Design Visualization

Seeing Is Believing: Visualization for CAD

13 Feb, 2011 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

Cadalyst Labs Report: Experts and newbies alike are using the power of visualization to communicate ideas throughout design workflows.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of Cadalyst magazine. Except where noted, the images that accompany this feature were submitted by Cadalyst readers during our Call for Renderings in October 2010.

Design visualization is coming of age. Once a pursuit that required special talent, dedicated equipment, and countless hours or even days of effort, the process of rendering a CAD model today can be relatively easy and, in some cases, instantaneous. Eddie Perlberg, an application engineer at Autodesk and onetime CAD rendering specialist, said it best: "If you tried visualization before and you thought it was too hard, now is the time to try again."

Why Visualize?

Just because a technology is coming within reach of nearly any individual or organization isn't reason enough to adopt it, of course. Whether you're designing buildings, infrastructure, machinery, or products, adding visualization to your workflow requires funding, training, and long-term support — not to mention new ways of thinking about and executing designs. Is it worth all that?

The sunken plaza design shown here, part of a proposed mixed-use development in Seoul, is the work of Shimi Dahan. Dahan built physical models to develop the concept, followed by 3D modeling in AutoCAD Architecture 2009 for design development and review. The designer reproduced the final physical model by manually measuring and tracing photos in AutoCAD Architecture 2009. Dahan then used Chaos Group's V-Ray for 3ds Max 9 for rendering and Thomas Luft's Ivy Generator for adding vines on the walls. The people and smaller trees were added post-rendering using Adobe Photoshop CS3.

For those who know the power of visualization, the answer is yes, and they would add that the reasons are better than ever before. Communication is critical to today's design workflows, and visualization is a very powerful communication tool. It conveys ideas with clarity, speeds workflow, and even saves money. Visualization is playing an important role in everything we do, from conceptual design to marketing.

At architecture and civil engineering firms, visualizations are so powerful that they can make the difference in winning a bid or in garnering community support. Renderings and animations communicate not only the look of a design, but how it fits into the built environment, how construction phases will play out, and even how construction will affect traffic over time. When all parties clearly understand the vision and impact of an idea — and get excited about it — acceptance can come more quickly and projects can progress more efficiently. Further along in the process, walkthroughs of a virtual model can facilitate client reviews when it's still relatively inexpensive to modify a design.

In the manufacturing workflow, visualizations increasingly serve as engineering support — for example, mechanical cutaways or exploded assemblies. Renderings also are helping to save money when tapped to sell a product idea to a retailer (instead of creating a prototype or to create sophisticated product beauty shots in lieu of a costly photo shoot). Production of commercials and interactive web features can give companies a head start if product renderings become available early in the development process.

Design visualization is no longer an isolated effort; in fact, in many workflows the opposite is true. As early as the conceptual stage, designers generate photorealistic images of various ideas. To help win projects, many architecture and civil engineering firms create sophisticated visualizations based on rough designs to fortify a bid, often finding that the visuals are fundamental to winning the project.

John H. Kennedy, principal/owner of Kennedy & Associates, used this rendering to illustrate proposed zoning standards and communicate the benefits of walkable communities for Washington Square, a neighborhood development outside Philadelphia. The initial layout was done in AutoCAD 2004, then brought into Google SketchUp 7 for basic modeling and color coding. A white-out version of the model was then brought into Informatix Piranesi v5.1, where all entourage, textures, colors, and other paint work were applied.

In product development, visualizations help designers iterate early ideas more easily and efficiently, especially when using tools that provide almost instant visual feedback about a change. Rather than simply presenting ideas when they're finished, the technology is an active contributor to developing ideas — a de facto design tool. "It's part of every stage of the design process," said Chris Ruffo, senior industry marketing manager for design visualization in Autodesk's Media and Entertainment Division. "Being able to see what a design looks like throughout the process is critical to our community."

Gary Rackliff, vice-president of business development at software reseller Visually Intelligent Solutions, added, "Visualization is coming into the hands of [small- and medium-size businesses] and designers" as technology improves and firms consolidate their staffs in a tight economy. But the tools are making the transition easy, Rackliff said: "Engineers no longer need to become design visualization specialists."

What's New

The latest developments are bringing new attention to design visualization. A major rendering milestone was the realization of real-time, highly photorealistic (ray-traced) rendering on the desktop, thanks to the iray engine in mental ray from mental images. Although mental ray is behind the rendering in many creation tools today, most of those haven't yet taken advantage of iray. The first to do so was Bunkspeed Shot, launched in July 2010. Then in the fall, Autodesk announced that iray was available for Autodesk 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max Design 2011 through the Autodesk Subscription Advantage Pack.

Iray makes the most of the parallel processing power of the NVIDIA graphics processing unit (GPU), or graphics card, to deliver ray-traced realism — including highly accurate color display, lighting, and reflections — almost instantly. This new experience offers users so much more insight because it's interactive: "Instead of just seeing what something looks like, now you can play with it," said Phil Miller, director of software product management, Professional Solutions Group, at NVIDIA.

Unlike traditional CPU-powered software, the GPU-based visualization tools that are emerging will scale when users add or upgrade their graphics cards. New NVIDIA Quadro and ATI FirePro professional graphics cards launched this year provide performance increases several times that of previous generations, and that trend is sure to continue. In combination with the latest graphics cards, Intel's newest iCore processors can get visualization software moving at a record pace. Graphics card developers continue to increase processing speed for existing CAD and visualization software. For example, this fall AMD introduced performance plugins for AutoCAD 2010 and 2011 as well as 3ds Max. Essentially, the free AMD plug-ins tweak the information coming from those software products to optimize their graphics performance on ATI FirePro professional graphics cards. NVIDIA has offered similar solutions for a few years now.

Cloud-based rendering also debuted this year — in experimental form. Autodesk's free Project Neon lets users of AutoCAD 2010 or 2011 upload a 3D DWG file to remote servers via an Internet browser and almost instantly receive a fully rendered image file in return, all without additional software or hardware to buy or install.

Other new gadgets and technologies are benefiting the visualization software user as well. BOXX Technologies introduced the RenderPRO ($2,000+), a compact module that lets users offload rendering jobs to free up processor time on the primary workstation. (See the Cadalyst Labs First Look review of the RenderPRO12 on page 28.) Some visualization solutions can render scenes in true 3D, which can then be viewed using active shutter glasses (such as the NVIDIA 3D Vision Pro) and other required hardware. AMD touts its Eyefinity multidisplay technology (supporting as many as six displays at once) for its support of rendering applications, particularly when visualization software is one of several applications in use simultaneously.

Rendering Options You Already Have

Design visualization doesn't require high-end, stand-alone software. Many CAD programs today include integrated rendering tools that produce results ranging from very basic but practical 3D representations to elegantly lit, highly realistic views.

"Virtually every Autodesk application has a way to create basic images to [help you] visualize what you're doing and make better decisions throughout the design process," said Autodesk's Ruffo. "It's part of the design process today; it's a given." The same is true of virtually every CAD program on the market. Many integrated rendering tools run on the very same engines that power their stand-alone software cousins.

Several CAD solutions introduced upgraded rendering functionality in 2010. In May, Bentley Systems announced that MicroStation V8i incorporated the Luxology rendering engine to support real-time rendering. In June, Graphisoft's ArchiCAD 14 added Lightworks-based features that provide real-time, near-photorealisic, in-model visualization with shadow casting in 3D OpenGL views and sun studies that update when a design is tweaked. Then in September, Nemetschek's Vectorworks 2011 integrated Renderworks 2011, powered by the CINEMA 4D rendering engine from MAXON. With the click of a button, rendered viewports update as a design evolves. Graebert announced in September that its new ARES 2D/3D CAD solution would be one of the first CAD products to integrate with Lightworks Artisan SnapShot Studio, allowing users to quickly evaluate material and lighting combinations during early design.

AutoCAD users have plenty of options for visualizing designs. Built-in features display rendered models and add materials and other effects to increase realism, and the Materials Library introduced with AutoCAD 2011 is consistent within AutoCAD, Revit, Inventor, and 3ds Max Design. AutoCAD subscription customers have access to Autodesk Impression 3, which turns DWG and DXF files into 2D renderings that have a hand-drawn look.

Stand-Alone Visualization

Take your CAD rendering to the next level by moving your model into one of many purpose-built visualization solutions now available. Following is a look at a handful of noteworthy stand-alone products; to get the full picture of the numerous choices, costs, features, and compatibility, refer to our online table.

Bunkspeed Shot ($995) is the first application aimed squarely at the CAD community that leverages iray from the ground up. It offers real-time, photorealistic, ray-traced rendering, and it can run on a GPU, a CPU, or a combination of both. Bunkspeed Shot Pro, introduced in November, added turntable effects so, for example, an artist could display a vehicle rotating on a platform with ray-traced realism, all in real time — something unachievable until now.

Luxion's KeyShot ($995), formerly marketed by Bunkspeed as HyperShot, is another popular solution that offers real-time, ray-traced rendering. KeyShot takes advantage of multicore CPUs to deliver instant results. (You'll find a user review of KeyShot v2 at

Autodesk offers two primary visualization options for CAD users. GPU-based Showcase ($995) is designed for Inventor and Alias workflows but supports a variety of standard CAD formats. It allows designers, engineers, and marketing teams to evaluate designs in context and easily explore alternatives.

3ds Max Design ($3,495) — Autodesk's full-featured modeling, rendering, and animation software — seems to be the tool of choice for architecture, civil engineering, and product design. It offers all the features of standard 3ds Max (which is aimed at game developers and filmmakers) plus unique exposure lighting and analysis and a special user interface. Autodesk is in the midst of a three-phase restructuring process to improve the 3ds Max workflow and user interface as well as add scalable core performance.

Rendering Resources
Visualization software developers and resellers often feature image galleries on their web sites (one of our favorites is to offer not only examples of images you can produce, but also discussion and advice about how to do so. And the Internet is rich with advice, tutorials, and other resources to help you make the most of your software of choice.

Visualization artists can embellish renderings with ready-made 3D models (also called entourage, content, or RPC), such as people, vehicles, plants, and furniture. Models can be downloaded from online sources or purchased in collections on CD, but in all cases they save tremendous time (and money) compared with creating content from scratch. For starters, check out,, and, as well as for nonphotorealistic entourage.

To examine the numerous choices, costs, features, and compatibilities of the latest design visualization products, refer to our online table.

To keep up with ongoing news and feature articles related to design visualization, click on the Design Visualization button at the top of this page — or any other page on the Cadalyst web site.

3ds Max Design offers something not commonly available in the market: visualization capabilities for civil engineers. For this group of users, creating sophisticated renderings was challenging until Dynamite VSP came on the scene to provide an easy workflow between civil CAD applications and 3ds Max Design. Acquired by Autodesk in early 2010 and renamed Civil Visualization Extension, the Dynamite VSP toolset includes an exporter for AutoCAD Civil 3D, Bentley Systems civil CAD solutions, and others, as well as a plug-in for 3ds Max Design. Currently it's available to 3ds Max Design subscription customers only. Users can dynamically link and use civil data sets in 3ds Max Design, creating a quick way to generate renderings and animations for users with little or no 3ds Max Design experience.

On his blog, reseller Rackliff quoted customer Ron Ricks: "The Civil Visualization Extension is the easy bridge between Civil 3D and 3ds Max Design, which allows you to spend most of your time in the Civil 3D model, as it should be."

Make the Right Choices

The following are a few basic tips for finding the best visualization software for your needs. Software developers and resellers can work with you to address these points and help you make an informed choice.

  • Narrow your software choices by narrowing your focus. How will you use a new tool, and what do you want to accomplish? How much realism do you need, and how quickly do you need to create it? How might your needs change in the future?
  • Ensure that your choice supports your current workflow. Which file formats will you need to import and export today and in the future? "Take the time to understand how to work with data from other applications and put it in your workflow so you don't have to recreate it," said Rackliff at Visually Intelligent Solutions. David Randle, product manager at Bunkspeed, advised, "You'll be most effective when you can take all the work you've done, bring it together, and develop it to a final image or animation as a whole in one place."
  • Ensure your hardware configuration will adequately support any new software. GPU-based software performance will scale with added graphics cards; CPU-based performance won't.
  • In some instances, high-end realism and detail can get a client very excited about a project and even win a sale. In others, too much visualization can be a bad thing if a client assumes the design is done and closed to input or if a client fixates on details rather than the overall concept. Know your clients and select software tools that will deliver the right solutions.
Further Reading about Visualization
"Visualization Goes Beyond Appearances," by Brett Duesing. Creators of OXO gadgets unlock the marketing power behind digital rendering.

"Full-Scale Visualization: More Is More," by Nancy Spurling Johnson. Building stakeholders experience data full-size, speeding design decisions and saving money.

Watch hardware and software trends to help determine which major advances might be coming to your CAD solution or the visualization product you're using or considering. "Read the tea leaves," said NVIDIA's Miller. For example, if your software is based on the Lightworks rendering engine and you see another Lightworks-enabled application adding new rendering functionality, it's a safe bet to assume yours could do the same. It's also a safe bet to assume that features you see in animation and gaming software will make their way into high-end visualization applications, and that high-end visualization features eventually will make their way into mainstream use. In the meantime, consider adding a product to fill the gap while you wait. "Adjacent products can be a godsend because they often give you the fastest access to new technologies and capabilities," Miller said.

Worth a Look

If you're not using design visualization, start by exploring the tools available in your CAD solution. By dipping your toe in the technology, you can gauge without risk whether renderings could help improve design communication — or even the designs themselves. If you're already hooked on visualization but you haven't checked out the latest tools, take a look. The speed, quality, and power of today's technology are like nothing you've ever seen before.


About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

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