October 09, 2006
Something for Everyone: Autodesk Labs
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor


by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Welcome to AECWeekly! What’s at
Autodesk Labs? Probably the best way to find out is to go there and take a look.


According to Brian Mathews, director of Autodesk Labs and the chief architect for the DWF design collaboration platform, Autodesk Labs is going to go through a “Labs process” so that what you see up on Labs today is just the tip of the iceberg. Labs is a way to get products and technologies to anyone who is interested, and getting customers involved in product direction and development much earlier in the process than has been available in the past. Read all about it in this week’s Industry News.


AECWeekly is a news magazine featuring important industry news profiles, a summary of recently published AEC product and company news, customer wins, and coming events. Brought to you by AECCafe.


AECWeekly examines select top news each week, picks out worthwhile reading from around the web, and special interest items you might not find elsewhere. This issue will feature Industry News, Acquisitions/Alliances/Agreements, Announcements, Awards, New Products, Around the Web and Upcoming Events.


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Susan Smith, Managing Editor



Industry News

Something for Everyone: Autodesk Labs

by Susan Smith


What’s at
Autodesk Labs? Probably the best way to find out is to go there and take a look.


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According to Brian Mathews, director of Autodesk Labs and the chief architect for the DWF design collaboration platform, Autodesk Labs is going to go through a “Labs process” so that what you see up on Labs today is just the tip of the iceberg. There are three types of content that will appear on the site: products, technologies, and features.


So what is it? It is a way for Autodesk to get prototypes, products and technologies to anyone who is interested, and to get customers involved in product direction and development much earlier in the process than has been available in the past. “We can have product managers go out and do customer studies, surveys and one-on-one conversations with lots of people about what ‘pain points’ they’re having,” noted Mathews. “We can bring that back to Autodesk and have product designers design products, build them and put them in beta and take them to market. But there’s nothing like putting actual code in people’s hands to really get it right.”


Beta versions happen late in the game, said Mathews, and are under NDA. “Beta is very limited in its requirements and what kind of feedback we get and how we get that feedback, plus only certain people are selected to be beta testers. Labs is not meant to replace any other thing that we do to develop software, it’s made to augment, i.e., another way to make that process even better.”


Labs lets people who are not beta testers experiment with the technologies and give feedback before the product is fully baked. “With traditional design you’ve got your product management going out there and surveying at the very beginning to get the requirements correct and beta is at the very end to get the bugs out, but what about the middle?” Mathews charged. “Generally software companies don’t show the stuff in the middle, and that’s where Labs would come in with the product.”


The beta applications that are currently on Labs include:
  • Google Earth Extension
  • Autodesk DGNV8 Translator
  • Project FreeWheel
  • Autodesk Vault Mirror Utility
  • Feature Recognition for Autodesk Inventor

  • Although Labs currently focuses on products, technologies and features, these are not clear cut delineations. Technologies may become products, features may become products or become part of products. When asked if the new Google Earth Publisher would be considered a technology, Mathews declined to categorize it.


    Having just stated this, the first example of a product (not on Labs yet) is the soon-to-be-announced Impression, which is the product
    Vespa that Autodesk brought to light at Autodesk University last year. Impression is built on sophisticated graphics technology and aims to solve a “new” problem – that of automating the illustration of CAD drawings (eds. note:
    SketchUp, now owned by Google, was a generic solution to the problem). Impression will leverage the design information already put into the CAD product, including layers, blocks, and objects.


    “By making Impression a free download that anyone can access while it’s in the experimental phase, we can get that customer input and revise that product before it goes into beta,” explained Mathews.


    Features may go into the next release of a major product such as AutoCAD, and this way customers can experiment with the new features and give feedback as to what needs to be changed in them well before the product release date. This also allows customers to plan for the new release and what it will offer.


    The feature recognition code for Autodesk Inventor that converts neutral 3D CAD (STEP, SAT or IGES Solids) models into fully featured Autodesk® Inventor™ 11 models is a feature.


    Project FreeWheel on Labs is an example of a technology. It is both a web site where you can enter a DWF URL for interactive viewing, and a web service that allows you to embed an interactive DWF viewer in your own HTML pages. It has pan, zoom and some markup capabilities as well. You can use FreeWheel without having to install any software onto your machine or to your server farm.


    An example of use may be a big firm with a CAD manager with IT background can take FreeWheel and mash it up with some of their existing systems. If they run SAP and want to put design content into this and other systems. “Labs can take some risks in areas that are still being defined by the marketplace, take design content and help make it more connectable to other systems and more useful in an enterprise,” said Mathews.


    Sometimes a developer will develop a technology that Autodesk doesn’t quite know how to productize, so it can be put on Labs for customers to explore and possibly help shape it into a product.


    Autodesk Labs will include brand new products that solve new problems for new audiences or workflows, as well as new features scheduled for new product releases. There may also be a section devoted to utilities that are not as “hot” but still necessary to a smaller audience of users.


    Labs may include products that engineers want to develop, that no one has asked for yet. “Nobody asked for search on the web but when we got Google, it became obvious it was a good idea,” Mathews pointed out.


    Last year Autodesk announced the release of the code for MapServer Enterprise, the company's then new web mapping platform, as open source, as reported in GISWeekly’s
    ISD Update from Autodesk University. Since then, many people have contributed to
    Autodesk MapGuide OpenSource. If Autodesk had had Labs last year, Mathews said, they probably would have started MapGuide OpenSource there so that many people could contribute to its development. Nonetheless, this product has enjoyed considerable customer involvement and has resulted in a


    For Autodesk, Labs is another way to get customers to have direct contact with the engineers who are building the product(s). Because there could potentially be a lot of feedback on Labs, individual features and technologies are divided up and comments on those features will be emailed directly to the appropriate teams.


    Visitors to Labs are also invited to participate in the process of building Labs, and deciding what functions it should serve.


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