by Ralph Grabowski, reprinted from CADdigest.com
Apple’s 1984 introduction of the Macintosh computer spurred on researchers to take advantage of Apple’s unique, interactive, graphically-oriented interface. One of them was Dr. Chris Yessios, who at the time was the director of the Computer-Aided Architectural Design (CAAD) Graduate Program at Ohio State University. He could see that computers like the new Macintosh could become the future of 3D modeling, software that longed for interactivity. The result of his musings was formZ, one of the first 3D modelers designed with the user in mind.
In this interview, Ralph Grabowski spoke with AutoDesSys CEO Chris Yessios about his company and its software, along with input from Senior Vice President of Development, David Kropp, an ex-student of Yessios’ and co-founder of the company.
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Q: You were first with a university, and then this company came out of your research. Tell me about how formZ came about.
A: In 1968, I came to the United States to study city planning, after studying architecture in Europe. While in a master’s program, I picked up a couple of computer classes that I hadn’t done before, and l fell in love with the computer, as its potential became pretty obvious to me right from the beginning, I ended up transferring to a doctorate program in computer-aided design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh that Chuck Eastman, then an assistant professor, was starting. After my graduation in 1973, I was hired by Ohio State University, which wanted to expand its research activities into potential applications of the computer in architectural design.
When I joined the Department of Architecture, it had no computer equipment and right from the beginning we had to establish a collaboration with the Computer Science department, which flourished more and more as our research work progressed. In a few years we established a special graduate program in CAAD. Its aim was to explore and develop computer tools that enhanced architectural design. Among others, this work was strongly supported by IBM, DEC and the National Science Foundation and led to the development of a number of prototypical modeling systems that were used in design studios by students not enrolled in the CAAD program. It’s needless to underline how valuable the feedback of those students was and how much they contributed to the evolution of the 3D modeling tools.
With the arrival of the Mac, we finally had an interactive machine supportive of a graphic user interface, such as the one we had been dreaming of, for implementing 3D modeling tools in the image of human designers. All this presented us with the challenge of re-implementing the most advanced of our prototypes to run on the Mac. Because our expectations to raise research funds for redoing work that had already been funded in the past were rather slim, we decided to do it privately. To make a long story short, we started work in 1989. AutoDesSys, which stands for Automated Design Systems, was incorporated in 1990, and on Valentine’s Day — February 14, 1991 — we had the first release of formZ, 24 years ago.
Q: What does the name formZ mean?
A: We were initially inclined to use an architectural name and Vitruvius, the name of the Roman architect, was a strong candidate. But then, as work progressed and we started receiving feedback from some alpha testers, we realized that our software was also applicable to a variety of other design fields, beyond architecture. We kicked around a few names, and decided on formZ: "Z" for the third dimension, and "form" for what we are dealing with. For a while we also carried the subtitle, 3D form synthesizer.
Q: The original formZ ran on Mac?
A: Yes, it ran on the Mac exclusively for a couple of years, and then we brought it to Windows 95.
FormZ model by Giorgio Borusso
Q: Who tend to be your customers?
A: Since the beginning, formZ has been a general purpose 3D modeler, but it has been accused of having — and applauded for — a heavy architectural bias. As already mentioned, at the beginning, it was intended to be an architectural application, but then we realized that 3D modeling is also useful to many other fields. As a result, we have a multi-faceted user base, with the majority of them being in architecture. formZ is also used in Hollywood for set design and special effects in movies, for product design, jewelry design, exhibit and retail design, forensic animations, and so on. We have users that design and build inflatables, others that do furniture, design ships, etc. In general, we have seen formZ being used in areas that we had never thought it would.
Q: How many people use your software?
A: An exact number is always hard to calculate as it is hard to know who of the people that acquired the software continue to use it, in spite of the fact that we remain in contact with the majority of our active users. Excluding academic licenses, we estimate around a couple of hundred thousand active users. This does not include the free and student versions. Neither does it count formZ free, a relative new addition to our product line, the free downloads of which sometimes surpass one hundred a day.
Q: You are located in the United States, but do you see a benefit to sales in Europe due to your European connection?
A: Not really. The U.S. remains our main market, while we also make significant sales overseas. Most of our European sales are in Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. From the overseas sales, Japan has always been the strongest market. We haven’t figured out China yet, even though the program circulates a lot there, mostly as a bootleg.
Q: How does formZ fit into the architect’s workflow?
A: As a conceptual program, it sketches stuff very quickly and interactively. Then architects can take those preliminary models to full detail. Our models are solid models, in contrast to some other so-called modeling applications. Being solid models, they are ready to be 3D printed. We have rendering, of course, and animation, and drafting for construction drawings with dimensions, annotations and sectioning. We call these "layouts," and they can be extracted directly from 3D models.
Our idea for formZ has always been a design tool: very easy to use with a good data representation. It allows exploration for cyclic design, where architects quickly evaluate and change things.
Q: What about generating 2D drawings from 3D models?
A: formZ tries to be full range, and so we also make 2D drawings from 3D models; we call it "layouts." The drawings have dimensions, notes, and sectioning.
We say that our program has multiple personalities. By this, we mean that you can design with polygon modeling or smooth (ACIS) solids, NURBS modeling or sub-division modeling (sub-d). Sub-d is part of the workflow, and not an add-on. You can switch from one to the other, for example, from sub-d to NURBS surfaces or solids. formZ is the only program we know of that does this, letting you work in any personality: start in one modeling mode, like sub-d, and then switch to solid modeling. Given today’s architectural trends towards organic and curvy forms, frequently mixed with rectangular shapes, formZ’s multiple personalities are proving conveniently efficient in accommodating these contemporary trends.
Q: Is there an API?
A: Yes, it is C or C++ based and allows one to develop plug-ins that can then be run under formZ. A lot of our newer functions are written as plug-ins. Also, some of our power users are writing their own plug-ins, some of which are becoming available on our web site. Also, rendering applications such as the Maxwell and Lightwork renderers are currently running as plug-ins.
Q: It is interesting that rendering was invented in the U.S., but now it seems that European companies are making the renders.
A: Yes, this is true. Popular renderers are today coming mostly from Europe. However, we have noticed that there are also developers in China and Japan writing rendering software, quite independently.
Q: Who are some of your competitors?
A: There are quite a few modelers on the market, but they all have different strengths and most apply to specific fields, such as architecture, different types of engineering, product design, etc. While not completely comparable, we would say that the most similar to formZ are Rhino and SketchUp. Each of these has its own strengths, but neither offers the multiple personalities that formZ does nor are they as complete in their range of capabilities.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: Keep on doing what we have been doing: making the software still more powerful, yet easier to use as technology evolves. For example, Boolean operations were very slow in 1991: to union two relatively large spheres it could have taken two to three minutes. Today, it is instantaneous. Our Reshape function, which resembles the push-pull operation of other applications, behind the scenes, executes continuous Boolean operations in real time, something we couldn’t even imagine a couple of decades ago.
We want to make our scripting easier. The API formZ is offering currently is very powerful, but it is programmer-oriented; for example, it uses naming conventions following computer science standards, which makes it unfriendly for the casual user and programmer. We are also working on visual scripting, but we are not ready to announce specifics at this time.
Real time dynamic and parametric modeling is another area that we want to further enhance by developing generative algorithms that can be driven through touch sensitive screens and voice commands. We expect these techniques to have a dramatic impact on the ways designers brainstorm and conceptualize. Sorry, but we have to put off discussing more specifics for a later time.
We want to produce field specific plug-ins that, when attached to formZ, will transform the application into a specialized version. We intend to do this especially for architectural design, where the planned plug-ins will implement architecturally intelligent procedures and elements, such as walls, doors/windows, floors/ceilings, etc., that know how to behave according to what they are, when operations are applied to them. These will offer the starting points for our entrance into our version of BIM. While this is all work in progress, we have no timetable yet.
We take a special pride in our support of 3D printing. Our models go through [the 3D printing process] very smoothly. 3D printing is successful with watertight models, which is something we have always made. We can even fix incomplete models produced by other applications, using tools specific to 3D printing. We intend to continue our attention to this area as 3D printing technology further evolves.
Q: Describe your software lineup to our reader.
A: We recently restructured our product line to three levels:
- formZ pro ($995) with animation, layouts and customizable interface
- formZ jr ($495) based on bonzai3d
- formZ free ($0) with an introductory toolset and no ACIS modeling
- RenderZone plug-in ($395) based on Lightworks rendering engine for Pro and Jr editions
In addition to the above, we have always had and still have a student/faculty license that we offer for free. As a matter of fact, we were the first to introduce free programs for students at a time when other companies charged schools dearly. Now most have followed our lead.
Q: Do you have any other products planned?
A: There will be a formZ Layout application, where the layout procedures will be sold separately from the modeling. There will also be a formZ Viewer, which will allow users to view models from formZ and other applications on smart phones and tablets. There will be more renderers and other plug-ins. Expect more specific announcements in the not too distant future.