AEC from the Ground Up-Digital Multimedia and Presentation Trends

31 May, 2006 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

The digital AEC industry continues to mature, often through acquisitions.

Every year I look at design presentation products available for the AEC industry. The trend this year is the consolidation of many long-time applications under single management. Among the companies that have made recent acquisitions are Autodesk, Adobe and Google. The good news is that in all cases, the acquired software will remain available and continue to improve.

What have these acquisitions done for users? So far, it's hard to tell. After its acquisition of Alias, Autodesk definitely is interested in tying all its visualization products together for the AEC market. Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia (a leading Internet tool creator) gives Adobe superb Internet animation and interactive tools to go along with its popular Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere software. Google holds it vision close to the chest, but has given the SketchUp team the latitude to continue to improve that excellent product.

Many excellent software products can create inter-active presentations. I can mention only a few here because of space limitations. Others you may want to investigate are ArchVision (, Quadri-Space ( and Right Hemisphere (


Autodesk splits AEC presentation projects into three phases: ideation and conceptual design; in-project visualizations; and late-stage customer review, sale of idea and downstream advertising and marketing. To satisfy the requirements of each phase, Autodesk has assembled a series of products—Maya, 3ds max, VIZ, Combustion and Sketchbook Pro—with differing price points.

VIZ. VIZ is Autodesk's lowest priced product for creating photorealistic visualizations, models and architectural walk-through and flybys. Users can choose from a variety of renderers (mental ray, scan line and third-party products such as Vray and Brazil). VIZ is compatible with AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop and the Revit family of products.

3ds Max. This product includes all the tools and connectivity provided in Autodesk VIZ 2007, plus tools for far more involved, realistic and sophisticated visualizations. It offers features such as event-driven particles, character animation, real-world physics and true subobject animation.

Maya. Maya (originally an Alias product) is Autodesk's high-end 3D animation, modeling and rendering software. A number of boutique architectural visualization companies have added Maya to their toolkit to complement 3ds max. Maya has excellent conceptual modeling tools, a Toon shader for nonphotorealistic rendering and a unique Paint Effects engine that enables artists to quickly paint 3D vegetation for landscaping details.

Sketchbook Pro. You can sketch, annotate and present your visual ideas on a tablet PC or Wacom tablet using this stylus-based software, first developed by Alias. The gesture-based user interface is built around Alias' patented Marking Menu technology. It's perfect for architects and designers who prefer to sketch their concepts by hand, but need the convenience, power and versatility of the computer. Sketchbook Pro images also can be brought into Autodesk VIZ, 3ds max or Maya and used to create 3D geometry.

Combustion. Autodesk Combustion 4 is an all-in-one professional compositing application that works with both 3ds max and VIZ 2007. Users can composite 3D animations created in VIZ or 3ds max with live footage or images while fine-tuning the results without re-rendering their 3D scene. Create broadcast-quality effects, transitions and titling to give your visualization animations a professional look.

 Autodesk 3ds max provides tools for involved, realistic and sophisticated visualizations.
Autodesk 3ds max provides tools for involved, realistic and sophisticated visualizations.

In the ideation and conceptual design phase, 3ds max, VIZ and Maya are used to create powerful visuals and communicate ideas. Users can perform sophisticated light and shadow studies to assess how a building will look before final design data is produced. The models created can then be sent to Architectural Desktop, AutoCAD and Revit for use as a reference.

Basic ideas may need to be visualized during the construction documentation stage. To meet this need, Architectural Desktop and AutoCAD have VIZ-based visualization systems. The Revit products have their own visualization system and are also compatible with VIZ.

In late-stage customer reviews and the actual selling of the project, money shots are often required. This stage is where 3ds max and VIZ again play a role. Once projects are approved, design data can be reused in VIZ, 3ds max or Maya to create sales and marketing materials such as Web sites, interactive presentations and advertisements.

Tying this workflow together is the Autodesk DWG file format, which allows design data to be stored and shared among the products.


Adobe this year acquired Macromedia, which provides products for multimedia authoring and Web development. With this acquisition, Adobe now provides software and solutions that address all the 2D presentation, interactive and Internet needs of the AEC community. These tools also manage aspects of project lifecycles, providing the ability for clients and project teams to collaborate securely on documents, images and other information. Adobe products include Photoshop CS2, Creative Suite 2, Acrobat 7 Professional, Acrobat 3D, Premiere Pro and After Effects, Macromedia Flash and Macromedia Breeze.

Photoshop CS2. Photoshop CS2 is the professional standard in desktop digital imaging. It's useful for engineering and architecture workflow, but especially for preparing materials for presentation. As an example, rendered 3D models can be combined with actual photos to create a more realistic and compelling scene. With this software, you can articulate your vision with built-in visualization and presentation features. The Vanishing Point feature automatically adjusts elements to match the perspective of any image area. Smart Objects allow you to integrate vector artwork (basis of 2D CAD) that remains live and scalable and automatically updates whether you edit in Illustrator CS2 software or Photoshop CS2.

Among the tools most useful for the AEC industry is Photoshop s Vanishing Point, which automatically adjusts elements to match the perspective of any image area.
Among the tools most useful for the AEC industry is Photoshop s Vanishing Point, which automatically adjusts elements to match the perspective of any image area.

Creative Suite 2. InDesign CS2, Illustrator CS2 and GoLive CS2 software benefit architectural and engineering firms by allowing them to produce professionally designed documents and Web sites that showcase work at its best. Because these are all Adobe products, the tight integration among the applications increases productivity. Illustrator graphics and Photoshop images can be incorporated easily into documents and Web sites. InDesign, Adobe's desktop publishing solution, provides fast, integrated output to PDF files for streamlining proofing and RFP (request for proposal) submissions.

Acrobat 7 Professional and Acrobat 3D. Using the widely available PDF format and Acrobat 7 Professional or Acrobat 3D, AEC professionals can protect design information and intellectual property from unauthorized access. Project binders can be assembled and shared as a single PDF file that contains drawings, 3D designs and project information. You can publish, distribute and collaborate on 2D and 3D designs with anyone on the extended project team who uses the free Adobe Reader. This system reduces errors and design changes, improves the efficiency and accuracy of reviews and eliminates the need for special viewing tools.

Premiere Pro and After Effects. These solutions are for advanced users who want to create richer video presentations. With these programs, you can create, edit and composite videos and video animations on your desktop with a standard computer.

Macromedia Flash. Flash Professional 8 is used for designing and authoring interactive content rich with video, graphics and animation for unique, engaging Web sites, presentations and mobile content.

Macromedia Breeze. Breeze is a very exciting presentation tool. It's a Web communication system that lets you reach your audience anytime with engaging multimedia content. You can use Breeze for online meetings, training courses and on-demand presentations. I highly recommend that you take a look at all Adobe products—especially the Breeze presentation at

Google SketchUp 5.0

As I have often said, in my opinion SketchUp is the best AEC multimedia and presentation software on the market—its continuing acceptance and expanding user base proves it. Versions for Macintosh and Windows are available. The latest release, SketchUp 5, presents a more up-to-date interface, but everything still works the same as in the previous versions. SketchUp 5 includes new Sandbox tools that can model topography. Contours can be imported, and the new Drape tool can project roads onto the topography. A DEM (digital elevation model) import lets users work from digital terrain models and point-cloud surveys. An improvement to the Push/Pull tool allows users to create multiple levels, and the Smoove Tool allows building of berms and hills.

Google SketchUp can model intricate projects just as easily as it can model conceptual ones. Image created by Alan Fraser, FormFonts 3D (<a"/>
Google SketchUp can model intricate projects just as easily as it can model conceptual ones. Image created by Alan Fraser, FormFonts 3D (

SketchUp has always been great for creating sketchy, loose and tentative models needed at the front end of the design process. New depth cued edges make lines in the foreground of the model darker than lines in the background, adding that spatial pop to the work. The Endpoints feature highlights the corners of an object, and Edges Off turns edges off for a softer look.

The DWG/DXF import and export uses the latest DWG Direct libraries, and the 3DS exporter (very important) has been enhanced so that meshes greater than 65K vertices or faces are split into multiple meshes.

Although the included SketchUp tutorials are excellent, be sure to check out Bonnie Roskes' new SketchUp 5.0 book (available through the SketchUp Web site), which is filled with tips and tricks. A test drive is worth a thousand words. To this end SketchUp provides an 8-hour free trial in a fully functional downloadable version of the program. In addition, a free version with limited output options is available through Google Earth. Google also has launched what it calls the 3D Warehouse (, where users can upload and download SketchUp models. At $495 or $95 as an upgrade, SketchUp program is a best buy for the buck.


Wacom s new Cintiq 21UX interactive pen display ($2,500) combines the advantages of an LCD monitor with the control, comfort and productivity of Wacom's most sophisticated cordless, battery-free tablet technology. By using a pen directly on the screen, you work much more quickly and naturally. I have heard many fellow professionals say that they don't design on computers because they think better with pencil and paper. I think the Wacom Cintiq has the same feel and ease as pencil and paper. This device uses resistive technology that even allows you to use a plastic triangle or ruler on the screen.

Wacom s Cintiq 21UX interactive pen display allows you to work digitally as if you were using pencil and paper.
Wacom s Cintiq 21UX interactive pen display allows you to work digitally as if you were using pencil and paper.

Informatix Piranesi 4

Available for Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows, Piranesi is a 2.5D specialized painting tool that allows users to start with a simple rendering of a 3D model and quickly develop it into high-quality images ready for client presentations. This program responds to depth and material information stored in the rendering. Piranesi 4 contains more than 100 software enhancements and 300 new high-resolution cutout and texture images. One of the most popular features is its ability to place 2D cutouts (elements of scenery such as people or vegetation) into a scene with automatic sizing and perspective matching. With Piranesi 4, users can place 3D models into their painting environments as 3D cutouts. These 3D cutouts can be viewed from any angle and are ready for further rendering.

Piranesi users start with a simple rendering of a 3D model and develop it into high-quality images.
Piranesi users start with a simple rendering of a 3D model and develop it into high-quality images.

Piranesi often is used for indoor or nighttime scenes, and new illumination fades allow mimicking of spot and strip lighting. New radial fades fade outwards from a 2D or 3D line; for example, to mimic metal tubes. You can choose between Fade to Transparent or Fade to Color, and you can insert new cutouts with fade automatically applied.

More than 300 new cutout and texture images have been added to the thousands already available in Piranesi's library, in addition to new 3D sample models created by ArchVision, SketchUp and MicroGDS. Users can download a 30-day trial version at the company's Web site.

Xara Xtreme

If you are looking for an excellent vector-drawing program at a very good price, I recommend Xara Xtreme—an easy-to-use, lightning-fast vector graphics program. Xara Xtreme lowers the barrier to entry to vector graphics by focusing on creating high-speed, high-quality features that directly benefit users and creative process. Xtreme provides the graphics tools most needed by business, hobby and professional designers. Whether users need a business card, a logo, Web site images, mixed-media flyer or another creative outlet, Xara Xtreme can handle it all at a cost of $79–$89 for the new retail package.

Xara Xtreme provides excellent vector-drawing capabilities for a low price.
Xara Xtreme provides excellent vector-drawing capabilities for a low price.

H. Edward Goldberg, AIA, NCARB, is a practicing licensed architect and AEC industry analyst. Ed's full-length book, Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2006: A Comprehensive Tutorial (Prentice Hall; is now available, and a 2007 version will come out this fall. Visit or e-mail

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