Geo Week News

October 17, 2011

Autodesk buys Alice Labs


3D software giant augments reality capture capabilities

THE HAGUE – SPAR has confirmed that Autodesk recently acquired technology from Alice Labs, along with hiring some of its employees. The Alice Labs web site has been shuttered, and while current customers will be able to continue using Alice Labs technology, “for people looking for what’s next,” said Autodesk spokesperson Michael Oldenburg, “you can expect Autodesk to incorporate Alice Labs technology into existing or new products in the future as is appropriate.”

Alice Labs first launched in 2009 with plug ins for Autodesk’s Maya and 3ds Max products, allowing point clouds to be uploaded and used as the basis for modeling. Then, in 2010, the company released Studio Clouds, Editor, Register, and Photostruct, independent software packages that allowed users to work with laser-scan generated data, edit point clouds, and create point clouds from still images.

(For an interview with Alice Labs founder Elmer Bol, now with Autodesk, expressing his views on the future of the 3D data capture market, from earlier this year, go here.)

“I’m kind of disappointed,” said Malcolm Williamson, when asked about the acquisition news, “because I’m very enthused about their next rendering engine that was coming out, which I got to play with a little bit in beta, and now it’s probably never going to be released. Now I just have to wait and see what Autodesk does with it.”

Williamson is GIS applications and education manager at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, National Consortium for Rural Geospatial Innovations, at the University of Arkansas, and was one of the early adopters of the Alice Labs technology.

“We were looking for a product to make it easier for us to take existing point clouds and to color map them with independently taken photographs,” Williamson said, and Alice Labs provided a solution. At the time, Williamson and his colleagues were using an older Optech scanner at Machu Picchu that didn’t have an integrated camera, but had a lot of good still pictures from approximately the same position, and Alice Labs helped them colorize some of that data.

“I thought that their point cloud generation from photographs was very good,” Williamson said. “But I also really like some of their innovation in their editing tools. Their use of a spherical paintbrush for point selection and editing is a very easy way to do manual clean up of data, or manually select points to help divide it up.

“That’s one of the things I was very interested in doing with their second generation engine, actually working on more organic point clouds, things from archaeological sites, things that are not easily modeled in CAD engines.”

In an online review of Studio Clouds for V1 Magazine, Williamson’s colleague at the University of Arkansas, Snow Winters, called the software a “game changer for point cloud manipulation and viewing.” 

Williamson hopes Autodesk uses that point cloud engine in its other products to enable better point cloud display. What made Alice Labs’ engine unique, he said, is “being able to work with that point cloud data in endless original format, or very close to it.

“My wildest hope,” he continued, “and I don’t really expect it, is that I’d be thrilled if they’d maintain and deliver the editing and display in a standalone environment. I have a feeling they’ll be integrating it into other products, but I’m hoping they’ll come out with some kind of good point cloud editing environment.”

Dennis Hirota, president of Sam O. Hirota, Inc., Engineersand Land Surveyors, based in Honolulu and focused on civil engineering and information services, first met with Alice Labs co-founder Elmer Bol at SPAR International 2009, and quickly was interested in Photostruct, the piece of Studio Clouds that creates point clouds from images. (For a demonstration of Photostruct’s latest capabilities, go here.)

“We helped them use multiple platforms,” said Hirota. “We had a Phase 1 39 megabyte medium format camera; we had Leica M9s, Nikon D3Xs; we had iPhones. We had a broad section of digital imaging platforms … We spent in the first year a significant amount of effort sending him calibration data of the different imaging platforms that we had.”

The hope, Hirota said, was that he’d be able to use cameras to fill in the gaps left by laser scan shadows. “Rather than bringing out a whole rig, hopefully we could just go back and take a bunch of photos,” he said. While Alice Labs hadn’t quite arrived at the exact level of performance Hirota was hoping for, he had high hopes for V2.0, of which he saw a preview last year.

“Oe of the things that Alice Labs had done was to look at using the GPUs for faster processing, which was supposed to be their version two,” Hirota said. The original version “was working, but we needed faster processing to make it effective.”

Luckily, Hirota said, while he had invested considerable time and energy in working with the Alice Labs tools, “we didn’t have any projects that were dependent on it.”

Going forward, Hirota has the lament that many may have when a small technology company is acquired by a much larger one: He won’t have the same ability to affect product development. “Many times, companies extract the technology and the applications are not there for specific uses because they’re catering to the general public,” Hirota said, “and the smaller companies have an ability to look at specific applications that users are interested in.”

Autodesk wouldn’t comment specifically on its plans for Alice Labs’ technology, but spokesperson Oldenburg said, “we have a pretty long history of taking design technology and making it more accessible. We’re looking forward to taking this technology and introducing it to our user community in the AEC, manufacturing, and media and entertainment industries.”

What Autodesk is always looking to do, he said, “is to take our product functionality we have today and improve it. Sometimes that’s done internally, and sometimes that’s done with an acquisition of technology or businesses. They can often increase the speed with which we can deliver that technology improvement to our customers.”

Likening this buy to the Photofly acquisition, “We’re looking forward,” he said, “to continuing to work with this technology and improve it and innovate around reality capture … We think our customers are looking for ways to easily and accurately capture the world around them, and we’re committed to providing the best-in-class reality capture solutions. We think Alice Labs will support that goal.”

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