Autodesk Gallery — Engineering Design made Fun and Green

“If nature didn’t make it, one of our customers almost certainly did,” says Autodesk Gallery Senior Manger Jason Medal-Katz. As I toured Autodesk’s fascinating mini-museum with him, I began to believe Medal-Katz was right. More than 20 exhibits—ranging from a Ford Shelby GT500 to an 8.5-foot dinosaur made from more than 62,000 LEGOs—represent the diverse range of products designed with Autodesk software.

Design Process
The Autodesk Gallery celebrates the process of design, with displays that include the engineering drawings for iconic projects like Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light, the new east span of the Bay Bridge, and the new California Academy of Sciences building. The plans and scale models are interesting, but the engineering science is fascinating: who knew that that the tops of the Academy of Sciences’ domes take advantage of higher wind pressures to exhaust internal heat buildup?

Beyond Buildings
But bridges and buildings are only the beginning; Autodesk’s more than 100 products are used in designing everything from cars to movies. If you saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Iron Man, or The Dark Knight, you saw Autodesk technology in action. It turns out that the company’s technology is driving the field of virtual cinematography, with its computer-generated camera views and 3D environments. This technology enables “filmmakers to achieve otherwise impossible perspectives and explore virtually limitless camera angles, without multiple takes,” Medal-Katz explains.

Best Visual Effects
In fact, every film nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award for the past 14 years was designed with Autodesk software. Watch for the latest example of virtual cinematography in James Cameron’s Avatar, which uses motion-capture-suit technology to control animated characters. (Avatar is due to be released in December, 2009.)

Ford Shelby Cobra at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco. Photo by Laurie McAndish King

Steve McQueen’s Eyes
The most arresting exhibit is a shiny white Ford Shelby GT500, which had to be brought into the 2nd-story gallery through a street-facing window with the help of a large crane. All the major automotive manufacturers—German and Japanese, as well as American—use Autodesk software to design their products. But this particular design had a human basis as well: Steve McQueen. “The team put up a poster of the actor in the work area where designers created the car,” Medal-Katz explained. “Steve McQueen’s scowl set the look for the car’s front end, the headlights set back under the rim of the hood to suggest the same air of menace.”

Real Robots
My favorite exhibit was not about movie stars or animated characters, though; it was about real robots designed by real people—high school students. On display is a robot designed by students at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School to stack boxes. The robot was a winner in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition—the brainchild of Dean Kaman, best known as the inventor of the Segway. The competition challenges high school students to build working robots; along the way, they learn about problem-solving, overcoming obstacles, team spirit, and the intrinsic rewards of a career in research and engineering.

Green Building Award
The 16,500-square-foot space isn’t just about design, though; it actually won a design award of its own earlier this month. Located in the historic Landmark Building and renovated using recycled materials, locally manufactured products, and energy-saving design, the gallery recently received prestigious Platinum certification in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).

Making the World a Better Place
The gallery purports to celebrate the process of design, but in the end, it seems to celebrate the process of making the world a better place. From using the laws of physics to create energy-saving architecture, to motivating high school students, to “walking its talk” with green renovations, the Autodesk Gallery is a showcase for designing our future.

Want to be inspired? Check it out yourself: The Autodesk Gallery is open to the public on the first Wednesday of every month from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.

For more info:
Autodesk Gallery at One Market
One Market, Floor 2
San Francisco, CA 94105
Directions here

Autodesk Gallery Twitter here

© 2009 Laurie McAndish King. This article originally ran in on June 2, 2009.

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