New Playgrounds for the Engineers (Tech Trends Feature)1 May, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong
Autodesk and SolidWorks labs open doors to R&D.
What do the brains behind CAD labs look like? A blog entry by Scott Sheppard from Autodesk Labs ("Beyond the Paper," February 20, 2007, http://dwf.blogs.com) shows his colleagues Josh Natarajan and John Schmier, appropriately attired in white coats and goggles to look like Einstein wannabes. Obviously, that's the outcome of a pair of rambunctious software developers playing the part of the quintessential lab technician. For a more accurate picture, you can turn to the head honchos of two rival labs: Brian Mathews, vice-president of Autodesk Labs, and Brian Harrison, director of SolidWorks Labs. According to both, you'd be surprised at how much the minds behind their respective labs resemble you. Because people like you—everyday CAD users—are the ones that'll help shape the technologies brewing behind the labs.
Autodesk Labs Goes Live
In June 2006, Shaan Hurley, the guardian of Autodesk's My Feedback Portal, wrote, "The public version of the Autodesk Labs is now live." With that simple one-liner, Autodesk's site for technology previews and product prototypes quietly came online.
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Autodesk's Mathews pointed out that in the traditional software development cycle, potential customers get to voice their opinions at two major junctures: in the idea-gathering phase, when the product managers are inter-viewing them to understand their pain points, and in the beta phase, when they're testing the early build.
"The problem is, when you get to beta, it's too late to make major changes in the architecture of the software," Mathews said. "At that stage, you'll have to concentrate on bug fixes only." By establishing a public site like Autodesk Labs, product managers can continuously monitor the user community's reactions to the features and products that are still in development.
Vespa Makes an Impression
In September 2006, a customary press release announcing Autodesk Labs made its rounds. A month later, Auto-desk Impression appeared on the Web site as a download. Previously code-named Vespa, the product allows users to transform DWG drawings into colorful illustrations. Soon, the media and the bloggers began to take note ("Something for Everyone: Autodesk Labs," hailed AECCafe [October 2, 2006, www.aeccafe.com] and "Autodesk Impression: Art Meets CAD?" mused RobiNZ CAD Blog [October 20, 2006, http://rcd.typepad.com]). "It's not often that Autodesk gives away the first version of a new software application," wrote AEC Magazine ("Autodesk Impression," December 7, 2006, http://aecmag.com).
The metamorphosis of Impression, Mathews said, exemplifies the type of dialogs that can lead to significant refinement of a technology. "Look at Impression's early user interface, for example," he pointed out. "There're all these different sorts of panes for different types of activities. The feedback from the customers was, 'this is taking up a lot of screen space.'" In addition, the users reported the need to repeatedly move the floating panes out of the way to get into a different area of the drawing hindered their work. "We made a rather large change to the user interface [see figure 1]. We would have never made such a change to something in beta," Mathews admitted.
Figure 1. In later versions of Autodesk Impression, the floating palettes have been replaced by numerous windows that are less intrusive and more streamlined.
Last December, Autodesk University attendees streamed into the gondola-encircled Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. They saw Autodesk President and CEO Carl Bass don a pair of exotic eyewear with six multicolored lenses. They also got a preview of Project Freewheel, a Web-based DWF viewer that requires no additional software installation—no applet, no down-load, nothing. Now the technology in development is distributed through Autodesk Labs, and a new release of the Web service is available at http://freewheel.autodesk.com.
"There were lots of requests to improve printing with Freewheel," Mathews said. Users weren't satisfied with the low-resolution printing that was available over the Web. What's good enough for airline boarding passes certainly isn't adequate for CAD parts. "First, we thought there was nothing we could do," Mathews added. Eventually, the engineers figured out a way to improve browser-based printing.
From his blog, Autodesk Labs' Sheppard explained, "Now that printing has been added, people have been curious as to how that works . . . Project Freewheel uses its rendering engine to convert the DWF file to an image file at 200 DPI (a browser limitation) for the requested paper size." ("Beyond the Paper," December 26, 2006, http://dwf.blogs.com).
SolidWorks Labs Launches
At the February 2007 SolidWorks World in New Orleans, SolidWorks CEO John McEleney took the stage at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, a short drive from sizzling barbecue shrimp joints on Bourbon Street. In his main stage presentation, McEleney declared the company's new software test site was open to the public.
"Why wait for the next product launch to find out what SolidWorks R&D is doing? You shouldn't," read the official announcement. "That's why SolidWorks Corporation today launched SolidWorks Labs, an online destination that lets product designers [see] behind the curtain of SolidWorks R&D. They can tinker with emerging technologies, test-drive new SolidWorks functionality through their Web browser and weigh in on the company's product direction."
The Invisible Interface
"Some ideas may be a bit too radical for the core user base," said SolidWorks' Harrison. "So we say, 'Let's drop them into a new product so we can see what people think.'" That's essentially how ZoomIn started.
A presentation and design review tool, ZoomIn sports an interface that's comparable to the first-person shooter computer game environments. For the most part, menu items and tool bars remain hidden, accessible through certain preassigned keys: P for animation, E for exploding and Z for zooming out, for example. During preparation, users can load a virtual backdrop (such as a kitchen setting or a factory floor), paint the model with preloaded materials (cast steel, dimpled plastic or burnished brass), select a background music track and set animation path. Afterward, a click of the launch button begins the show. The trouble is, some users didn't quite know how to leave the show (figure 2).
Figure 2. Based on user feedback, SolidWorks added the Setup button in the lower-right corner of ZoomIn's presentation screen.
"Some people asked, 'When I'm in this mode, how do I get out?'" Harrison said. Someone familiar with computer games might have easily guessed that the ESC key would bring them back to the setup page, but that wasn't the case with some ZoomIn users. "A lot of them were clicking on the X on the upper right corner, which canceled out the program," explained Harrison. So the ZoomIn development team added an inconspicuous Setup button for returning to the gateway screen.
Community Building in the Works
SolidWorks Labs has internally discussed the possibility of building a discussion forum or a blog, Harrison said, but "considering the site was just launched, we don't want to overpromise," he cautioned. "There're some discussions already going on among news groups, but we'd like to formalize that so people have a place to go to talk about these products."
Ricky Jordan, a mechanical design engineer who maintains a CAD blog (www.rickyjordan.net), has seen a fair amount of activities on the page devoted to SolidWorks Labs. When Harrison made a cameo appearance on the site, Lin Shaodum, another blogger, came forward with "The ZoomIn program does not have a Resize or Restore button, it only can be minimized or maximized." Two days later, Harrison responded by saying "We are expecting the product to run full-screen only . . . that's what you'd do, typically, when you present, right? What are your thoughts based on that comment?"
Survivor for CAD
In a podcast series sponsored by his company, Austin O'Malley, CTO of SolidWorks, said, "Based on the feedback we get from users, these ideas [featured on SolidWorks Labs] might evolve into a new product, they might end up as a feature in an existing product or they might be shelved."
In addition to ZoomIn, SolidWorks Labs currently houses Drawings Now, which, similar to Autodesk Freewheel, lets users share CAD drawings from a browser; COSMOSXpress Now, which lets users upload a design file from a browser, conduct FEA analysis and view the results online; DWGnavigator, which lets users manage and search their DXF and DWG drawings; and Sliderule, which lets users search and locate engineering partners.
"Has [the user community] voted anything off the island? Not yet," Mathews said. That's because the ideas that have made it to the Labs are those that have survived the company's own internal screen process, so they're fairly robust.
Besides Autodesk Impression and Autodesk Freewheel, Autodesk Labs features 2D to 3D Tool for Inventor for streamlining the preparation of 2D views; Feature Recognition for Inventor 11 for converting neutral 3D CAD (STEP, SAT or IGES solids) models into fully featured Inventor 11 models; Autodesk DGNV8 Translator for handling AutoCAD DWG and Bentley MicroStation 2D V8 DGN files; and Google Earth Extension for publishing AutoCAD 2007 models into Google Earth.
Both Autodesk's Mathews and SolidWorks' Harrison have expressed an interest in getting feedback not only about the products but also about their respective sites. Visit the two Labs, put the products under your own microscope—a white lab coat is optional—and make your voice heard.
Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf at earthlink.net.