Autodesk Labs is home to newtechnologies and ideas-in-progress from Autodesk engineers. Douglas Look explains how Autodesk Labs works to form a bridge from traditional product development cycles to more user-centric innovation.
What does Autodesk Labs do?
Autodesk Labs was launched as a forum for sharing new technologies, concepts and ideas with potential users and customers. Our purpose is to offer previews so our developers, engineers and users can have a discussion about technology and ideas. At this early stage in development, we have the opportunity to explore and modify significant aspects of a technology, such as the way the user works with it. By the time an application is in beta, those fundamentals are typically much more fixed.
Project Draw is one great example of this kind of interaction. It’s a vector-based drawing tool that you can use without downloading any software. After we posted it, users told us they liked the Web-based tool. But they asked, “What happens if I need to take my drawing on a plane or I’m disconnected?” We modified the technology using Google Gears to allow users to work with drawings off-line.
Another customer suggested we make it easier to upload Autodesk Inventor models to Project Freewheel, which lets users view 3-D models and 2-D data without installing any software. The Autodesk Labs team came up with the Share Now plug-in for Autodesk applications, which adds one-step publishing to Project Freewheel.
How does Autodesk Labs differ from the company’s R&D function?
While most R&D focuses on the technology, we take a multi-disciplinary approach to development, bringing design, technology and business concepts into consideration. In addition to online feedback and blogs about the technology previews, we interview customers and use ethnographic research methods. Recently, we completed a study with the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology to gain insight into the nature of collaboration from the user’s point of view.
What’s your vision for the future of design software?
Without a doubt, design software innovation depends on a user-centered — not technology-centered — approach. The first approach takes into account feedback from many perspectives before an application is built, while the second approach requires users to adapt to the finished software’s function.
Autodesk Labs takes a user-centered approach to development, so our exploration is not limited to potential enhancements to Autodesk software. We are looking broadly at new ways of interacting with data, making it simpler to use — without limiting users to simplistic capabilities.
Take the complex problem of 3-D navigation. We look at software, hardware and new interfaces such as pens and tablets. At our most recent user conference, we previewed a tablet laptop that we made into a virtual viewer. Users could tilt and angle it to see different aspects of a 3-D digital model. Autodesk Labs also developed a special version of Autodesk Design Review software for a multi-touch computer interface and wall-size display to evaluate ways to explore 3-D digital models with two hands and gestures instead of a computer mouse.