EarningsThe AEC acquisitions keep rolling — and, so far this year, show a fascinating extension into newer traditional realms. Bentley Systems just announced that it has acquired Acute3D, the French provider of Smart3DCapture software.

Smart3DCapture turns photos into 3D models in applications such as city-scale 3D mapping and cultural heritage digitization but also in industrial applications. Does this sound familiar? It should — Smart3DCapture is, according to Acute3D, “is at the heart of Autodesk 123D Catch (formerly known as Photofly), a cloud service with now several millions of frequent users, and of the new Autodesk ReCap Photo solution”. [I’ve asked Bentley to comment on the relationship with Autodesk and Acute3D’s other OEM clients will update if there’s anything to say. See below.] 

Bentley says that it plans to take this to the next step, marrying observations of existing conditions with design and construction modeling. UAVs (aka drones) and other rapid imaging systems make capturing data fast and affordable, so processing photographic data for construction progress reports, for example, is the next logical step. Bentley already owns Pointools for laser scanning and has various tools for managing photogrammetric data, but the cloud rendering capability (and the fact that even a cell phone can create images of sufficient quality) should put this into the hands of a broader audience.

Bentley’s CTO Keith Bentley points out that [r]ather than a voluminous cloud of discrete points, Acute3D produces a 3D ‘reality mesh’ – intrinsically in the same geometric idiom as engineering models, readily aligning the real-world context.” Meshes are more intuitive for humans than point clouds and more easily understood by CAD-like products.

Acute3D is a very young company, founded in 2011 and already is working on projects as diverse as large-scale 3D city modeling from both aerial and street view photography, and current conditions capture for construction sites, manufacturing facilities, mining operations, pipelines, and oil and gas exploration.

Acute3D co-founder Dr. Jean-Philippe Pons said, “When [we] founded Acute3D, our vision was to make widely available, at industrial precision, what we now describe as reality modeling. With our team, we are very pleased to be joining Bentley to complete our reach. Together, we have already shared and embarked upon many new initiatives to incorporate reality modeling within design and construction modeling. Voila!”

Liberty Bell Capture

Voila, indeed. I’ve used Smart3DCapture as implemented in Autodesk’s 123D Catch and found it to be an amazing way to record a scene or object and use it for downstream modeling. The image above is my 123D Catch of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, taken with whatever iPhone I had at the time. The lighting was tough; it’s a major US historical artifact and is showcased in a building with relatively dim lighting overall but a glass wall behind the Bell. 123D Catch did a great job of processing the lighting conditions, registering the photos and creating a mesh of the scene.

Laser scanning is perfect for highly detailed, intricate situations — but it does require dedicated hardware, at least right now. Photogrammetry-based solutions are evolving quickly as cloud computing makes it possible to analyze several/dozens/thousands of photographs of a subject, all taken from different viewpoints, and detect pixels corresponding to a particular physical point in the scene. Once that’s been calculated, the relative orientations of photos are calculated and the software stitches the images together to create an accurate 3D representation of the scene. It’s all made possible by a combo of photogrammetry, computational geometry algorithms and cloud compute capability.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed but it seems that most of the Acute3D team will be joining Bentley.

Update: I asked Bentley and Autodesk to comment on whether this changes anything that’s visible to users. Bentley tells me:

“Over the years Bentley has acquired many companies that have had relationships with Autodesk—and, in fact, Bentley is the largest 3rd party developer for Autodesk in the AEC markets—and we continue to manage those relationships in a straightforward and professional matter. The same can be expected with respect to Acute3D acquisition.”

And Autodesk says:

“Autodesk had purchased perpetual rights to Acute3D technology and significantly improved upon that source code base over several years. As a result the Acute3D acquisition will not have an impact on Autodesk products or technology. We’re seeing increasing recognition from our customers of the value of reality computing technologies across all industries, so we see this acquisition as further validation of the power of reality capture technologies such as Autodesk 123D Catch, Autodesk ReCap and Autodesk Memento to enable customers to make the real world computable.”

— sounds to me like absolutely nothing will change.