I always enjoy going to Autodesk University, partly because it heralds the final run to the Christmas season, partly because it provides a great excuse to go to Vegas, but mostly because the topics extend well beyond those found at the more typical GIS events I frequent. For example, the pecha-kucha, the talks on bringing efficiency into the building process and our economy in general, and the media and entertainment keynotes are all definitely not run-of-the-mill GIS fare. But what really got me thinking was an observation by Jeff Kowalski, CTO of Autodesk. In the keynote, Jeff observed that the “future is coming faster than you think” and he backed his statement up with examples such as the rapid commoditization of incredibly accurate LIDAR.
One of the highlights of this year’s conference was the fuss around the Avatar movie, which Avatar’s producer Jon Landau said that “we could not have made this movie without Autodesk.” Everyone who attended was treated to a 23 minute preview along with a 5 or so minute “making of” video. While the preview was very impressive and will cause me to get to the movie as soon as my Christmas schedule allows, I found the “making of” video even more amazing. Effectively, parts of the movie were shot in a near-holodeck, the only minor parts missing from the real holodeck being the force fields, replicated matter, and tractor beams. But the actors themselves could view their virtual-surroundings in real-time via small wearable screens, and the camera operator could “view” the simulated world with a special “camera” that was really a location-aware screen that could interact with the virtual model of the environment.
At the same conference, in a far less elaborate virtual environment, I presented a virtual session on the free FME FDO for Map 3D. Again, no force fields, replicated matter, or tractor beams, but I am convinced this was a taste of the future nonetheless. It was a bit disconcerting doing a 40 minute monologue in a dark room, staring at only myself in a screen looking back at me. And while it seemed like all my jokes fell completely flat with no live audience there, it was humbling to learn the next day that nearly 600 folks from around the world had signed up to take in the session. It was also a lot of fun interacting with the questions via a chat during the two official showings (even if one of them was at 6AM in the morning – I’m guessing the thinking was that in Vegas many folks aren’t even winding down by then so it wouldn’t be an inconvenience!). It was also true that if I had presented that same session during the “real” conference, I’d have been thrilled to death to get 100 folks to show up (just for a comparison, the actual conference had just under 6,000 attendees while around 20,000 people attended online).
I have a feeling we are seeing the start of a trend here, where virtual begins to become more and more prevalent and immersive. The implications – be they for conferences, delivering training, or for decision making or for entertainment – are massive. For us at Safe, there are at least two major implications: how we ourselves employ virtual technology to do business more efficiently, and how our product can speed the arrival of virtual for our customers. I’m looking forward to seeing how our users are going to employ the work we’ve done in FME 2010 to raise their data off of the flat planes and go to 3D – check out what we did for the City of Gävle to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
If Jeff is right, that the future is coming at us faster than we think, I suspect it won’t be long at all before we’re using virtual technology to save us travel, save us time, and save us money. Who knows, perhaps the next FME User Conference will be the greatest conference that actually never happened….