Autodesk Labs Builds Tools for Capturing Reality—And Improving On It

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more energy-efficient, it helps to start with a digital model—but sending a crew to do a centimeter-scale laser scan isn’t always practical or affordable. “You don’t need a laser-quality scan to do an energy model,” Mathews says. “We thought we would use Photofly to get rough dimensions. How many square feet is the roof and what is the orientation to the sun and how much of a shadow does that tree cast? But the next thing we knew, music videos were coming out using this thing.”

The video game industry “has glommed onto this the most,” says Mathews. “These guys are making entire worlds, and they spend a lot of time on the artistry of the characters and the environment. But it can take a week to make a single object, so these guys are starting to use Photofly. Take a few pictures, and you’ve got a tree stump.”

Autodesk isn’t charging anything—yet—for the 123D Catch Windows software that’s used to prepare images for comparison, or for the cloud computing resources that the process chews up. It’s not even a sure thing that 123D Catch, which is still in beta, will graduate to formal product status. Mathews says his goal at Autodesk Labs is to generate a finished product every one or two years, and there are plenty of other projects in the pipeline. “The point of Autodesk Labs is not to make sure that everything survives and goes into product,” says Mathews. “If some of these things don’t fail, we are not stretching ourselves enough.”

While Mathews clearly relishes the engineering details that go into systems like 123D Catch, he’s also a big-picture guy. And the big picture at Autodesk Labs, he says, has to do with some fundamental shifts that are changing the world of design. Cloud computing is putting nearly infinite computational power at the fingertips of designers. Imaging technologies like Photosynth and Photofly are bringing the analog objects and spaces into the digital realm, where they can be analyzed, adjusted, and endlessly optimized. And the technologies themselves are going down-market, allowing anyone with a creative itch and a few digital tools to solve design problems.

“Photofly is an example of what we call ‘reality capture disruption,'” says Mathews. “But infinite computing is probably the most important thing going on. If you just look at the cloud as better, faster, and cheaper, you miss the point, which is about doing new things that you couldn’t have done before. Think of computer-based evolution of structures—matching video game technology with building construction with evolutionary algorithms. This isn’t like CAD, which was a lever for humans. We are now using the computer to do things that a human can’t do.”

Here’s an Autodesk video introducing 123D Catch.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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