Point Clouds have emerged in the last two years with a good deal of attention. People in Industrial, Manufacturing, and Architectural/Construction industries are looking forward to the promise that portable Laser scanners can not only deliver far more accurate results than they are accustomed to, but also in a manner that actually costs less than they pay for as-built surveys and reverse engineered component conditions.
Autodesk has simultaneously been pushing a large volume of research in the field of what they call “Reality Capture”, and have started pushing technologies such as Photogrammetry and Point Clouds in the last two years. We have seen numerous cycles of Photo-related software on Autodesk Labs, but until just recently, very little in point cloud adoption. Autodesk has participated in numerous discussions about Point Cloud Technology since the release of the Point Cloud object import for Civil 3D in the fall of 2009, corresponding to their mid-cycle Subscription Advantage pack (later added to the release of Civil 3D 2011), which gave the ability to import a cloud, and create a Civil 3D surface from that, but unfortunately little more.
While reviewing some Point Cloud applications and related videos, I discussed numerous aspects of the point clouds with my boys, and showed them some video demos. I asked them what they thought about all this. My youngest responded by saying “Its just a bunch of dots.” So far folks, he is absolutely correct.
Without better functionality, point clouds are really just a bunch of dots. Seeing a lot of smoke, but little fire, I decided to do some digging and find out what is going on.
Gonzalo Martinez, the Director of Strategic Research and Autodesk was kind enough to chat about what Manufacturing had planned for implementing point clouds in the near future. He is actually responsible for similar research through all divisions of Autodesk, but our conversation was limited to Manufacturing.
Martinez told me that there was in fact a lot going on with Point Cloud technology at Autodesk, and that they had been researching point clouds and photogrammetry for a couple of years before anything was ever released. The first thing that was noticed was that the measurement devices had limited capabilities, and were difficult to use. The worst part of it was that the technology was very expensive, and was the greatest roadblock in the process. If no one could afford it, there would be little reason to design an application for it.
Autodesk had in fact been working with a few companies, mostly to get their import formats established. “We have worked quite successfully with one company who has recently released an affordable Laser Measurement device” noted Martinez. Manufacturing and Industrial software development has worked very closely with Geomagic. Great collaboration has developed between the two companies, and with them a firm coverage of the industrial segment has been achieved.
Autodesk found that the most use of the product was for industrial applications, and that the large datasets were not more than 10 million points. The original Subscription Advantage Pack for Civil 3D showed a huge increase of up to a 2 billion points in a cloud, a result of the Ambercore adoption by AEC (see below). The Manufacturing and Industrial team at Autodesk developed their own point cloud indexing core, and Martinez went on to confirm that today, they can successfully index up to 4 billion points in a cloud.
“Now that we can import the data, how can we take this feature, which is by it’s nature hard to understand, and deliver something that is pleasing and interesting for users?” Gonzalo asked.
They decided that their time would best be served by releasing the “Point Cloud Shape Extraction for AutoCAD 2011” on Autodesk Labs, marking the first and only initiative to get shape extraction and point cloud technology into the hands of the general manufacturing segment. These tools permitted AutoCAD users to import a point cloud, and extract general geometric shapes from selected groups of points within the cloud. “The Shape Extraction capability needs to be modular, so that many people from different segments of design can use it” Gonzalo noted. In an attempt to further the development of this technology, the Point Cloud Module is built on an open API that users and 3rd party developers can use to build their own solutions with.
“Autodesk is very, very interested in all aspects of Reality Capture, and there is some Great Stuff coming indeed”. Gonzalo emphasized.
While I personally did not like the general shape extraction toolset very well, I was quite fond of the cross section feature that was included, and is how I derived the features from the clouds I worked with. “That was one feature that I had requested” said Martinez. I was quick to thank him for that, since shapes were difficult to accurately investigate, but the cross section was very easy to review.
A quick look at Geomagic
After the discussion with Gonzalo Martinez, I decided to get gather some information about Geomagic. Geomagic has been in the reverse engineering process for years, and their products have been through substantial development. Their product lines contain workflows that develop meshed objects from point cloud information, and one of their flagship products, Geomagic Studio 12, is certified as an Autodesk Inventor Integrated application. That application establishes a direct link to Autodesk Inventor, allowing existing Geomagic’s meshed objects to be directly handed off to Inventor. Geomagic further adds functionality to verify post manufactured components through that Inventor link, and highlights any differences found by their software.
Neither Autodesk nor Geomagic wished to comment further on their relationship, and to date, the collaboration seems heavily biased to Geomagic’s side of the fence. With that much available functionality in a market where laser measurement is costly, I am left to wonder what direction Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions Division is planning.
The only comment the division would make regarding the future of this product was a reference to the upcoming product release, and ….. snickering. Whether this means features will be implemented within Autodesk Inventor, or another release of Labs tools for AutoCAD is unclear. The only thing that could be gathered about the near future was “great stuff coming soon”. What they are willing to say is that they are very focused on the results from the Shape Extraction Technology Preview.
How are people using the technology? What is missing? What do users try to accomplish, that the existing toolset or workflow will not permit?
“In the next two years, there will be an explosion in all aspects of Reality Capture Technology”, Martinez noted. “Our vision is that when these devices become more democratized, Autodesk will have the necessary tools available .”
The AEC division was the first Autodesk product group to release a Point Cloud solution. Since a licensing deal was struck in 2008, Autodesk has been using the Ambercore Point Cloud Technology, which helped Civil 3D to read, store, and index the vast amount of data in today’s Point Clouds. “We are very excited about the first release of our technology within Autodesk’s AutoCAD® Civil 3D® and Map 3D products,” said Ted Reeler, Director, Projects and Technology at Ambercore. “We are confident that this new functionality for point clouds will be a significant asset to their customers, and we look forward to our ongoing collaboration with Autodesk.” Since then, most of the collaboration with Laser Scanning Manufacturers has been to establish a good import process around FARO’s data formats.
AEC reflected on the feedback and results after inclusion of the Point Cloud within the Civil 3D Object set, and the subsequent Labs’ Point Cloud Shape Extraction Technology Preview. “Our initial point cloud implementation was geared around viewing of the data. Customers made it clear they wanted deeper access to the data in the cloud.” Zeeben pointed out.
The result was a lack of continuity between the initial development of the point cloud applications and the civil user segment. The AEC team continued the point cloud application development by leveraging existing workflows of surfacing in Civil 3D. “We are always working towards the issues that affect the civil segment specifically” Zeeben explained.
On February 15th, 2011, Autodesk Labs released the second volley in user involvement for Point Cloud Technology with the “Civil 3D Point Cloud Feature Extraction Technology Preview”. This preview delivers site feature recognition to Civil 3D users, and marks a huge jump in Point Cloud technology breakthroughs. The ability for the application to delineate the difference between groups of points within a single cloud mass.
“The technology is scalable across all design industries. Nick regarded, noting that while HVAC, MEP, and Architectural tools have not specifically been pursued, it was simply applying a branch to the application of the technology.
“We can develop the technology for all industries, and then leverage that across various disciplines.”
Autodesk needed a strong dataset for development, and wanted something “closer to home”, and had FARO perform a digital scan of their internal building improvements. I wanted to know more about the results, and what Revit was doing with the point cloud technology. Kyle Bernhart, one of the Program Managers for Revit, stepped in for a few words. “The results of the scan were actually awesome, very precise and detailed.”
I asked about the obvious desire to see architectural specific feature recognition technology and MEP clash detection.
“We have a clear focus on rapid authoring of a BIM based upon Point Cloud information” Bernhart noted. “In future releases, we may explore more automated workflows for BIM authoring, but we can’t confirm any future functionality.”
The Revit team is also looking into other 3rd party vendor uses for the point cloud technology API. “While there are many potential user scenarios for Point Clouds within the BIM software space, we are looking at rapid model development as the target, and relying on our partner ecosystem to contribute additional value. Bernhart concluded. “This is the most valuable opportunity for us.” Nick Zeeben shared a similar outlook.
Autodesk has definitely kept a tight lid on the February release of the Feature recognition capabilities that were being developed for AutoCAD. I can only hope that the results from the second Labs preview will develop into a fuller capability of feature recognition, and subsequent object meshing, that would be implemented in AEC and Manufacturing segments. Clearly this would benefit everyone concerned.
Unfortunately, the external cost of scanning hardware is still not a reasonable feasibility for most companies, and until that changes, Autodesk will not diverge from their current development path. All camps are analyzing user applications for the technology in Labs, and seem to be hopeful that 3rd parties will continue to develop specific product uses for Autodesk’s Point Cloud API’s. Reality Capture is a definite part of our future. However the problem is this:
There are two technologies on parallel tracks competing for research and development funds. Point clouds are very expensive to the data recipient, and the technology of our design tools is not developed significantly enough to create a market demand for lower cost hardware and equipment. Photogrammetric data is virtually free from a good digital camera, and the results from the Autodesk labs Photofly Technology Preview were incredible. To make matters worse, we see companies like Geomagic whose existing customer base isn’t likely to budge, and Autodesk is not in the business of burning bridges with 3rd party vendors.
Will Autodesk’s Photogrammetry breakthroughs put Point Clouds on a shelf?
Autodesk isn’t willing to comment. They are emphatic that all industries represented in the Autodesk team are watching the results of each Labs preview. If I had to guess, I’m putting my money on AEC. The civil segment is already having to deal with the proliferation of LiDAR datasets. Combined with the success of the Ambercore base, and the incredible advancement in point clouds feature recognition for Civil 3D 2011, I bet that AEC will push a little further with the technology previews, and then implement some polished tools, prior to a hard look at the progress of Laser Scanning technology democratization.
Manufacturing seems like the wildcard. I hesitate to come right out and speculate on what seems like a reasonable possibility, out of concern that I’ll have breached some NDA agreement. I will leave that one to your imagination. If we do not hear something official this spring, I will be surprised.
Anything further is complete speculation, but the next two years will be a clear indication of the future of Autodesk development in reality capture.