Digital Impressions: Virtual Reality at Autodesk University
Andrew Wheeler posted on December 07, 2016 |

CTO Jeff Kowalski opened with a keynote at Autodesk University 2016, which was held in Las Vegas. Though Kowalski’s boyish enthusiasm is reminiscent of a John Hughes character come to life, he seemed to be honestly expressing his thoughts on how technology has the power to unleash and amplify the potential for human ideas and creativity, instead of doing the opposite.

He did this by interweaving a narrative that moved along an arc from a few years past, where every technology he spoke about during past AU keynotes seemed slightly sci-fi and out of touch. Not so this year. We were finally privy to the kind of technology he is still talking about under his blanket concept of living in the augmented age.

What technology was he focusing on?

Well, machine learning was a big one. Kowalski ran the gamut of historic victories of programming and computation over human masters, beginning with tic-tac-toe, moving up to the defeat of chess champion Gary Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue, to IBM’s Watson defeating Jeopardy champions, and to Google’s DeepMind defeating Go champion Lee Se-dol.

Kowalski attempted to dispel common notions that powerful technologies like artificial intelligence are not a threat, and used the optimistic Asimov-like narrative that we could be living in a technological utopia. He believes we are living in an age of hyper-logical and hyper-intuitive augmentation by way of powerful new technologies, so human creativity as it applies to design is now basically limitless. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Kowalski attempted to dispel common notions that powerful technologies like artificial intelligence are not a threat, and used the optimistic Asimov-like narrative that we could be living in a technological utopia. He believes we are living in an age of hyper-logical and hyper-intuitive augmentation by way of powerful new technologies, so human creativity as it applies to design is now basically limitless. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Kowalski also talked about the power of immersive design technologies such as virtual reality (VR) to give design teams (distributed or not) the ability to design more accurately in an immersive environment in terms of 3D experience and in a way that inspires more creativity. He also sees new technologies such as generative design and robotics that present designers with thousands of options that they would never have thought of, which they can then select and present as their own using soon-to-be-released software like Autodesk Dreamcatcher.

Overall, Kowalski’s optimistic outlook and boyish enthusiasm was contagious and left you feeling inspired; as though he were a professor rather than the chief technical officer of a Fortune 500 company such as Autodesk, which is still primarily an engineering software design company.

Immersive Technology Announcements

Autodesk Forge for HTC Vive Is Available on Viveport

The big VR announcement from Autodesk is that its new Forge platform is teaming up with what is possibly regarded as the most popular and best VR experience: the HTC Vive. Autodesk believes in the power of immersive design and is tying up the HTC Vive to its Forge platform. There was no release date announced for Forge for Viveport, except for noncommittal phrases such as “coming soon” or sometime early next year.

The prospect of a reliable VR CAD program like Forge would present the exciting realization of a new and exciting tool for immersive VR product design and architecture visualization.

Cost: Forge on Viveport will probably follow the current model of $500/month with a free 12-month trial period that includes a smaller space on the cloud.

AR/VR Enhancements to the Forge Platform (for Developers)

For Forge developers, new augmented reality (AR) and VR capabilities have been added to the Forge 3D browser and mobile viewing experience. This update improves the ability of Forge’s growing cadre of cloud developers to streamline connections between data preparation and connectivity services. This means that Autodesk is looking at making it easier to develop real-time AR and VR applications.

In other new Forge news, a Render API will be coming out soon, and the goal is to improve the ability of developers to disperse rendering power to any applications they are developing. Forge Render API will soon be available, which will extend rendering power to any application.

Immersive VR Experiences on the Floor at Autodesk University 2016

One of many VR booths that showcased demos from HTC and Autodesk on the floor of a giant ballroom at the Venetian hotel.
One of many VR booths that showcased demos from HTC and Autodesk on the floor of a giant ballroom at the Venetian hotel.

HTC Vive: Automated Robotic Factory

There were several HTC Vive displays on the floor and the first one I signed up for was a simulation created by using a combination of Inventor and Stingray. After a few false starts, I was transported to a FANUC-like robotic manufacturing assembly line. I was able to port around to different locations and even take an elevator to get a bird’s-eye view of this automated factory.

There were even AR controls that fed my eyes with a range of information as “pop-ups” that hovered over different sections of the factory. In terms of planning an advanced manufacturing facility design and simulation, this exhibit was extremely effective. 

Each HTC/Autodesk station had copy explaining what to expect from each virtual experience.
Each HTC/Autodesk station had copy explaining what to expect from each virtual experience.

HTC Vive: Collaborative Porsche Design

Another HTC Vive experience, this one being similar to another one I’d seen at International Automotive Day earlier this year in Dearborn, Mich., at the Ford Motor Company Conference and Event Center. However, instead of sitting in the car on your own, you are with up to three friends and your hands are red, green, blue and yellow. And you have strange virtual bobble heads.

What was neat about this VR experience was that you could teleport all around and inside the car with a group. And you could grab tools like a flashlight and a magic wand that allowed you to pull back the design of the car, see inside it and teleport all around every side of it. And you weren’t competing for the same tools and seeing the same thing with your team, which could get messy. Instead, you could each explore in VR in your own way with your own tools.

Changing the design of a Porsche and seeing what’s underneath its pretty exoskeleton was accomplished with the wave of an HTC Vive controller.
Changing the design of Bandito Brothers Hackrod and seeing what’s underneath its pretty exoskeleton was accomplished with the wave of an HTC Vive controller.

Lenovo

Lenovo had a big space at Autodesk University and WorldViz was powering an unusual VR experience: a combination of both CAVE-style VR and workstation-powered headset-mounted units like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

WorldViz has a legacy in VR that goes back decades to the brief period of hype in the 1990s and has served high-end CAVE clients such as universities, commercial entities and government organizations.

The Lenovo station powered by WorldViz VR at Autodesk University 2016 in Las Vegas.
The Lenovo station powered by WorldViz VR at Autodesk University 2016 in Las Vegas.

I put on the goggles and picked up the CAVE controller (which is Y-shaped with two little silver balls on the tips) and was teleported to a VR environment that allowed me to see my avatar, as well as a fellow traveler and our digital Sherpa.

The first thing we did was pick up digital representations of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets, which achieved the intended effect of intertwining VR with the hardware you’d generally pick up in normal physical reality.

We could then wave our controllers at a wall to experience effects similar to a CAVE environment, but we were told that this virtual CAVE environment could also be achieved with a distributed team using this system. You could basically push a display and stretch it out along the X-, Y- and Z-axis by as many degrees as you wanted.

The last thing I remember doing was picking up a digital version of the Lenovo ThinkStation P910 workstation that was being promoted at the booth and then the demo was over.


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