Autodesk’s REAL explores capture/compute/create

Mar 14, 2016 | Hot Topics

Autodesk’s REAL conference last week was a mashup of technology, both market-ready and in the creation stage, and scientific, artistic and business endeavors that show how why this tech matters. Like last year, it was fascinating; unlike last year, we’re seeing real, revenue-generating examples. Last year, it felt more as though people were there to see what it could do; this year, people came with ideas and were looking to see if the tech had progressed to business-viable readiness.

The sizzle definitely won out — the best attended sessions were on augmented reality, 3D printing with unusual materials and anything Hollywood. Autodesk will soon post videos from the event, and I’ll update with links when that happens, but here are my descriptions of the highlights:

  • 3D printed violins. Imagine wanting to play a musical instrument but being unable to afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars a traditional instrument might cost. As a parent or educator, you have to dole out limited resources where they might do the most good, but what if you could extend those resources to go further? Kaitlyn Hova talked about her love of music and her family’s desire to create a 3D printed violin that was affordable and sounded decent. I hope you can see the video soon; the sound of a $70 violin soaring through the open space of REAL was stunning. Now think bigger picture. What if it’s not an instrument? What if it’s sports equipment, the gear for a science experiment or a dinosaur skeleton? Fun, educational, accessible, affordable.
  • Mapping sea ice floes — and then “printing” the floes in actual ice to show how fragile and vulnerable they are. Yes, I don’t know how commercial this might be (ever, if at all) but sometimes science needs to happen for the sake of discovery and education. [The mapped the top of the floes, guessed at the undersea part and then printed molds used to freeze the ice.] Till Wagner, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, talked about the challenges of this kind of scanning, with everything moving and polar bears playing with your control points.
  • The point of the event is convergence. You might not know you need 3D printed materials than can respond to actuators, but it suddenly becomes more interesting and accessible when you see someone else using the combo. One of the most interesting and strange presentations was by Behnaz Farahi of the University of Southern California and an Autodesk’s artist in resident at Pier 9, its fabrication space in San Francisco. Ms.Farahi noticed that our skin develops goosebumps under some circumstances, like wind or a look. What if a piece of clothing could respond in a similar way? She developed a material that was flexible enough to respond to an actuator, that was driven by a sensor. The result was this rippling cape, which you can see here.
  • I was so not into this until I realized that the artist had created something unique and insightful. If this material moves in response to sensor input, why couldn’t we develop socks that constrict for heart patients who’ve been sitting too long? Or that jiggles a baby with colic? Or heats/cools a mattress pad when I’m restless at night? The point of art is to make one aware; this artist combined her vision with technology to make something unique. Now, do I need this cape. Oh, no. So not. No. You can see more of Ms. Farahi’s work here.
  • Autodesk hosted a business plan competition as part of Day 1. Four companies presented their concept to a panel of venture capital investors and the REAL audience. A couple of thoughts:
    • These presenters were so polished, so professional, so calm and cool in front of possible investors and an audience of potential competitors. I last sat in on such a session a couple of years ago, and none of the business teams were as cool under pressure. If you’re invited to one of these: practice, practice, practice.
    • The businesses were all revenue generators (of course, save they were presenting to VCs). Lucid VR wants us all to buy its virtual reality camera, the size of a cellphone. Minds Mechanical has proprietary cloud-based metrology and inspection software that’s being used by some of aerospace’s biggest names. AREVO Labs is patenting high performance carbon fiber materials for 3D printing on their scalable manufacturing platform. Finally, UNYQ gave the REAL audience an update on what they’ve been doing since their REAL 2015 session. UNYQ makes prosthesis covers that enable an artificial limb to represent its human more appropriately — it’s fashion statement meets defiance of limitations. UNYQ is now taking on the world of scoliosis braces, those ugly things that are the bane of far too many teenage girls’ lives.
    • All were great ideas and all the pitches were well done. I’m glad I didn’t have to select a winner, but the panel of VCs did: AREVO Labs won.
  • My favorite session of the event was Arup, hired to finish the original architect’s concept for the Spanish cathedral La SagraIda Familia. It’s been under construction for 125 years, on and off. It sits in the middle of the city of Barcelona, Spain, so there’s no room to stage the construction. It’s a famous tourist site because the architecture can best be describes as “eccentric”. To get the job done, Arup uses drones, scanning, imaging, 3D/4D/5D and some seriously cool construction techniques to make this masterpiece a reality. Check out these gorgeous images of the basilica as it is now, and this video of the current and planned towers: It’s only 75 seconds long — go watch it!

But the best thing about REAL was its diversity. Students, artists, scientists, technologists; AEC, manufacturing; US and international. It’s good to get out of our cocoons every so often and see how someone else approaches a problem and tries out technologies to find a solution — or invests something new, if nothing exists. Yes, a lot of the tech on display at REAL isn’t 100% ready for commercial use and, yes, the business cases aren’t always obvious. It is clear, though, that capture – compute – create is coming to you, if it’s not already there, so get ready.


Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is of Fort Mason, the venue for REAL, with the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out of the mist. If you squint, you can see the REAL logo on the building in the center.