A Sneak Peek into Architectural Studio
On a recent visit to Autodesk’s offices in downtown San Francisco, CADserver editor Martyn Day received a preview of a forthcoming innovative solution for principal architects and design teams
by MARTYN DAY, editor, CADserver
It is not every day that Autodesk allows a journalist to review pre-alpha software. In fact, in the twelve years I’ve been doing this, I don’t think it’s ever happened. However, for some reason, Autodesk has seen it fit to dispense with the Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and allow me access to a product that won’t probably see the light of day for a good few months, if not early 2002.
GRAVE'S DESIGN: This 2D sketch was generated in Architectural Studio by one of the illustrious pre-alpha testers, architect and product and interior designer Michael Graves, probably best known for his line of consumer products at Target stores in the U.S. Architectural Studio could be used to sketch furniture, umbrellas, wall clocks and countless other products.
The product in question is called Architectural Studio and was formerly known as StudioDesk (a far superior name in my book, fewer syllables for a start). Aimed at the signature architect or conceptual design team, the software approaches the design process from a much more liberated tack, providing free expression through new pen input technologies, capturing original design intent through freehand sketching and volume modeling. Drawing precision is great in products like AutoCAD but at the front end of the process that kind of accuracy just isn’t required and can prove too restricting for the initial phases of architectural design. AutoCAD, especially Architectural Desktop, also requires in depth knowledge and training to drive. It is perhaps no surprise that pencil and paper have ruled this artistic-lead segment due to the immediacy, natural feel and freedom allowed.
This is a basic 2D schema of a high rise area, drawn in 2D (above) and then made into a 3D cityscape (below). Note the interface: The right- hand palette offers all the 3D functionality, while the mid-left palette houses all the 2D commands. The green palette on the lower left selects the template (style) for the 2D tool selected and the top left icon shows who’s in the session and which participant has active control. In the display one window is active at any time, here it’s the lower right 3D model which displays the lower gray bar, offering added access to the display choice, zoom, pan, 3D rotate and trash (rubbish bin). The two other 3D views are snapshots of views and can not be edited. Only the 2D sheet (sepia background) and the lower right 3D window contain editable geometry.
Autodesk decided that it would experiment with developing a computer-based sketcher that could be as easy to use as paper but would go beyond its non-digital limitations, offering better creative freedom, extended sketching tools, all integrated into existing design and detailing systems, with the benefit of collaboration over the Internet. Other features will include interactive presentations, the integration of conceptual data with precision CAD drawings, 3D renderings, image display and animations.
Despite being early days, i.e. not even being in Beta test mode, Autodesk has already recruited an impressive array of pilot program participants: Michael Graves; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Cesar Pelli & Associates; Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF); Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK); NBBJ; Perkins Eastman Architects; VOA; Perkins & Will, to name but a few. Feedback appears to be very positive and Autodesk felt confident enough to allow me to visit HOK’s San Francisco offices and talk to the folks heading up the deployment and testing of Architectural Studio - but more on that later.
Architectural Studio came out of a research project initiated by the then chief technical officer, Carl Bass, and was centered around work done in a University on the East Coast, in Ithaca, New York. The concept was to literally take a traditional architect’s desk, tools and working methods and put that into a computer software package that could capture the initial ideas. When Dominic Gallello moved from heading up the MCAD team to being in charge of all software development, he gave StudioDesk the green light to add programmers to the team and develop a sellable solution.
As I said at the start, currently, Architectural Studio is in its pre-alpha form and is strictly an Internet-based application, as the main program currently resides on a server belonging to Autodesk, somewhere in the US. Users download a Java Applet (based on the Java Virtual Machine 1.3), which is about 15MB, and runs on PCs using Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0 and Windows 2000. However, most of the processing is done on Autodesk’s host server. All the data is stored on the server in an Oracle database, using XML as the key transaction language. By doing it this way, it’s possible to allow multiple users to sit in on an Architectural Studio session, reviewing concept designs or collaborating in design creation.
Look what I did! My first attempt (above) and my last session in Architectural Studio (below). With no training, just playing, ATS is really easy to pick up and learn. The top image is made out of a collection of manipulated primitives, utilizing the Boolean function and extensive use of altering the element ‘grips’. Note the shadows. The bottom image is mainly created using extruded 2D lines and again cut with Booleans and warped using the grips. At the moment much of the 3D line geometry is faceted and there’s no support for splines or surfaces but I expect this functionality to be added in future releases.
To run the software I needed a fairly thick pipe; our office ADSL (DSL) connection proved adequate for use (although the program ran slower in the afternoons, when the USA gets online). As Internet connections are not always on hand when inspiration strikes, Autodesk is developing a version, which will run like Microsoft Outlook, working in offline mode and synchronizing with the main server when an Internet connection is possible. I am still unsure about the whole ‘data-offsite’ approach to Application Service Provider (ASP) solutions but I admit that after using the software for a while no serious problems arose from this working methodology, although working offline would be favorable to guarantee speed and reliability.
According to Autodesk, any standard mouse or trackball can be used. However, it is recommended that a pen-based input device would prove better: At the moment Autodesk supports standard graphic tablets (e.g., Wacom Intuos); LCD tablet (e.g., Wacom PL-400); or PC tablet (e.g., Fujitsu Stylistic). At the time of launch, I am sure this brief list will be supplemented. For the purposes of this review I stuck to my trusty mouse and I experienced no problems at all. I’m shortly expecting a Wacom tablet to test out the complete freeform drawing experience.
The software is subscription-only, a payment method very much in vogue at the moment. While no price has been set yet, I wouldn’t expect an Architectural Studio subscription license to break the bank. My one concern here would be the data generated in the sessions: if you stop paying, there would be no way of accessing your data because, a) you don’t have access to the application, and b) your data would reside on a server somewhere else on the planet. On this matter, David Virtue, one of the key folks driving AST in the public domain told me, “The data is always yours. Anything generated on or offline will always be simultaneously backed up on your machine or network, so if you get disconnected, log-off, stop subscribing etc., you will always have access to your latest data."
For many years, CAD developers have decided that the "Windows look and feel" is the way user interfaces should be designed. However, 2D and especially 3D design has nothing in common with Microsoft Office and the format doesn’t lend itself to intuitive spatial design. Architectural Studio dispenses with the traditional Windows interface and really makes huge innovative strides towards offering a user-friendly environment to cater to both 2D and 3D.
On launching, Architectural Studio first presents you a dialogue to select the workspace you want to start up or create. Entering the main application, you are presented with a light blue-on-white grid that fills the screen. There are four small, scrollable, floating tool palettes (2D tools, 3D tools, templates and collaboration) and a small pull down menu bar at the top left hand corner (workspace, edit, insert, view and help). So in a fresh workspace you have a 90-percent free working area (think how cramped AutoCAD’s interface can get with the design center and all those docked palettes).
The icons used are very self explanatory and I found that without any training at all, it was possible to start drawing and modeling using Architectural Studio’s core functionality. The main concept that differs with Architectural Studio, when compared to traditional tools, is that design information is drawn on "sheets." These sheets are selected from either the 2D palette or the 3D one (depending on whether you want to sketch or model) and dragged/sized onto the main blue grid workspace. These sheets are sepia-colored and transparent, allowing the grid to be faintly displayed through the sheet.
At the bottom of each sheet there are a selection of related environment controls, like rotate, pan, zoom, minimize and trash. There’s also a fly-out menu of "deeper" controls indicated by an arrow. Sheets can be added to the workspace whenever required, and they can be overlaid and or minimized. There’s no set way of working with Architectural Studio; you can sketch or model from scratch or use imported 2D DWG data to sketch over the top of or model.
By default in this pre-alpha version, there are a number of pencils of varying widths, some highlighters or various colors, an eraser tool, a text entry tool, screen grabber, marquee tool (like Photoshop for working in specified areas) and paint fill. The Template palette provides a number of different styles that can be applied to the current drawing tool selection, providing sketching effects or more traditional vector-based lines.
As you’d expect, there are snaps and other drawing aids. As I only had time to use a mouse input device, I didn’t get the full effect of sketching with a pen, but I have spoken with several users who rave about the freehand capabilities.
To get modeling you need to open a "3D sheet"; to get this, simply click on the sheet icon from the 3D tools palette and drag out the size of sheet you want. Immediately a 3D grid will appear in the sheet, looking a little like 3D Studio VIZ. There is an array of primitive shapes that can be selected from the palette and "drawn" into the space, using the grid as a guide. 2D lines can be drawn and extruded to create walls or planar forms and the Boolean function allows some degree of sculpting. Forms can be grabbed and a number of editing nodes appear, allowing a fair degree of manipulation and alteration (tapers, deforms). Spinning and manipulating the view is done from the bottom of the window, which proved quite quick.
There are also a selection of standard views and advanced visualization features like shadows (which didn’t seem to degrade operating speed). At this point in time it would be fair to describe the 3D functionality as formative, as it doesn’t support splines, surfaces or complex Boolean operands. In fact, VIZ offers much more powerful 3D modeling tools, although perhaps this will come in time.
I have to say the "look" - in terms of colors and display of the models - is first rate. Even simple shapes and volumes get an artistic feel to the workspace. In many ways Architectural Studio reminds me of Paracomp’s old ModelShop program, which used to run on the Apple Macintosh. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the 3D side of Architectural Studio shapes up in forthcoming updates. Speaking of which, because the software resides on a server in the US, updates are carried out in the background, so that one day you might log on to find Autodesk has automatically revised the software, adding more powerful tools.
So far, I haven’t had a chance to try out Architectural Studio's collaboration tools - but after all there’s only one of me! But I have witnessed a live collaboration demonstration at Autodesk’s offices. In collaborative mode, participants are indicated on a floating tool palette, with access to create and manipulate geometry given to one person at a time. So teams can work together importing images, drawing files and creating concepts in group discussion, regardless of geographic location.
I’m not sure of the practicality of collaborative design at the initial stages of a project; most firm’s designers tend to work on their own concepts early on. Still, Architectural Studio provides a forum for this work to be displayed to others over the Web, combining the features found in PowerPoint with Net Meeting and CoCreate’s OneSpace collaborative design solution.
On my visit to HOK, one of the test sites for the software, the general feeling towards Architectural Studio was extremely positive. The "creatives" within the organization seemed to like the interface, the pen input and the fact that they didn’t need to switch between many software solutions to rough out their ideas.
HOK’s head of IT said, "‘When the software ships, the plan is to have a copy of Architectural Studio for every architect here at HOK." Initially, the company wanted to have the software running off its centralized servers, but the current complexity of support and maintenance of the software, plus its Oracle database, proved decisive.
As things now stand, running it off Autodesk’s Internet server with an ADSL connection was fast enough.
For me, the kind of words that come to mind when thinking about Architectural Studio would have to include: innovative, unique, refreshing, liberating, stylish, distributed, lightweight and simple. No other product I’ve seen works the way that Architectural Studio does in developing solutions to effectively capture the creativity of the artistic mind. There are some elements to the program that can be done effectively by software products already on the market. But to accomplish what Architectural Studio is capable of, a combination of applications – such as Microsoft PowerPoint and NetMeeting, Form Z, PhotoShop and AutoSketch - would be required, with all the necessary training and resources associated.
The distributed XML/Oracle architecture is very contemporary, the interface is revolutionary and the ease of use is unsurpassed in today's AEC market. The product, however, is still a work in progress. While the basics are in place there is still much to do in fleshing out on the promise of Architectural Studio. And here you must question just how far Autodesk plans to go with the product. At the moment, Autodesk is extolling the virtues of Architectural Desktop as the single building modeler, with 3D Studio VIZ as the rendering and modeling component and AutoCAD LT as the detailer.
Although Architectural Studio is seen as the conceptual front end, it could easily do so much more. AutoCAD is a great 2D drafting tool, but is showing its age. ADT is difficult to learn, unwieldy at 3D and has a long ways to go to deliver on the "Virtual Building" concept. The Architectural Studio team has its hands full trying to deliver all the things the conceptual designer would like but to me would serve as an ideal base for a 21st Century architectural modeling tool.
I find it puzzling that AutoCAD - a ten-year-old 2D product - is continually rebuilt and enhanced to do things it was never intended to do (3D modeling, Object-based design, collaborative design), and yet no one at Autodesk seems to realize it's becoming unwieldy. Despite 90 percent of its code being replaced, AutoCAD’s interface hasn’t changed that much over the last ten years. If Autodesk wonders why so few of its AEC customers truly embrace 3D, they should look towards its MCAD division’s success with Inventor and the MCAD software tools industry as a whole. Here, 3D modelers are now becoming the standard way of working because the systems are designed to be 3D from the start and have ease of use built in.
Ease of use is key here and Architectural Studio certainly has the potential to be so much more than a conceptual modeler. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the AutoCAD DWG installed base gives the "AutoCAD on steroids" development team much bigger muscles in the internal wrangling that must go on in Autodesk’s Built Environment Division. And it is true that most users prefer to stick to what they know and have invested in. But new thinking and invention can act as catalysts for change, and I hope the Architectural Studio team gets the chance to expand its capabilities beyond its current remit and become a framework for a new, all-encompassing architectural solution.