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Mac Planet: More San Francisco developers

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123D Creature.
123D Creature.

The second developer I visited in San Francisco was Autodesk, a company known for its high-end 3D modelling and architectural software.

Autodesk has been around for over 30 years, founded in 1982 by John Walker. The first software was the Computer Aided Design software AutoCAD, well known to architects. Autodesk is based in San Rafael but it's a multinational - the San Francisco office we visited hosts a gallery of work created thanks its designer software.

Among the models of amazing buildings, including a replacement bridge for San Francisco with a single cable wrapping it so it can actually pivot in earthquakes, there's a huge dinosaur made from over 62,000 pieces of Lego. This was designed in AutoCAD, which figures out the construction down to the type of internal metal supports it needs to stand so high. But Autodesk's software has moved way beyond AutoCAD, which still ships in eight packs itself, including specialist electrical, civil and other versions. There's Maya the famous 3D modelling software, and specialist packages for simulations and other dedicated tasks, plus a whole lot of suites combining various applications targeted at specific segments of the industry.

And it's not just architecture - while still significant, all manner of designers use Autodesk software and it features heavily in movies, games and other fields. A relatively new branch is digital prototyping, used in manufacturing to visualise products.

So far so pro. A lot of the software is Windows, not just Mac. This company is software gold standard across the world, and I'm sure many readers have heard of it and some will have used it - you've all certainly seen buildings, products, movies and games designed or at least visualised using this software.

In an anomalous fashion, though, Autodesk entered the consumer world of mobile devices. Staff in the Toronto office of Autodesk secretly developed the Mac app Sketchbook as an iOS app in 2009, as a paint and drawing program for iDevices. When a million people downloaded it in 50 days, Autodesk management took it seriously. Now it has millions of users.

From that unexpected success, staff at Autodesk developed other apps for iOS with full official encouragement, both as handy adjuncts to the computer applications and as standalone apps for getting ideas down, developing visuals and more.

HomeStyler is for home owners redecorating - take a picture of your lounge, for example, and then try different products out (furniture, appliances and more, from known manufacturers - at least if you're in the US).

Apps for the Maker Movement let you create things digitally, then 3D print them. One of these is 123D creature, which starts out with a creature template you can easily manipulate with your finger tips into some pretty crazy shapes.

There are several 123D apps for iPad: 123D Sculpt, Design, Catch, Make intro and Creature. 123D Catch and Make intro also have iPhone versions.

123D Model lets you build your own 3D models from pictures - in the United States you can create something and get the 3D print sent to you for around US$50. There were several examples at the Autodesk gallery, along with a 3D printer. This gallery has its own website.

Chris Cheung is Product Manager of SketchBook from the Toronto office of Autodesk and was involved with the original iPhone apps and he was at the genesis of the iPad app. He was there in San Francisco to show us through the gallery, which features works by clients as well as by some of the people who work in various Autodesk departments. Chris was disarmingly earnest, showing us the range of works from highly complex models and high-tech designs to more traditional-style drawings and sketches, albeit achieved digitally on computers and tablets.

In developing the original iPad app SketchBookPro, which was available when the first iPad launched April 3rd 2010 (it had been announced in January of 2010), the team leveraged SketchBookMobile which had been created for iPhone and iPod touch. Immediately, finger-paintin' artists appreciated the extra real estate of the iPad screen. These apps, of course, come more into their own with stylii, allowing more precision.

The SketchBookPro iPad app was so successful, Chris was asked to present a live demo of it at the 2012 WWDC on the new iPad (ie, 'iPad 3') just released, which of course he hadn't seen until the rehearsal. This was the first iPad with Retina display, which the Autodesk engineers found relatively simple to scale up to thanks to experience with the Retina display iPhone.

While in the gallery, 123D Creature was demonstrated by a staff member. It sounds like a daunting prospect but the app has you start out with a wireframe model which you can manipulate with your fingertips to extrude, add and subtract limbs etcetera. You drag rings to thicken or slim limbs, necks and torsos, and you can use your own photographs as texture maps.

First you create your skeleton, then 'bake' it, then you can sculpt it further, colour it and so forth. The in-app tutorials are handy and you get up to speed fast (even I did). With symmetry on, do something to one side and it's instantly mirrored on the other - this is a real speedup also deployed in some of the other Autodesk mobile sketch apps. Once rendered, you can light the model and change the backgrounds.

There's an in-app 3D print command should you have access to a 3D printer, and the creatures can be exported as OBJ files to PCs running Autodesk Maya or 3ds Max.

Rather remarkably, the app is free, and I'm sure it's not just fantasy movie sets that this crops up on.

It was interesting to see such a solid and well-respected company's forays into the mobile space, and how the apps that result can work standalone or as project initiations for other platforms and applications.

- NZ Herald

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