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AU 2013: in review

Lips cracked from dehydration, eyes blackened from exhaustion, we sat jaded in the back of a limo as we tracked past Venice, the Eiffel Tower, and New York. Autodesk University had ended and we were returning to the real New York. A woman sat next to me in the plane, blackened glasses hiding similarly blackened eyes, she instructed her friend “we are not going out this weekend” and promptly slumped into sleep. A week in Vegas does that to you.
 
This was my first AU. The scale is unfathomable. With as many as fifty sessions running in parallel, at best I saw 2% of AU. Taking into consideration all the parties, booths, and training opportunities, I probably saw less than 1%. It is therefore impossible for me to summarize the conference in its entirety although I can provide a summary of my experience. 
 
The scale of AU speaks to the challenges of Autodesk. They have a huge development team serving an equally large range of customers. At AU I saw presentations on computational design, MEP services modeling, field based data capture, the simulation of wind, the creation of point-cloud data, the cloud, the future of manufacturing, and on and on. There was even more to be seen outside the architecture presentations I mostly occupied myself with. Considering the amount of iron they have in the fire, Autodesk do a remarkable job. But attending AU makes it easy to see why certain products, like Revit, may receive – what more than one delegate I spoke to called – ‘unremarkable’ updates for the next revision. 
 
The two big trends I saw were: computational design and cloud-based services. I’ve already written to long posts on the computational design symposium and the Dynamo workshop. To recapitulate: Dynamo has quickly gone from being a proof of concept to being an enlightened new direction for Autodesk. As a visual programming interface with access to Revit’s API, Dynamo has the power to not only generate the complicated geometry synonymous with parametric modelling, but to also automate the complicated and time-consuming parts of Revit. The Dynamo development team is moving very quickly on this project, releasing everything as open-source software and eliciting community development through a plugin ecosystem. Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk, publicly blessed the project, both in the keynote and at the computational design symposium. This puts the development team undrepressure to deliver for 2014. By all indications they will. If I had any advice to give after seeing AU 2013, it would be to try Dynamo. 
 
The cloud has been a focus of Autodesk for a number of years. At AU2013 they continued to push their growing range of 360 offerings and their subscription pricing model. Announced at AU2013 was CAM360, a cloud based product for machinists. According to Autodesk press release, this “provides users virtually anytime, anywhere access to flexible, next generation tools to create, simulate and turn their digital prototypes into physical reality”. I’ll leave you to decipher what that actually means. On a meta-level this means Autodesk are continuing to bank on the cloud as a way to ‘make it rain’ in the future. Whether the clouds cumulate above where Autodesk is positioning itself, remains to be seen.
 
In general I found the quality of the speakers at AU to be not much better than an Autodesk Press release. There were pockets of really engaging presentations, like the Computational Design Symposium and the Manufacturing Panel Discussion, but overall I was disappointed by the presentations that I saw. With so much going on, it is hard to know if I saw a representative sample or just encountered bad luck. Certainly one of the challenges of AU, and something I would put more effort into next time, is selecting the sessions when so much is going on.
 
To be honest, the presentations were primarily a side-show to the main attraction: the other 9000 people. Most of the major presentations could be watched at home, but being able to meet people face-to-face – often for the first time – was invaluable. The irony being that while we were all discussing the value of distributed, cloud-based work, one of the most valuable parts of the discussion was that it occurred in person rather than being mediated through the cloud. The truth being that while technology advances, success will always come down to the people. 
 
The parties in Vegas are legendary. Autodesk University was no exception. As a newcomer and an introvert, parties are not always my thing, but I found the people at AU to be extremely welcoming and I had a good time at all the events I attended. CASE held two parties. A hackathon inside a bar where we all opened our laptops, did some coding, drank, and shared what we were up to. The next night we packed 500 people into the same bar and celebrated long into the night. 
 
I can see why people don’t like Autodesk University. It is overwhelming, the presentations are not always brilliant, the venue is not to everyone’s tastes. Yet for all of that, I found it valuable to attend. I got to meet many of the people I’d only seen on Twitter, I got a feel for the vastness of the industry, and I got some insight into the issues we are collectively facing. But like the woman on the plane next to me, I’m about to slump into sleep and vow not to go out this weekend. 
 
- Daniel Davis of CASE
 
Review day by day:

 
Other reviews of the week:

 
Links to key videos: