Level up your CAD

controllerA recent Microsoft blog posting from Marques Lyons urges business owners to consider using Xbox consoles for their business needs – something particularly preposterous even for their usual marketeering.

“What is being positioned as an excellent entertainment device can be just as enticing for you and your small business. In fact, it’s entirely justifiable to make the Xbox One a business expense. The Xbox One, priced at $499, is an affordable option for small business owners, as there are many features built into the console that could help it rival even the most modest of video conferencing and networking platforms.”

I had one of those moments where I just start to laugh, hard at first, and then the laughing slowly subsides, as my brain begins to piece together uncounted possibility.   And you know what?  Microsoft may be on to something here.  The game console is seemingly positioned at the center of a perfect storm, where cost effective hardware, robust 3D capability, truly innovative user interfaces, and convenient software delivery/infrastructure are colliding.  This particular combination of technology and convenience just might make the thought of using a game console for design and engineering an entirely viable idea.

Wait.  Come back.  I know what you’re thinking: “CAD on a game console… press A to extrude and X to sketch… give me a break.  What happens if I load my assembly with the Konami Code?”  True, the consoles as they are today be it Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft can’t remotely stack up to the task as is.  Plus there’s the small detail that CAD software is just not available on these platforms.  And up to this point there has been no sensible rationale why a console’s software universe should include anything beyond entertainment.  The market just doesn’t really exist.  But there’s no convincing technical reason why it has to be that way and that’s what makes this idea so compelling.

In the past, game consoles were no match for the rapid ascendancy of PC technology.  Even when console architectures exhibited an esoteric technical edge, such as the introduction of STI’s Cell with the PS3, these proprietary architectures -while impressive-  were notoriously difficult to code for.  More importantly, any pretense of superiority would be quickly erased by the ceaseless advancement of PC technology.   Processors and graphics hardware in particular, continued to expand in complexity and performance at a pace consistent with or even exceeding Moore’s Law.  For the most part, PC superiority was obvious.  After all, consoles were just low-cost consumer entertainment boxes – no one could realistically expect for them to remain competitive with PC hardware costing thousands more.

So what has changed?

On the hardware front, PC performance is starting to reach a plateau.  Not a technical performance plateau mind you, but rather one where additional performance is becoming less relevant for the individual user experience.  Witness the decline in PC sales.  While much of the decline is attributed to tablets and other mobile devices, another equally plausible reason is users are largely satisfied with the performance of their current hardware.  The fact that some analysts blame the drop solely on Windows 8, is rather laughable.  Drawing from my own personal experience, I used to build a new PC from the ground up once every three years; it was necessary just to keep up with performance thresholds driven by photo/video editing and high-end gaming.  My current monster machine is reaching its 3rd birthday  now, but for the first time that I can recall I have no burning requirement demanding a replacement.  Similarly, my rather gravitationally-challenged laptop, is a geriatric six years of age.  In the 2000’s, holding onto a six year old piece of hardware was not unlike insisting your mule was as every bit as effective in commuting as a Bentley.

While 3D design is one of the most demanding applications out there, the other high demanding application out there –3D gaming– exhibits many of the same requirements.  Requirements for which game consoles have been purpose-built.  The bottom line being that the technical capability needed to author in 3D is now increasingly available in hardware that is rather common.  So common in fact, the necessary juice is now in every game console for as little as $399.  Hooray for commoditization.

And this brings us to the next point: the cost profile of consoles is indeed compelling and relevant for business and enterprise.  Consider that selecting and purchasing the right hardware for CAD applications is frankly, a bit of a nightmare.  The dedicated workstations tend to be pricey due to lower volumes, and only certain configurations are certified by vendors.  Those certifications change with every release of the software and often lag well behind software releases.  Adding to the headache, reliable objective benchmarking relevant to the CAD user experience is few and far between – such that hardware selection becomes a bit of a crapshoot and often a colossal waste of buyers’ time.  The console model counters this problem with a stable hardware platform.  Again, in the past a stable hardware platform was impractical – because software demands were steadily pushing hardware requirements and that proprietary architectures created development headaches.  But now that ultimate hardware performance is less relevant, and x86 architecture is prevalent,  the advantage of a stable platform becomes much more  enticing.  A consistent platform eliminates incompatibilities and makes certification obsolete, liberating developers to focus their efforts on performance and execution.

Some might rail against the thought of operating business software within a “walled garden” when compared to the truly open software market on the PC.  And from certain perspectives, I would share that concern.  But I think there is room for innovation here to find a middle ground that will actually become a compelling attraction for software adoption, particularly for small business and individuals.

Finally and most importantly: user interface.  I think we can all agree that most anyone is not going to be able to use CAD efficiently with a gamepad (though I would be delighted to have someone prove me wrong on this).  Game consoles have no issue with the requisite mouse and keyboard; though claiming the venerable pair will be around forever may be foolhardy.   If we’re going to achieve the interfaces we secretly yearn for, ranging from the Star Trek voice interfaces, to  Iron Man holographic models, or nifty 3D gestural interfaces from Minority Report, there are intermediate steps to that path.  And most of the innovation in this space is happening right in the console space be it motion tracking from Microsoft’s Kinect, integrated auxiliary screen tablets from the Nintendo’s Wii-U, or Sony’s combination of the two with Move and Vita.  Coupled with multiple large displays, 3D projection, and forthcoming possibilities of 4K displays, the future for 3D authoring seems very interesting indeed.