Before getting started, here is a brief introduction to Autodesk Labs for those of you who don’t know much about it. This is an independent division within Autodesk that was started a few years ago with the objective of bridging the gap between traditional product development cycles and community driven innovation. It allows Autodesk developers to come up with new technologies either in response to customer problems or by looking ahead at what is possible and allow free public access to them, but with the disclaimer that these are products in development only and therefore not guaranteed to be bug-free. 


Autodesk


In return, the Labs is able to get user feedback and use that to guide the further development of these technologies. Ideas that are not greeted positively by the user community can be shelved without the typical loss of time, revenue, and resources that goes into developing a full-fledged commercial product. One example of a technology that was initiated in Autodesk Labs and eventually “graduated” into a commercial product is Autodesk Impression.


Let’s move to look at some of the technologies that are currently available for user testing at Autodesk Labs.


Project Draw


This is a basic web-based drawing application designed for creating simple floor plans, electronic-circuit diagrams, network diagrams, flowcharts, user interface mock-ups, etc. What is most impressive about it is that it works on a JavaScript-enabled Internet Explorer or Firefox browser without the need for any plug-ins or downloads.


Setting the browser to full-screen mode, as shown in Figure 1, helps to work with it better. There is a Properties palette where you can start by specifying the drawing properties such as page size and orientation, drawing units, scale, grid settings, snap, and so on. Then you can drag and drop predefined shapes that are grouped in categories for creating different types of drawings. The ones relevant to floor plans include Floor Layout, Office Layout, Kitchen and Bath, Furniture, Basic Shapes, and Callouts/Arrows. Figure 1 shows some of the shapes in the Floor Layout category, which includes rooms of various shapes, walls, different types of doors and windows, spaces, elevator shaft, and even three different types of staircases. These can be dragged and dropped into the drawing and then re-sized and positioned as required. You can also draw lines and curves. The basic drawing can then be embellished with text, shading, etc. All the common drawing functionality is available including the ability to specify the weight, style, and color of lines, and the color and opacity of fills; text font, size, and color; zooming in and out; aligning shapes; and changing the draw order.



Figure 1. A set of simple floor plans created in Project Draw.


Even though the application is entirely web-based, it allows you to save to and open files from your local computer using the Export option. Registration on Autodesk Labs also allows gives you the option of saving files on its server, allowing quick access to saved files, and the ability to share them with others by simply sending them a URL. An additional benefit to registration is being able to upload images and insert those in the drawings. Whether saving locally or to the server, the drawing can be saved either in an editable format (MMD or FMD), or in image file formats including JPEG, PNG, and SVG. An alpha version of PDF export is available, but it did not work properly for some of the test drawings I created. Other limitations include the inability to Undo and Redo, which have become such a fundamental requirement in any kind of software. Also, the units can only be set to inches or mm, not higher units such as feet or meters, which makes it a little non-intuitive when creating larger-scale drawings such as floor plans. Another difficulty I experienced was that the wall thickness of the Room shapes was different from that of the Wall shape, which led to more work when both shapes had to be used in the same drawing. Getting walls to overlap properly was also an issue. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that the application is meant to be used to create a symbolic floor plan rather than a scaled drawing, which is best done in a CAD application.


While Project Draw is certainly an intriguing piece of technology, it cannot, unfortunately, also claim to be original. After trying it out, I did an online search to see if other web-based drawing tools existed, and I did find a few, of which at least one called Gliffy seems to have all of Project Draw’s capabilities, and in a more sophisticated interface (which is understandable given that it is already a commercially released product). Other more rudimentary web-based drawings tools are LithaPaint and ajaxSketch, of which the latter works only in the Firefox browser. It will be interesting to see if Project Draw eventually makes it past the graduation stage at Autodesk Labs and if so, what its “niche” as a commercial product will be.


The other search technology being developed at Autodesk Labs is Visual Search, which uses visual input such as a doodle (freehand sketch), a 3D model (in the DWF, STL, or Autodesk Inventor’s IPT format), a 2D drawing (in the DWG or DXF format), or an image (in the JPG or PNG format). This kind of search is ideally suited to the manufacturing field where you could use it to search for parts more easily, which is why the current focus of Visual Search is on the manufacturing industry. 

Touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display


One of the major attractions in the Autodesk Labs section of Autodesk University was the actual demonstration of touch-based navigation of 3D models on a large screen display. 

 Thanks to Apple’s popular iPhone, touch-based applications are now catching on, and technologies such as Touch Wall can dramatically change the way design teams collaborate on projects, including developing design concepts, making selections of materials and features, exploring what-if scenarios, conducting reviews, and so on. Eventually, we might see this technology also make it to our desktops and laptops, and while the mouse will probably never be fully replaced, it could be very nicely complemented by touch-based interaction.


Other Products



Another Labs prototype product that I had the opportunity to see was Project Showroom, the focus of which is design visualization for consumers rather than design professionals. It is currently available in the form of a sample project, a residential bathroom, that the user can move around in and make changes to various materials, as well as select from a list of upgrades and accessories. Making a selection places it within the rendered scene, allowing the user to have a better idea of what it would look like . Each of the options also includes a cost, which can be used to price the total cost of the selections that are made by the user. The application is fairly simple, but it can certainly be useful to a homebuilder demonstrating options to potential buyers, or product manufacturers allowing prospective customers to visually experiment with different options. The fact that it is web-based and does not require any client installations makes it easy to implement. However, I think that the quality of the rendering needs to be greatly improved before it can be commercially successful. 


Conclusions



It is always heartening to see a leading vendor in the field invest significant resources in research and development. With Autodesk Labs, Autodesk is taking a cue from other major technology leaders including Microsoft, HP, and Intel, all of which are well known for their dedicated R&D departments. I hope that Autodesk Labs can expand to explore a lot more ideas and concepts going forward rather than just the handful of key projects that were described in this article. 

Perhaps the same mind that came up with the clean, innovative, and stylish interface of Architectural Studio can come up with other cool ideas for tools we could use.