Today's Research, Tomorrow's Software
by B.J. Novitski
There is a crystal ball that can show us the future of architectural software. It depends not on gimmickry but on the fact that tomorrow's technology goes through years, sometimes decades, of development before it becomes commercially available.
All over the world, architecture professors and their graduate students are engaged in innovative research. For many, the goal is to produce inspiring design tools, such as those that make 3D modeling more intuitive, in contrast to the pedestrian production tools offered by most commercial software developers. For others, the goal is to improve the integration between applications, promising efficiency benefits to the entire construction industry.
One example of research-turned-product is the conceptual modeler DesignWorkshop, from Artifice Inc., which architect Kevin Matthews began as a master's thesis at the University of California, Berkeley and further developed while teaching at the University of Oregon.
Another example is the rendering software Lightscape, with roots in Cornell University's Program of Computer Graphics, headed by professor Donald Greenberg. Countless other pieces of commercial software have their theoretical or computational origins in the volumes of academic journals from the last several decades.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a good academic idea to make a marketable product. According to Matthews, the obstacles are both technical and institutional. In academia, he says, a narrowly focused solution is acceptable as a proof of concept. Direct interaction between researchers and users can make manuals and technical support less necessary.
"But to succeed in the marketplace," Matthews notes, "any software has to be part of a complete solution for doing real-world jobs. That means you have to develop flawless software plus accessory information, documentation, training materials, packaging, delivery systems, marketing, sales, and support." Although professors can receive academic kudos for generating good ideas, they are less likely to be rewarded for all the work required to bring a program idea to market. Furthermore, work done in a university setting is subject to disputes over copyright or patent ownership.
Even so, university researchers tirelessly pursue their innovative work. Assuming that the obstacles can be overcome, a glimpse at four current and recent Ph.D. dissertations shows some tools that practitioners may be using in the future.
Next week this article continues with a report on an innovative tool for space planning.
B.J. Novitski is managing editor of ArchitectureWeek.
This article first appeared in Architectural Record, December, 1999.
A design study modeled in DesignWorkshop, and rendered with Radiance.
Rendering: Misako Yamaguchi. Instructor, Kevin Matthews, University of Oregon
DesignWorkshop in action.
Rendering: Michael Anonuevo, 3D modeler, Douglas Teiger Architect.
Lightscape, a renderer based on work at the Program of Computer Graphics, was used by Cornell student Domingos Garcia to apply realistic lighting and materials to his museum design.