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ARES on Android Tablet

By Ralph Grabowski, July 9, 2014

Article first appeared in upFront.eZine
Reprinted here with permission

Two companies are taking their CAD software in different directions. Last week, I reported on IntelliCAD running with Mainframe2 (SaaS, software as a service); this week, ARES on Android tablets (mobility CAD).

Four Operating Systems for One CAD Program

The aim of Graebert GmbH is this: "One application for four operating systems." The one application they speak of is ARES Command Edition, their CAD software that runs on Linux, OS X, Windows, and now on Android in alpha testing. And so this makes Graebert the sole CAD vendor to have a full 2D/3D CAD program that works with four operating systems; and that is customizable by end users and by third-party developers to boot. Indeed, the company feels there is no need to stop at just four.

(ARES is an AutoCAD workalike that uses DWG as its native file format. It is different from most competitors in that it was never based on IntelliCAD. Instead, company ceo Wilfred Graebert spent several millions of dollars developing his own CAD program from scratch. Since then, the German company has been successful in providing versions of its CAD system to other vendors, and so you might see the software under the name of DraftSight by Dassault Systems of France, CorelCAD by Corel of Canada, or iCADMac by progeCAD of Italy.)

ARES operates nearly 100% identically on all operating systems, but there are, however, limitations that require changes to the program. For instance, printing operates very differently on OS X; OLE is not available on Linux; and a finger-friendly interface is needed for Android.

Now, most CAD apps for tablets are viewers; some have a markup capability, and a few go beyond this to simple drawing and editing. Autodesk has established what is possible in viewing on a tablet with its AutoCAD 360 (nee WS) app, and competitors tell me there is no need for them to write a DWG viewer, because Autodesk's is good enough. Perhaps this is why AutoCAD 360 is the most-downloaded mobile CAD app (approximately 7.5 million on Android plus an unknown but perhaps similar number on iOS.)

"But there is more than viewing and markup," declared chief technology officer Robert Graebert in an interview with me. "Are you going to spend eight hours on a tablet, editing? No, but you are going to start drawings on a tablet; you are going to edit parts of drawings."

Robert Graebert develops the user interfaces for ARES, and as he worked on the one for Android, he knew from the experience of his SiteMaster customers that they operate in basements and in remote areas. "So, our tablet software has to move away from being a toy. We want to leverage cloud, but don't want to be limited by it," he said.

(SiteMaster is a third-party app written by Graebert GmbH for measuring the insides of buildings. It works on portable devices with laser measuring tools that connect via Bluetooth. To prove that third-party applications are possible, it will be ported to Android. See http://www.graebert-isurvey.com.)

Some of the changes he made to the Android version of ARES (code-named Radon) involved modifying the interface so that our relatively fat fingers could operate it - naturally - as well as the usual support for using touches and pens as commands (as for pans and zooms). The result is shown in figure 1:

Figure 1: Initial state of Radon's drawing view running on an Android tablet

Let me walk you through the primary differences in how ARES operates on Android: entering commands and editing entities.

Entering Commands

To enter commands, Radon uses a different interface from desktop ARES (see figure 2). It reminds me of the side-screen menu popular in the 1980s character-based DOS and Unix eras of CAD. Notice that in Radon it consists of fairly large icons, so that they can be tapped easily with a finger. Once a command is selected, the following changes occur to the user interface:

Figure 2: Radon's user interface after a command is selected

This is how a command is selected and executed:

  1. A vertical strip (in light gray) of icons along the right lists command categories.
  2. Chose a category, and the strip is replaced with commands.
  3. Select a command, and the strip is replaced by the names of related commands.
  4. Specify an option for the current command, from those listed along the bottom of the screen.
  5. Enter a value in the input field for the current option along the top of the screen.

As with desktop CAD, you can pick points directly in the drawing on the screen (such as picking points or specifying angles) or else by entering values into the input field.

  1. To return to a higher level in the command structure, you tap the dark gray bars on the right, such as Line or Draw.

Radon will have a way to find specific commands, which will be made available at a later time.

During the demo, Robert Graebert brought up a drawing that showed Radon could display clipped, non-rectangular viewports, and then another drawing of a 3D staircase model in shaded view. Radon uses whatever shading capability can be provided by the tablet's GPU using OpenGLES.

Editing Entities

To edit entities, we can manipulate the drawing elements directly through oversize grips. Radon shows the area under your finger in an offset circle, as shown in figure 2. (You can try this out right now on GStarcad MC, which uses a square, enlarged view of the area under your finger.)

Dialog boxes are shown in split screen mode (see figure 3). This effect also applies to lists, such as of layers and named views.

Figure 3: Dialog boxes slide out from the right edge, covering half the screen
File Management

Files are accessed through Dropbox (and other similar services) and from email, initially. Robert Graebert would like to add more services, such as providing access to PDM [product data management] systems and even to partners who have proprietary data access systems.

By using Dropbox, it is possible to start working on one system, such as the tablet, and then continue on another, such as the desktop. "We are not there like Apple Continuity, but it is possible with Dropbox."

Graebert Rejects SaaS for Mobile

When I reported last week about IntelliCAD 8 running on Mainframe2, I was describing SaaS - software as a service. In this scenario, we don't buy or install IntelliCAD; instead, we use it like a car rental. We pay when we use it, and we don't need to maintain it. When it came to considering SaaS for CAD running on mobile devices specifically, Robert Graebert rejected it for these reasons:

While he does see the cloud as a likely evolution for the CAD industry, when we are on the go with a tablet it is unsure that we will get enough data access for SaaS to work reliably. If you mostly use SaaS on our tablets when we are at the office or at home, than what is the advantage over a PC?

Q&A

Ralph Grabowski: Why does Radon (ARES for Android) need its own name when it is the same as desktop ARES?
Robert Graebert: Radon is the code name. The final branding will be decided later.

Ralph Grabowski: I wonder if it might be difficult for end users to customize the UI through the tablet interface. How will customizing work?
Robert Graebert: The side menu will be customizable by users, but this is not yet implemented. There is no front end yet, but it will use the same XML files as the desktop. For now, third-party developers [developing add-ons for the tablet] modify the XML file. The command-line commands are there, but are meant for use by customization, not for input.

Ralph Grabowski: A complaint CAD vendors have about Android is that it is difficult to write code that works on the many variations of tablets. Why start with Android, instead of iOS?
Robert Graebert: We like that Android is everywhere; its market share is now 62%. We did consider iOS, but then we found that there was no way to access Bluetooth on the iPad.

Android is more open, we can access Bluetooth. And there are so many variations of Android tablets available; different sizes, like all the way up to 12". Some come with pens, some are ruggedized. You don't get this variety with iPad.

We could move to iOS in the future; Windows Phone would be the third mobile platform. Windows 8 tablets today are heavy and have limited battery power.

Ralph Grabowski: Is 3D solids modeling working?
Robert Graebert: We don't see a limitation, but ACIS is not yet running, because there is no ARM version from Spatial. [ARM is the CPU architecture used by most phones and tablets; Spatial is the division of Dassault Systemes that programs ACIS, the solid modeling kernel used by ARES.] We might create an online service, which would let us offload solid modeling editing to the cloud, and then return the results to the tablet.

On the other hand, there might not be a market for solid modeling on a tablet.

Ralph Grabowski: If a DWG file contains solid modeling objects, will Radon be able to display them if it does not support ACIS?
Robert Graebert: Yes.

Ralph Grabowski: Why does the marketing say "Full 2D & 3D CAD Software with native DWG support" and "All the features of ARES Commander Edition on a tablet" when it does not support ACIS-based solid modeling.
Robert Graebert: Some 3D creation and editing features will be available like the 3D surface commands. Would an end-user draw with ACIS Solid Modeling on a tablet? We are still curious to see what the 3D needs of end-users are, such as needing specific vertical apps. We strongly believe in great use-cases for developers of vertical applications.

Cedric Desbordes (Greabert sales and marketing executive): Our SiteMaster is a good illustration of what could be done with 3D vertical applications on a tablet. The user doesn't need traditional tools to draw in 3D, but only some objects and dialogs or parameters. The result is a 3D model of the building made of Architectural Desktop objects (saved in DWG) that we can further export in IFC. In this case, no ACIS is involved and the software provides the intelligence to draw in 3D within very simple steps.

Apart from architecture, I'm thinking about other use cases, such as civil engineering where we collect clouds of points from Total [survey] stations, and then generate 3D surfaces of the ground, cut sections, and so on. We have no plans for that yet, but I think this could be another interesting market for Android tablets, as professionals are frequently on-site.

Facility management, project management, mining are other markets that come to mind.

Ralph Grabowski: What is the minimum hardware requirement?
Robert Graebert: We think any recent tablet, 7" and above, should work. Tablets from LG, Acer, Samsung have been tested; but $50 units might not work as well as $500 ones. I am showing you this on a year-old 8" Samsung tablet.

Ralph Grabowski: A big focus of your CAD software on portable devices in the previous decade was with Bluetooth. You used it to connect Windows CE devices with laser measuring and other electronic surveying equipment. I recall you telling me at the time that Bluetooth is a major pain, because every vendor implements it differently.
Robert Graebert: Bluetooth works OK today, but it has not yet been a major focus of our software development efforts.

Ralph Grabowski: What kinds of sensors are you making use of?
Robert Graebert: Sensors are very important to us. We already use the camera; we plan to use sensors to record the position of the tablet, as well as to connect it to external sensors. We already can place voice notes and take pictures.

Ralph Grabowski: Is the ARES API extended to support Android-specific functions, like the camera and GPS?
Robert Graebert: Not yet. Native developers can already access these Android APIs. If there is interest from LISP developers, we will add them.

Ralph Grabowski: What about the desktop APIs not mentioned? While some are specific to Windows, the full list includes CFX/DRX (simiar to Tx, I believe), VSTA, .net, Delphi, COM, Active X, and DCL.
Robert Graebert: We support in Android the same APIs as in our Mac and Linux versions. Tx C++ is just the new name for DRX, which has evolved since 2010, and it is our equivalent to ARX. The others you listed as "missing" are Windows-dependent.

After the interview took place, Graebert announced it had licensed the constraint manager from Spatial, which I expect will be added to the next release of ARES.

The beta version is almost ready; access will be granted to some of the developers and end users who subscribe at http://www.graebert.com/radon . The Radon software is expected to ship by the end of the year. There is no talk about pricing yet, but ARES for desktop is $795 for a perpetual license.

Graebert Gmbh is holding an ARES and Radon end-user and developer conference October 9-10 in Berlin.

http://www.graebert.com

About the Author

ralph Ralph Grabowski, TenLinks senior editor, is one of the leading CAD journalists and authors, with over a 100 books and many hundreds of articles. His upFront.eZine may be the industry’s longest running newsletter. Ralph holds a civil engineering degree. More…

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