Event Report: Autodesk University 2007, Part 3

9 Dec, 2007

As it moves from simulating geometry toward imitating reality, CAD may be poised to reinvent itself.

According to Ray Kurzweil, a noted futurist, "Full immersion visual-auditory virtual reality ... and interaction with virtual personalities as a primary interface" will soon become the norm. "We'll be walking around in virtually enhanced environments at all times, using products that might never take on physical forms. ..."

Kurzweil, an MIT graduate with 14 honorary doctorates from various universities, authored a number of prophetic books: The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Penguin, 2000), and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Penguin, 2006). He taught computers to read by pioneering optical character recognition.

He was one of the guest speakers at the "Designing the Future -- Manufacturing Industry" presentation at Autodesk University 2007, the gathering of Autodesk software users that took place in Las Vegas on November 27-30. Whether he realizes it or not, Kurzweil makes a great spokesperson for Autodesk's digital prototyping campaign, which advocates using virtual models that mimic the mechanical behaviors of their physical counterparts.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, envisions a future where digital/virtual entities are as important as their physical counterparts. (Photo by Helene DeLillo. Reused with permission from Kurzweil Technologies, Inc.)
If digital prototyping is to become part of the "visual-auditory virtual reality" Kurzweil is anticipating, then CAD is about to reinvent itself. Simulating geometry is one thing; imitating reality is quite another. Although it's quite capable of juggling surfaces and solids, CAD had never trained its graphics muscles to produce realistic copies of what it depicts. To do that, it has to acquire new tricks, maybe even crossbreed with other disciplines. This might unite CAD with its flashier relatives, the visualization and animation packages that are a few markets removed but very much a part of the same 3D family.

New Attitude Toward 3D
Buzz Kross, senior vice-president of Autodesk's Manufacturing Solutions Division, believes the time is ripe for a paradigm shift. He called for the design community to rethink how it deploys 3D.

"Digital prototyping is a fundamentally different way to use your CAD system," he reasoned. "You still make a 3D model, but you do it for a different reason -- you do it to exercise [your design's] mechanism, to test its strength. ... We're convinced you'll be able to better prototype products digitally than you can physically."

But prototyping is not just about stress tests, FEA (finite-element analysis), and simulating the robotic arms on a plant floor. "How [something] looks is just as important as what it does," Kross noted. In other words, the ability to visualize a project beforehand is just as critical as simulating its function.

In a prerecorded video clip played during the AU openning general session, William Lam, engineering information manager for OESD, MTR Corporation, which owns and operates the Hong Kong metro system, emphasized the need for realism. "We really need computer models [of our stations] that are very close to reality -- such that we know how many seats we have in our station, how much extra space we have," he said.

In the same footage, Phillip Leung, an architect at OESD, MTR Corporation, added, "With the [BIM] model, we can facilitate a simulation, generate the result of a what-if scenario -- that's the benefit of it."

Just Do It!
But why replace the existing processes revolving around physical prototyping, the established practice of producing functional mockups in clay or plastic?

Nike's digital design director, Ted Balderree, was at AU to help make the case. He didn't recycle his employer's famous motto and say, "Just do it!" Instead, he produced a sample unit of Nike Lebron IV (named after NBA star Lebron James), conceived and produced using digital prototyping.

"Pace and volume" are just two of the reasons Nike was prompted to migrate to a digital workflow, Balderree said. "Each designer starts working on two to four new shoes every three months to begin the season," he explained.

But multiply that seemingly small number by the items in each category, the color and material variations for all ten categories, the content of four seasons, and the variations carried over from the previous seasons, and you get a pretty good idea how complex the collection could get.

At this rate, the number of samples produced for the decision makers' review alone -- estimated to be 700,000 for a particular year, according to Balderree -- would be sufficient to create one of the largest shoe companies in the world. By contrast, the millions of polygons that comprise the digital prototypes take up less physical space and are much easier to dispose of. In addition, they eliminate the waste of cut materials (the excess left from sample creation).

Nike designers used Autodesk Sketchbook Pro with Wacom Cintiq digital pen tablets for concept exploration, a heavily customized (footwear-specific) version of Autodesk Maya for digital model development, PTC Windchill for data management, and Delcam for computer-numeric-controlled manufacturing at its factories. An FEA package was sometimes used to determine the best placement for the component adjoining the sole and the upper part of the shoe.

Meanwhile, Back in Metropolis
Kurzweil was not the first person to preview a futuristic vision at AU. A day earlier, during the opening general session, Jonathan Knowles, Autodesk's director of worldwide market development, announced, "We'd like to immerse you in a view of the future." It sounded a bit hyperbolic, but, in this case, he had something to justify the statement.

Currently code-named Metropolis, the panoramic flythrough of a cityscape (powered by a new visualization product called Newport) was supposed to be a simulation of a product still in development. Projected on the estimated 20-odd giant screens that lined the walls of the venue, the experience, complete with stereoscopic sound effects of traffic congestion, could easily pass for what Kurzweil called "a visual-auditory virtual reality."

With the exception of a few frozen frames now and then, the entire movie ran seamlessly, rendered in real-time at impressive resolution. At one point, the virtual camera dipped below the ground to reveal the utility pipelines linked to the structures above. (A video of Autodesk's Metropolis demonstration is posted on YouTube.)

Knowles remarked, "This is more than just the 3D view. It's also about the data behind the images-these intelligent city models integrate data from architectural models, utility networks, transportation networks, asset management systems, and much more."

Jonathan Knowles, Autodesk's director of worldwide market development, drove a simulated demo of a new panoramic visualization product, code-named Metropolis. (Photo by Shaan Hurley, Between the Lines blog. Reused with permission from his Autodesk University 2007 Flickr album.)

Daily Planet Digs Around
Very little information is currently available about Metropolis. Autodesk's press officials are tightlipped about the project. When this reporter made some inquiries, he found out various individuals from Media and Entertainment and Geospatial Solutions were involved in the creation of the presentation. None was available for on-record comments.

Scott Shepherd, software development manager for Autodesk Labs, revealed how the two scores of displays were synchronized in the Autodesk Labs blog he keeps: "You're all familiar with the Windows start-up music that plays when you start/restart your computer. Well, we would issue a boot command from the main controller, and the 20 computers would boot up simultaneously. The result was like an orchestra playing the Windows startup music in unison."

The ability to aggregate data from engineering, civil, and architecture programs into a single environment for real-time visualization seems like an insurmountable task, an interoperability dream achievable only in prototypes. If the completed Metropolis turns out to be such a solution, just as powerful and engaging as the preview, the project could be the best validation for digital prototyping. Otherwise, it'll be remembered as just a showpiece, never meant for the practical world beyond Las Vegas.