Friday, April 30, 2010

Autodesk Labs Role - Guest Post by Scott Sheppard

Autodesk Labs Program Manager, Scott Sheppard, is our guest Blogger today.  he talks to us about Autodesk Lab's role at Autodesk, as well as some of it's history.

Autodesk Labs got its start with Shaan Hurley. Shaan was working on our Beta program back then and wished he could involve users earlier. We love our beta programs. We manage them on http://beta.autodesk.com Participants sign up, test the software, and provide feedback under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Though from the customer perspective this is early in the release process, it’s actually closer to the end of the process in software development terms. So although beta testers may have great ideas like “Why don’t you redo this whole thing this way?”, there really isn’t time to start over from scratch. The primary emphasis of many beta programs is to learn if the software works or not. Our QA teams have already put the release through its paces, but there’s no substitute for having customers try it with their own data to ensure that something is ready to ship.

Autodesk Labs was born to involve the customer earlier in the process – where there is actually enough time to act on a suggestion like “Why don’t you redo this whole thing this way?” We are careful to call what we put on Labs “technology previews” instead of alphas or betas, because we want to ensure that there are no misconceptions about something becoming a product or making it into an existing product. We make technology previews available on Labs so people can help shape their future. Some die a quick death. For example, users were not so happy with our attempt at visual search where users could locate parts by drawing crude shapes. Others take a while to perfect but go on to greatness. Autodesk Inventor LT was on Labs for 2 years before becoming a product. Autodesk Impression was one of the first technologies to graduate from Labs. It is now a feature of AutoCAD.

As an organization within Autodesk, we have 2 roles.

1.  Our Labs team looks at industry trends and creates prototypes that attempt to turn the possible into the practical. Way back before the iPhone, we instrumented a copy of Autodesk Design Review to run on our Perceptive Pixel Multi-touch Wall. We learned a great deal about the gestures that would be appropriate for working with CAD data without a mouse or keyboard. Even further back than that, we created Project Freewheel to see if it were really possible to view 3D (not 2D, 2D was easy) CAD data on the web using just a browser. We learned a great deal about high-end graphics cards that were not common in cloud computing servers like those from Amazon EC2.

2.  Our second role is to be a service organization to the rest of Autodesk. We get technologies from various departments and help make them available via the Autodesk Labs site. Most of the items you find on Labs came from somewhere else within the company. The Labs team has worked on Project Freewheel, Project Draw, Project Showroom, ShareNow, and Project Twitch, but everything else is from another part of the company. We are happy to play this role as we encourage other parts of the company to develop their technologies by involving the customer early in the process. We also help with the mechanics of it by creating web pages, email aliases, discussion forums, etc. We also use social media (e.g. blogs, Facebook, Twitter) to get the word out. We produce monthly reports, that I loving call TPS reports in reference to Office Space, that summarize feedback and include site visitor and download statistics.

Thanks Scott for being our guest blogger today and for all of the great work that Autodesk Labs puts out.
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