There have been few hotter buzzwords this year than "metaverse" – and Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost will readily admits that the concept is approaching "peak hype".
"You're familiar with the hype cycle, right?" he asked ZDNET last week, ahead of the company's annual event, Autodesk University. For those who are not familiar with it, the "peak hype" phase is followed by a "trough of disillusionment".
Nevertheless, Autodesk is all-in on the concept of the metaverse. The company makes software widely used by "makers" -- that includes architects and engineers, product designers and manufacturers, as well as media and entertainment professionals. It's the type of customer base that could clearly benefit from the promise of XR -- virtual reality, augmented reality and everything in between.
"In the future, people are going to collaborate in virtual spaces on building designs and solving building problems, and solving construction problems on site and manufacturing problems on site," Anagnost said to ZDNET. "Virtual collaboration, or augmented reality on site, is going to be super important to our customers."
At Autodesk University, the company is announcing its latest move to prepare for the metaverse. It's partnering with Epic Games -- the video game maker known for Fortnite -- to bring more real-time, immersive collaboration to the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. Later this year, Autodesk Revit customers will gain access to Epic Games' Twinmotion as part of their subscription.
Revit is a building information modelling software tool for architects, engineers, mechanical, designers, contractors and other professionals in the industry. Twinmotion, meanwhile, is real-time 3D visualization software that's used for industries like architecture, consumer products, transportation and fashion.
"Epic is always going to be better than us at real time," Anagnost said. "We're always going to be better at deep design intelligence, and what it takes to actually engineer a building or simulate a real building.
"We believe there's absolutely an 'industrial metaverse' or 'design metaverse' that we want to support, so we'll take the best-in-class technology to make this possible," Anagnost continued. "We'll take technology from partners like Epic Games, we'll probably take technology from companies like Meta, if they've got a better avatar than we have. Our goal is to build the vertical value on top of these things that allows people to solve real-world design problems in virtual and augmented spaces."
Earlier this year, Autodesk acquired the Wild, a virtual platform for architecture and engineering. Now Autodesk is integrating elements of Epic's Unreal Engine into the Wild's workflows.
Meanwhile, both Autodesk and Epic Games are part of the Metaverse Standards Forum, a collection of companies and organizations that want to influence the basic standards that will serve as the foundations for an open metaverse.
With so many major corporations already invested in the metaverse, its development can feel like a foregone conclusion. So, what will bring on the "trough of disillusionment?"
According to Anagnost, the biggest challenge for the Metaverse right now is the hardware. The current iterations of VR and AR headsets are probably a couple generations out from widespread adoption, he posits.
"No one really enjoys wearing those goggles, right?" Anagnost said. "It's the the user interface paradigm that's going to matter. It's going to be the big tipping point for this."
Once that technology barrier comes down, "we want all of our software and other capabilities be ready for that," he added.
The metaverse will also be valuable for connecting design, construction and manufacturing teams that are geographically dispersed. Autodesk's customers, like all businesses, found themselves suddenly grappling with distributed work challenges once the pandemic hit.
Autodesk was already well on its way to transitioning to cloud-based products when the pandemic created huge new demand for tools and data accessible via the cloud. To that end, Autodesk this week is announcing three industry clouds that it plans to build out over the next five years and beyond: Autodesk Forma, Autodesk Flow, and Autodesk Fusion.
The main goal of these clouds is to connect all of the disparate teams that work together. For instance, Autodesk Forma -- the industry cloud for AEC -- will unify building information modeling workflows for teams who design, build, and operate the built environment.
Meanwhile, Autodesk Flow is an industry cloud for media and entertainment. It connects customer workflows, data and teams across the entire production lifecycle from concept to final delivery.
Autodesk Fusion 360, for the design and manufacturing industry, is already cloud-based. Now that product will be part of the Autodesk Fusion industry cloud, along with Autodesk Fusion 360 Manage with Upchain and Prodsmart.
To shepherd its customers onto the cloud, Autodesk is first tackling the massive data files its customers work with. The cloud doesn't really work on files -- it works on databases. Autodesk is creating "cloud information models" to essentially take data files and slice them up into granular data that can be moved to the cloud.
Anagnost expects a mixed response to the news from Autodesk's large customer base.
"The enthusiasm will be from the customers that have already started embracing this stuff and want us to go faster," he said. The skepticism, he said, will come from customers that want to see continued investments and updates to existing, ubiquitous tools such as Revit.
"For our industry to realize its potential, it needs to overcome some serious challenges," he said. "Our customers are struggling with new requirements around sustainability. They're struggling with new cost structures, new kinds of supply chains... and they're all dealing with labor shortages. So that fundamental capacity problem that our industry has needs the cloud."