Event Report: Autodesk University 2007, Part 1

2 Dec, 2007

The times, they are a-changing: Autodesk advocates green design in AU main stage presentation.

At first glance, Las Vegas, known for glitzy shows, gaudy hotels, and over-the-top performers, hardly seems like the poster child of sustainability. Nevertheless, in terms of efficient use of real estate, Sin City may turn out to be the model of frugality. Most of its heavyweight attractions are stacked along the Strip, a four-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. This is a city that has shown a propensity to remain compact. It negotiates room for expansion by recycling its precious space. The Mirage Hotel and Casino stands on the Castaway's former site. The Hacienda was leveled so Mandalay Bay could rise. The Sands was buried to usher in the Venetian, the site of last week's Autodesk University 2007.

AU, Autodesk's annual design and engineering event, drew more than 10,000 attendees, 2,000 more than the previous year, according to the company. The changing face of AU was evident in the mixed crowd. On the way to the keynote sessions, grizzled AutoCAD veterans rubbed shoulders with iPod-dangling animators who live and breathe 3ds Max and Maya. The rhetoric on the main stage was different this year too.

On numerous occasions, Carol Bartz, Autodesk's former chairman and CEO, famously boasted, "Look around you. If God didn't make it, one of our customers probably did." By contrast, successor Carl Bass said, with less bravado and more sober concern, "Today we use twice as much energy as we did 50 years ago. ... The way we respond to this will have a huge impact on the world we live in, and the world we pass on to our children."

Skeptics might insist that Autodesk is jumping on the green bandwagon because sustainability has become a profitable venture. Others might applaud the company for being a conscientious corporate citizen. Either way, what happened at AU in Vegas probably won't stay in Vegas. It will have far-reaching effects worldwide among the eight million people using Autodesk products to build everything from coffee pots to skyscrapers.

Dominos of Change
Last year, when Bass took the stage for his keynote address, he delighted the audience by wearing a highly unusual set of goggles featuring six multicolored lenses. This year, he discussed four trends that led to Autodesk's green vision.

Digital Life. The new generation relies primarily on digital data for amusement, commerce, communication, education, and socialization. (As evidence, take the prevalence of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, eBay, and Second Life). This, Bass observed, has created a global digital infrastructure.

Globalization. The ubiquitous connectedness is enabling access to cheap labor, outsourcing, and global supply-chain activities, which in turn drive fierce competition. The pressure to distinguish will force businesses to develop products that not only "look and work better" but "make us feel better about ourselves," Bass predicted.

Infrastructure Boom. Though digital lifestyle is becoming the norm, the analog world is still catching up, necessitating more infrastructure. "In the emerging economies," Bass noted, "this boom is driven by the need to build networks, to support rapid industrialization, to fulfill the need of an urbanized, affluent population." Meanwhile, the industrialized nations will have to invest heavily in the repair and maintenance of deteriorating roads and networks. But the shrinking workforce will make this challenging. So the answer, he argued, must lie in technology development, for building and monitoring the necessary infrastructures.

Rising Cost of Energy. The building boom, occurring against the backdrop of limited resources, has prompted rising energy costs. In addition, increased industrial activities have contributed to global climate changes.

In the 80s, Bass recalled, sustainability was understood as "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the future generations' ability to meet theirs." He proposed an upgrade to this definition. The new goal, he said, ought to be "meeting the need of the present generation, while improving the future generations' ability to meet theirs."

Carl Bass, Autodesk president and CEO, pondered the current energy crisis and the designer’s new responsibilities.  (All photos by Shaan Hurley, Between the Lines blog. Reused with permission from his Autodesk University 2007 Flickr album.)

Goodwill Design
Yves Behar, founder of the San Francisco design firm fuseproject, belongs to the breed of designers who share Bass' vision. Behar's company helped design the XO, a $130 laptop targeted at the underserved children in the third-world countries. Made for the One Laptop per Child project, the machine features a kid-friendly interface, open-source software, weather-resistant chassis, and smart energy use. Some components have dual functions. For example, latches on the sides that secure the laptop when closed also serve as wireless antennas when the unit is open. Each XO taps nearby computers to create a mesh network to communicate with one another, creating a WiFi network independent of a commercial provider.

Another signature design by fuseproject is LEAF, a personal LED lamp inspired by the shape of a glass blade. The unit can easily produce a spectrum of lighting mode, ranging from a bright work light to a soft, ambient light. The extensible arm creates placement options to suit the user's environment and preference. According to fuseproject, the light consumes 40% less energy than a compact fluorescent light.

Yves Behar, founder of fuseproject, shares the design of a personal LED lamp, inspired by the shape of a glass blade.

"We don't get success if we only focus on money; we also need to focus on values," said Behar. "I don't think we'll get there if we only ask the customers what they want; we really need to lead our customers."

Ode to Digital Prototyping
If you think Bass and Behar were ideological, you should hear Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski. "The start of the design process, the innovation process -- it rarely happens near a computer," he pointed out. "It might happen when you're taking a walk on the beach, reading a poem, or doing something mundane. ... That's where the initial creativity takes place."

Examples he produced included "an architect getting an idea for a building from a sheet blowing in the wind" and "the 2005 Mustang that used Steve McQueen's face as inspiration for its look."

Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO, shared some unlikely sources of design inspiration -- for example, the 2005 Mustang that imitated Steve McQueen's confident attitude.

Such wild experimentations would be difficult to accomplish "without taking advantage of the digital environment," Kowalski reasoned. "Digital models allow you to play what-if with many design scenarios. ... The digital workflow allows a wider range of people to take part in it." All these observations formed the basis for Autodesk's push for digital prototyping, or the use of digital models for concept exploration, decision making, idea validation, and product testing.

In the fully digitized workflow, the CAD model, previously confined to engineering, is recycled through sourcing, QA, marketing, and beyond. Hence, Autodesk's Media and Entertainment products, such as Mudbox (acquired from Skymatter Limited in August) and Maya will play a larger role. Those solutions will become essential in exploring unorthodox shapes (better suited for freeform NURBS modeling packages, less suited for parametric packages) and for producing highly realistic still images and animations (often not the strength of traditional CAD packages).

The opening session of AU 2007 closed with an impressive, if dizzying, panoramic audiovisual demonstration -- a simulated flight above, below, and through a digital cityscape projected on multiple screens surrounding a room packed with thousands of attendees. The display was meant to reinforce Autodesk's new motto: Experience it before it's real.

One might argue that the demonstration itself was a digital prototype. It wasn't exactly a finished product, but rather a simulated preview of something still in development, currently code-named Metropolis Project.

Watch up-coming editions of Cadalyst Daily and check for further reports from Autodesk University 2007.