Why CAD should care about AR/VR?
VR (Virtual Reality) is all niche headsets and gaming? Or putting bunny ears on selfies… VR basically has a marketing problem. Looks cool but for many in enterprise it seems a niche technology to preview architectural buildings etc. In fact, the use cases are far wider if you get passed those big boxy headsets. AR (Augmented Reality) is essentially bits of VR on top of something see-through. There’s a nice overview video of the Microsoft Hololens from Leila Martine at Microsoft, including some good industrial case studies (towards the end of the video), here. Sublime have some really insightful examples too, such as a Crossrail project using AR for digital twin maintenance.
This week there have been some _really_ very significant announcements from two “gaming” engines, Unity and the Unreal Engine (UE) from Epic. The gaming engines themselves take data about models (which could be CAD/AEC models) together with lighting and material information and put it all together in a “game” which you can explore – or thinking of it another way they make a VR experience. Traditionally these technologies have been focused on gaming and film/media (VFX) industries. Whilst these games can be run with a VR headset, like true games they can be used on a big screen for collaborative views.
Getting CAD parts into gaming engines has been very fiddly:
- The meshed formats in VFX industries are quite different from those generated in CAD.
- Enterprise CAD/AEC user are also unfamiliar with the very complex VFX industry software used to generate lighting and materials.
- CAD / AEC parts are frequently very large and with multiple design iterations so a large degree of automation is needed to fix them up repeatedly (or a lot of manual hard work)
- Large engineering projects usually consist of thousands of CAD parts, in different formats from different suppliers
Many have focused on the Autodesk FBX ecosystem and 3DS Max, who with tools like their Slate materials editor allowed the materials/lighting information to be added to the CAD data. This week both Unreal and Unity announced what amounts to end-to-end solutions for a CAD to VR pipeline.
Last year at Siggraph in July 2017, Epic announced Datasmith for 3DS Max with the inference of another 20 or so formats to follow (they were listed on the initial beta sign-up dropdown) including ESRI, Solidworks, Revit, Rhino, Catia, Autodesk, Siemens NX, Sketchup; the website today lists fewer but more explicitly, here. This basically promises the technology to get CAD data from multiple formats/sources into a form suitable for VFX.
This week they followed it up with the launch of a beta of Unreal Studio. Develop3D have a good overview of the announcement, here. This reminds a lot of the slate editor in 3DS Max, and it looks sleek enough that your average CAD/AEC user could probably use without significant training (there are a lot of tutorial resources). With an advertised launch price of $49 per month it’s within the budget of your average small architectural firm and the per month billing makes it friendly to project based billing.
Epic are taking on a big task to deliver the end-to-end solution themselves, but they seem to know what they are doing. Watching their hiring website over the last six months they seem to have been hiring a large number of staff both in development (often in Canada) but also sales/business for these projects (hint: the roles often tagged with enterprise – so easy to spot). Over the last couple of years they’ve also built up a leadership team for these project including Marc Petit, Simon Jones and Christopher Murray and it’s worth reviewing the marketing material those folks are putting out.
On the same day as the UE announcement Unity countered with an announcement of providing a similar end-to-end solution via a partnership with PiXYZ, a small but specialist CAD toolkit provider.
Whilst the beta is not yet released, PiXYZ existing offerings look a very good and established technology match. Their website is remarkably high on detail of specific functionality and it looks good. PiXYZ Studio for example has all the mesh fix up tools you’d like for cleaning up CAD data for visualisation and VFX. PiXYZ Pipeline seems to cover all your import needs I’ve heard credible rumours that a lot of the CAD focused functionality is built on top of some of the most robust industry licensed toolkits, so the signs are positive that this will be a robust, mature solution rather fast. This partnership seems to place Unity in a position to match the Datasmith UE offering.
It’s less clear what Unity will provide on the materials / lighting front, but I imagine something like the Unreal Studio offering will be needed.
What did we learn from iRay and vRay in CAD
Regarding static rendering in VFX land: vRay, Renderman, Arnold and iRay compete, with iRay taking a fairly small share. However, via strong GPU, hardware and software vendor partnerships iRay has become the dominant choice in enterprise CAD (e.g. Solidworks Visualize etc). CAD loves to standardise and so it will be interesting if a similar battle of Unity vs Unreal will unfold with and eventual dominant force.
Licensing and vendor lock-in
This has all been enabled by the shift in licensing models of the gaming engines demonstrating they are serious about the enterprise space. For gaming a game manufacturer would pay a percentage such as 9% to use a gaming engine to create their game. This makes no sense in the enterprise space to integrate against a gaming engine which is a tiny additional feature on the overall CAD/PLM deployment. So, you will see lots of headlines about “Royalty Free” offerings, the revenues are in the products such as Datasmith and Studio. The degree to which both vendors rely on 3rd party toolkits and libraries under the hood e.g. CAD translators, the PiXYZ functionality etc will also dictate the profitability via how much Unreal or Unity have to pay in licensing costs.
These single vendor / ecosystem pipelines are attractive but relying on the gaming engine provider for the CAD import and materials could potentially lead to lock-in which always makes some customers nervous. Having done all the work of converting CAD data into something fit for rendering and VR I could see the attraction of being able to output it to iRay, Unity or Unreal, which of course is the opposite of what these products are.
There’s a large greenfield virgin market in CAD/AEC of customers who have very limited or no use of visualisation. Whilst the large AEC firms may have little pockets of specialist VFX, your average 10 man architecture firm doesn’t, like wise for the bulk of the Solidworks base. This technology looks simple enough for those users but I suspect uptake by SMBs may be slower than you might presume because for projects won on the lowest-bid why add a VR/AR/professional render component if Sketchup or similar is sufficient?
In enterprise CAD, AEC and GIS there are already VR users with bespoke solutions and strong specialist software offerings (often expensive) and it will be interesting to see the dynamics between these mass-market offerings and the established high-end vendors such as ESI.io or Optis.
These announcements are also setting Unity and Unreal up to start nibbling into the VFX, film and media ecosystems where specialist complex materials and lighting products are used. For many in AEC/CAD these products are a bit overkill. A lot of these users are likely to be less inclined to build their own materials and simply want libraries mapping the CAD materials (“this part is Steel”) to the VFX materials (“this is Steel and Steel should behave like this in response to light”). In the last month or so we’ve seen UE also move into traditional VFX territory with headlines such as “Visually Stunning Animated Feature ‘Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor’ is the First Produced Entirely in Unreal Engine” and Zafari – a new children’s cartoon TV series made using UE.
I haven’t seen any evidence of any integrations with the CAD materials ecosystems bridging that CAD materials (“this part is Steel”) to the VFX materials (“this is Steel and Steel should behave like this in response to light”) part of the solution. If this type of solution becomes mainstream it would be nice to see the material specialists (e.g. Granta Design) and CAD catalogues (e.g. Cadenas) carry information about how VFX type visualisation should be done based on the engineering material data. One to look out for.
Overall, I’m very interested about these announcements, lots of sound technology and use cases but whether the mass market is quite over the silly VR headset focus just yet…. we’ll soon find out J.