iPad Apps for AEC: Part 1
I also found that the iPad's POP email capability (which, again, was a breeze to set up) has allowed me to take it instead of my laptop when I travel, making it so much more convenient. Of course, the iPad doesn't have PowerPoint or Dreamweaver, two applications that I use extensively, but often I can get by without them when I travel, and it's really nice to not have to lug my laptop with me every time I need to go out of town.
After the iPad was launched, several other similar devices were introduced by other vendors, all using the Android operating system, in contrast to the iPad's iOS. While many of the apps discussed here have now been developed to work on Android tablets as well, this article is focused only on the iPad apps that are available for architects, engineers, and construction professionals in the building industry.
The iPad in AEC
I really did not plan on using my iPad professionally, but in the second half of 2011, the number of AEC apps for the iPad mushroomed to the point where I could not ignore this platform anymore.
Autodesk, not surprisingly, took an early lead in this field with its AutoCAD WS app that it launched in 2010, which can be used to view and navigate DWG files, add comments and markups to them using a basic annotation toolset, and even edit them if required (although editing is cumbersome on the iPad and is best done on a computer).
This was in addition to its popular Sketchbook Mobile application that was released earlier and is used as a general drawing and painting tool by a wide range of people.
Both of these apps are made available for free so they can be downloaded and tried readily by many iPad users. (Note that they are also available to iPhone and iPod Touch users, but we will focus on the iPad for this article.)
Subsequent to these apps, I started seeing more and more apps being developed for AEC professionals, for design as well as for construction. Towards the beginning of 2011, I heard from Architactile about its Inception app for early-stage project planning, which seemed to be the first iPad app that I was aware of developed specifically for architects. In the summer, Bentley showed me iPad apps for its Navigator and ProjectWise applications, and in September, Graphisoft released a very slick iPad app called BIMx for easy navigation of 3D building models.
In the meantime, Autodesk had been busy working on a formal cloud strategy that it unveiled in October, in which iPad apps play a very important role. In addition to AutoCAD WS, these include apps for Autodesk Design Review, Buzzsaw Mobile, and BlueStreak. I was also made aware of the app iVisit 3D, from Abvent Software, which develops the popular rendering application Artlantis.
While many of these apps can also be used by construction professionals, there are several additional apps developed specifically for construction. Vendors such as Vela Systems — which develops field management software for construction — was one of the first to have an iPad app among its products. I also became aware of other apps for construction: Onsite:AEC from The Digital Creatives, and BuildSite Mobile by BuildSite. Newforma announced its first app for punch lists in October 2011.
It seems as though the mobility factor makes tablets more critical in the construction phase of a project, allowing site professionals to view and mark up drawings, view models, file issues, reports, and photographs, if necessary, and generally keep in touch and get access to the most up-to-date project information.
Given the number of apps that are now available, this article will focus on apps primarily intended for design and visualization. For all of the apps discussed here, I actually downloaded them from the iTunes store and used them with sample files or models to see how they worked.
Graphisoft's BIMx App for iPad
Graphisoft's BIM Explorer (BIMx) is the new name for its Virtual Building Explorer application that it launched in 2009, providing an interactive environment with game-like navigation and allowing anyone to explore full BIM models without having a copy of the original software in which the model was created, i.e. ArchiCAD.
BIMx works as a companion product to ArchiCAD, allowing ArchiCAD models to be exported into BIMx and to be saved as self-running executable files that can be shown to clients on a computer (the BIMx desktop application is part of the standard ArchiCAD 15 installation).
Graphisoft has extended this capability into a BIMx iPad app that is integrated with a Facebook-enabled online BIMx community, where BIMx models can be posted for others to share. After downloading the free BIMx app from the iTunes bookstore, you can browse through this community site and download any model, which you can then open in the BIMx app for viewing and navigation.
Of all the model-viewing apps that I tested, I was most impressed with the BIMx app. The controls to navigate the model are easy and intuitive to use. For example, a joystick that appears in the viewing window allows you to walk forward, backward, or turn in place. You can fly to any location in the model by tapping on it and then tapping on the icon that appears in that location. As with other iPad apps, pinching the fingers in and out zooms the model in and out, while panning the model is done by swiping two fingers. Outside the building, a swipe of one finger allows you to orbit around the model.
All of these navigation techniques are captured clearly and concisely in a set of six slides that can be accessed by touching a Help icon at the top of the window.
Other helpful icons include a "Fit in Window" capability and a Settings menu, where you can specify options such as whether you wanted a 2D navigation map to be displayed alongside the 3D model, the type of shading on the model, the navigation speed, and a few others.
What I miss, however, is being able to return to a "Home" view, as well the ability to save and open specific views.
I did appreciate that the BIMx navigation preserves the verticality of the model, given that it is specific to buildings and is not a general-purpose model viewer.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Lachmi Khemlani is the founder and editor of AECbytes, an online publication focused on researching, analyzing, and reviewing technology products and services for the building industry. She has a Ph.D. in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling; a professional B.Arch. (honors) degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, India; and an M.Phil. in architecture from the University of Cambridge. Khemlani has worked on design projects as a practicing architect, authored books on CAD and modeling, and taught CAD and 3D modeling at UC Berkeley. She currently consults and writes on AEC technology.
This article is excerpted from "iPad Apps for AEC: Design and Visualization" by Lachmi Khemlani, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, AECbytes.
The iPad 2 tablet from Apple is equipped with front- and rear-facing cameras that can be used for video conferencing.
Image: Courtesy Apple Inc.
Extra Large Image
A full-featured version of the Safari web browser is included on each iOS device. (The iPad version of Safari is shown.)
Extra Large Image
The iOS email client application supports virtually any Exchange, POP3, or IMAP mail account, and is equipped with templates for quick configuration using popular mail services. Calendar and contact synchronization is also supported via LDAP and DAV services, as well as proprietary services from Apple, Google, and Microsoft.
Extra Large Image
A recent search of the iOS App Store returned 104 applications matching the search term "CAD."
Graphisoft's BIM Explorer (BIMx) app for iOS allows users to view and interact with downloaded 3D models created in ArchiCAD.
The BIMx settings screen offers navigation and rendering controls, as well as the option to view a "Stereo 3D" version of the model.
Extra Large Image
Once downloaded from the BIMx community page on Facebook, any model can be explored via walkthrough using a "joystick" interface that consists of two concentric circles positioned in the lower right of the screen. Other model-navigation features, such as zooming, panning, and orbiting, can be invoked using multitouch gestures on the iPad screen.
The walkthrough interface in BIMx also appears to employ some physical properties that allow the user to climb stairs and step through doorways.
Extra Large Image
Click on thumbnail images
to view full-size pictures.