October 25, 2010
Point Clouds for Every Desktop
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News
Point Clouds for Every Desktop

By Susan Smith

Pointools Limited is a small company of nine employees, based in London, dedicated to creating high performance software for working with very large point cloud models. Joe Croser, formerly of Bentley Systems and now vice president of products at Pointools, said the company began writing standalone software applications for working with point clouds five years ago, and then realized they had this “incredibly fast point cloud processing capability” they claim was much faster than anything else that was out there.

As vendors recognized this, they wanted to license the technology for integration into their own software. So the Pointools team rearchitected their software to create a platform which could be a platform to be OEM’d for the CAD software vendors. Bentley was one of these vendors, who entered into an agreement with Pointools last year at this time. Since then, several other organizations have licensed Pointools technology.

Scanners today can capture 1.3 million points per second, users can scan for hours, and consequently end up with billions of points in a model and very large files. The focus of Pointools is to create software capabilities for people who are going to be consumers of point cloud data rather than creators of point cloud data.

“Up until now, industry has focused on the creators, so they focused on the people doing the surveying who buy the hardware and the software tools to help them,” said Croser. “We think the market is everyone else who is doing 2D and 3D CAD work today who could be much more efficient if they were able to incorporate point models within their workflows. If you’re an architect or engineer, your client isn’t going to pay you to model context before you start modeling the thing they’re paying you for, so it’s just money and time down the drain. If you could just take a point cloud model, drop it into your design environment and then start focusing your time on your design product, then you can focus on what you’re paid to focus on. People are seeing good competitive advantage being realized by not having to model all the other stuff around them.”


Croser said that the company has three product lines: 1) a platform for third party development, 2) plug-ins to existing CAD apps, and 3) standalone software which will work on its own without any additional CAD apps. “Our vision is to democratize point cloud model reuse for every desktop user in order to make really large, point cloud models usable on every desktop and inside every CAD application,” said Croser.


While this does sound a little like the promise of “a chicken in every pot,” what Pointools offers is a way for more users to take advantage of the value of point cloud data.  Croser said that as a result of the platforming licensing deal with Bentley, there are probably 10 or 15 Bentley apps that have Pointools capabilities embedded in them. (At the Be Inspired event in Amsterdam, there are a number of finalists talking about their use of point clouds). Pointools also plugs into a number of Rhino apps, AutoCAD, Civil3D, Map3D, AutoCAD Architectural and MEP.

“So many CAD users use more than one app, so someone who uses AutoCAD for drawing production probably uses something else for modeling,” concluded Croser. “Maybe they use some of the other Autodesk apps like Civil3D, Architectural or McNeel’s Rhino for more complex surface modeling for 3D models. It’s really valuable for those people to be able to reuse the same point cloud model inside different CAD apps, because point cloud models are enormous.”

Which means point clouds take up loads of disk space. It can take hours to translate a point cloud model to a different file format, so if you have to translate different formats to put point clouds into different apps, the process can be daunting. By having multiple plug-ins and multiple integrations with multiple desktop software products, the need to translate is eliminated, and also eliminated is the redundancy of multiple versions of huge files in different formats.

A couple of things are changing the problem of the volume of points – the performance obtained from the Pointools’ engine and app is, depending on file being used, somewhere between 3 and 15 times faster at processing and manipulating points than competing software offerings, according to Croser. Pointools claims that their file format for the same size data set is about half the size of that of competing offerings, “which is a lot when you’re talking about a 2 GB file instead of a 4 GB file or a 100 MB file instead of 200 MB file, these differences count. Because of that and because of our integration with CAD apps, people are now starting to think about point clouds differently than in the past,” Croser said. “If you gave someone a point cloud model the first thing they would try to do is spend days or weeks modeling from the point cloud model to create 3D geometry or drawing over it, doing a join the dots drawing in 2D to create elevation drawings and plan drawings from the point cloud because then they had data that was very small in comparison.  Because of our other performance gains with integration, people can actually work inside their CAD app on building new geometric models inside the context of the point cloud model. And because the performance is so good, having the point cloud model there isn’t degrading their user experience while modeling, so people are saying ‘we don’t need to remodel or convert the clouds into surfaces and solids because we can work with it as it is.’

A big user of Pointools is the Ford Motor Company, who scans their car plans with 3D scanners. The company gets 4 or 5 billion point clouds of their existing facilities, then they might model a piece of machinery or plant and actually work with the cloud in that new piece to see how they relate to each other and how they fit.

Two Bentley utility customers from China, Central Southern China Electric Power Design Institute (CSEPDI) and State Nuclear Electric Power Planning Design & Research Institute (SNPDRI), are early adopters of Bentley's Substation v8i in which 3D laser scanning from Pointools is embedded. Project manager at CSEPDI Bailu Quan said that "It’s a dream to have pont cloud and the 3D model together."

“It’s a huge cost saving to only have to create new geometry for the thing that’s actually new,” said Croser. “Just treat the point cloud as context. The other thing that’s changing –– people are now starting to see point cloud value inside of their existing workflow, so instead of needing to adopt new workflows and think of point clouds as a completely different world that they would view, they can now work in that world inside their existing apps. They don’t have to change workflow -- that means people are less in need of a mobile type lightweight viewer because the cloud’s greatest value is inside the design production apps on the desktop where they need the processing power anyway.”

Some of the use cases for point cloud data include scanning open cast mines daily or weekly and comparing with the previous week’s to see what changed, scanning interiors or for retrofit projects.

Point cloud models require very powerful graphics processing. One way of dealing with this is to use a cloud application, such as Autodesk WS cloud where you can drive an AutoCAD session through a browser rather than on a desktop.

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