018 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

After mastering occlusion culling for video game engines, the company is expanding into CAD territory with a platform that serves AEC professionals’ needs.


Professional users of 3D graphics owe much to the video game industry. Umbra, which develops 3D optimization solutions, is determined to increase that debt, it seems. Known chiefly for its contributions to game engines, Umbra is now “on a mission to display any 3D content in real time on any device,” according to the company, and is targeting the AEC realm in particular.

“We did so well in the gaming industry, we pretty much saturated the market,” said Shawn Adamek, chief strategy officer at Umbra. Searching for a new market in need of its expertise, Umbra was spoiled for choice: “3D is getting more and more complex, and data sets are getting larger and larger,” Adamek noted, particularly in industries such as mechanical engineering, automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding, and medical devices. At the same time, more and more people want to view data on smartphones and tablets, in browsers, and in augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) experiences.

Among the many options for a new challenge, “AEC really bubbled up to the top,” Adamek said. One advantage was that “buildings don’t have a lot of moving parts,” so AEC was deemed an easier first step than fields that would require complex animations. And the need is clear: building information modeling (BIM) models are unwieldy, he explained, and take a long time to render. In addition, it can take days or weeks to simplify a model enough to move it onto a mobile platform, he said.

The Umbra team decided that the best way to tackle these challenges was with a cloud-based platform. Last October, Umbra launched Composit, which it calls “the first fully automated optimization and delivery platform for even the largest and most complex 3D data” — including polygon models and point clouds. Composit moves data sets up to the cloud, processes them, and makes the resulting visualizations available for streaming down to web browsers, smartphones, and other devices — all “with the single click of a button,” Adamek said.

In February of this year, Composit was fleshed out with the “minimum requirements for AEC users,” and the platform now claims more than a thousand individual AEC users from dozens of companies, according to Adamek. “We’re seeing some really nice progress there,” he said.

The Process of Data Processing

Once the user exports a data set to Composit — say, through an Autodesk Revit, Autodesk Navisworks, or Graphisoft ArchiCAD plug-in — the system divides it into smaller portions, so processing with Umbra’s algorithms can be distributed among multiple Amazon Web Server (AWS) instances. As with other compute-intensive chores, chewing through the processing tasks in parallel results in much speedier completion. Four large instances suffice for most needs, Adamek reported, but a few companies have requested more in order to complete projects in even less time — a request that can always be accommodated (for a price), thanks to the near-infinite computing resources available in the cloud. “There’s no limit to the scalability,” Adamek confirmed.

A recent case study provides proof of Composit’s ability to scale up to very large data sets: a 3D model of the entire city of Helsinki, Finland. The project began with a point cloud generated from aerial photographs, which was processed into a 700-GB texture-mapped 3D mesh. Once this mesh was optimized in Composit, the entire data set could be streamed to users. Most models processed by Composit are much more modest in size — in the range of 250 to 500 MB, according to Adamek.

The processing comprises a variety of optimizations, including occlusion culling. This means that content that can’t be seen by the user in his or her current view is ignored by the system (until it comes into view again). Only visible shapes and textures are rendered and streamed, so resources aren’t wasted on anything that’s hidden from view. Solving this particular challenge is what gave Umbra its prominence in the gaming industry, Adamek said, leading Unity Technologies and other game engine customers to license Umbra’s technology.

When processing is complete, the data set is restructured into a database and stored in a user account, making it accessible for client viewing at any location with Internet service. Users can send secure tokens to collaborators and clients, enabling them to view the stored content via a web browser, mobile device, or AR-capable device. To ensure acceptable frame rates, the system automatically adjusts what it delivers depending on the capabilities of the user’s device and the level of detail.

Adapted for AEC

As Adamek sees it, Composit offers AEC users three primary kinds of value. First is the “upstream value proposition,” which addresses the pain point of project reviews. With contributors in different locations, “it becomes very challenging to be able to sit down and do a visual review with people abroad,” Adamek observed. But with Composit, a project leader can collate a BIM model, post it, and invite as many viewers as desired, all of whom can leave notes on the model during their review. “It’s really making the review cycles a lot more effective and more efficient,” Adamek said.

Secondly, there is value for sales and marketing — especially in architecture, Adamek said. Showing a customer an immersive AR model is simply more compelling, fresh, and interesting than a hand-built or 3D-printed tabletop model, he believes: “It’s an amazing tool for a salesperson bidding to the owner,” for example. “You can actually feel like you’re in the environment.”

And the final benefit — which is “ultimately, by far the most valuable” of the three, Adamek said — is the ability to stream AR models to mobile devices on building sites. “You can see what you’re going to build before you actually build it,” he enthused. Rework in the construction industry is a “trillion-dollar worldwide problem,” and reducing it with the help of AR overlays could have a huge financial impact. Adamek doesn’t think the construction industry will rush to embrace a major disruptor to workflows, however. “We think it’ll really take several years for this to take hold,” he predicted.

Continuing to Improve Composit

Umbra began a beta test of Composit last summer, and about a dozen of the companies involved provided “very detailed feedback” that has heavily influenced development of the platform, said Adamek: “Half of our feature set is based on feedback from customers, to be honest.” Those features include the ability to scale models up to one-to-one size; anchoring data sets to real-world locations; and leaving annotations within a model, then “teleporting” instantly to those locations when navigating within the model.

Umbra is now focusing its development efforts around turning individual layers on and off within models, which is “a strong ask” from users; automating point cloud handling, making it a one-click process to convert the raw point cloud into a 3D mesh; expanding anchoring capabilities; and eventually, supporting 4D, so users can see how their project is evolving throughout the entire timeline of the build.

Adamek is grateful for the input from AEC customers. “[Prior to this initiative,] we were geniuses at 3D, not at AEC,” he laughed. That applies not just to features, but also to pricing. Early on, Umbra learned it’s “very difficult” to sell sitewide licenses to AEC enterprises such as Gensler or AECOM; firms of this type prefer to adopt the technology more gradually, on a per-project basis, Adamek explained. Umbra, therefore, has made Composit available at a base cost of $319 per month, per seat. This “creator” license gives users the ability to put data on the cloud for optimization; those who only need to view data visualizations, and not create them, can use a “much cheaper” viewer license, Adamek explained.

Going forward, Umbra has big plans for continued development of Composit. To augment the current lineup of plug-ins for Revit, NavisWorks, and ArchiCAD, Umbra is working on plug-ins for Rhino, 3ds Max, and SketchUp. Support for VR and AR platforms, which currently includes Microsoft Hololens, Apple ARKit, and Samsung Gear VR, will be extended to more options. The company even has its sights set on “true multiuser functionality,” Adamek reported, which may become available next year. “We will continue to improve [Composit] …we’re in constant pursuit of [making the process effortless], it has to be really easy,” Adamek said.


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