By Andrew Patterson
Chances are by now you will have seen one of those 3D graphic fly-over simulations that create a visual representation much more effectively than would have occurred if it had simply been a pictorial drawing.
Traditionally the domain of video gamers and teens, 3D graphical simulations are rapidly finding useful applications for businesses keen to harness the technology for commercial purposes.
Auckland Council recently produced a series of 3D animations to depict what the proposed inner city rail loop would look like as part of the on-going redevelopment of the city’s waterfront while the National Library also used the technology to graphically depict Wellington in a past, present, future format.
A whole new world
For Auckland based technology company Nextspace, the trend towards visualisation is one that it confidently predicts will only continue to grow in the future.
Formed in 2007, its aim was to catalyse the 3D visualisation industry stimulating productivity and economic opportunities for New Zealand.
In its early days, Nextspace was the driving force behind a 3D ‘virtual cluster’ of private companies, research and tertiary institutions cooperating to develop a range of new 3D products and services.
Five years on and the company is beginning to see the rewards of its early investment and development of the technology.
Recently appointed General Manager Damian Swaffield believes Nextspace is at the cutting edge of what will be a revolution in the way information is displayed graphically in the future.
“We operate in three key verticals: city, plant and utility. In each of them we’re focused on developing integrated solutions that allow businesses to visualise their design, build and operations processes and hopefully improve their customer experience, while also helping them to reduce their costs.
“It’s really about putting a visual metaphor over the day-to-day operations of a business but using the visualisation process to help make better business decisions.”
Impact of visualisation technology
The project Nextspace undertook for Auckland City is a good example of the effectiveness of the visualisation process at work allowing viewers to literally feel as though they are in the frame themselves.
“Auckland Council commissioned us to produce a 3D graphical representation of the downtown area in order to engage wider stakeholders and the community, and to engender feedback. It’s also been used for [promoting] the city rail loop in terms of presenting that as a case to the public and will be used to help gain feedback on the proposal.”
While there are other competitors offering a range of other visualisation options, Swaffield says Nextspace has a reasonably unique selling proposition.
“The reality is there are others out there who say they do what we do but we’re not actually a pure visualisation company. Our point of difference is that we’re an integrator as well.”
“We realise that information is held in a variety of forms and places from filing cabinets through IT systems, databases, technical drawings and the list goes on. What we pride ourselves on, is being able to bring those different information sources together and create a single visual representation for how a business, council or other organisation operates and that’s what makes us somewhat unique in this space at the moment.”
Weightless export earner
Surprisingly, the company’s biggest client currently is based in South America giving further credence to the argument that technology companies such as Nextspace can be valuable export earners in what is sometimes described as the “weightless” economy.
“International markets are very significant for us. We do a lot of work in Australia in the plant and utility space and the opportunity that we’re working on in South America is a complex plant installation involving the manufacture of a large production storage and off-loading facility that services off shore oil rigs. Essentially it’s a very complex piece of floating plant.”
“Globally were partnering with SAP [the huge multinational German based software conglomerate] in the Americas on that opportunity and I believe it’s a market leading piece of innovation.”
So how does the customer actually benefit from using the visualisation services that Nextspace provides?
“There are a myriad of information sources around the design, build and operation of a large complex piece of plant and machinery. What we’re doing is bringing that all together for a single coherent view of what many different subcontractors contribute to building. By having a single point of truth where a customer can verify and confirm what they thought they were buying they are actually getting but also once built they’re getting an operational metaphor for the plant as well.”
“So if you take a ship for example, it’s actually a floating piece of complex plant. It will have many different control systems in play and what we do is provide a visual metaphor for interacting with that information going forward. One key benefit is that it will reduce the operating costs through improved training mechanisms including visibility and timeliness of the information.”
Fortunately for Nextspace, it doesn’t always have to go looking for the business. All too frequently the business finds its way to their door of its own accord.
“We’ve been very pleased to have several situations recently where the business has been referred to us as a result of work that we’ve done for international clients such as SAP and others. Equally we’ve gained a profile both here and in Australia and further afield that has resulted in opportunities that just present themselves.”
“So invariably that starts a conversation and eventually evolves into a qualified opportunity and then a confirmed piece of work in due course.”
Being able to partner with SAP obviously brings with it significant credibility which has allowed Nextspace to leverage its relationship with the software giant as well as becoming a reseller of visual enterprise software itself.
“The heritage behind the SAP relationship stems from the fact that we were a sister company to an earlier start up called Right Hemisphere which developed software in the 3D space and was eventually acquired by SAP. So we were the solution integrator to the software developer.”
“We’ve continued our relationship with Right Hemisphere but also expanded our relationship with SAP which is obviously a very large and successful organisation with over 3,000 products in its portfolio; visual enterprise being only one of them.”
“Our goal is to be the market leading visual enterprise partner and focus on what we do well rather than broaden our space too much.”
Future growth potential
With just 17 full time employees, Nextspace runs a lean ship but with Swaffield himself only a recent addition to the team, he fully expects to see the business continuing to expand in the future.
“It’s early days for me. I’ve only been with the business just five months. But during that time we’ve grown the team by almost 25 percent which has been an exciting phase of our development.”
“We’ve got a great team with a great culture and some super smart people on board who bring great industry experience and talent.”
“It’s always great getting calls from people who want to share in that experience and join our team.”
“But we’ll grow with the market. I don’t see us being ten times bigger but we’d certainly like to be two, three or four times bigger in the future and while we won’t necessarily be the vehicle for everything that we do we will be the holder of the intellectual capital that makes it happen.”
IT skills development
At a time when there is plenty of debate around New Zealand’s development of core competencies within the IT sector, it seems 3D visualisation is one area where there is talent available locally, but should NZ be doing more to foster IT talent more broadly?
“We’re largely able to recruit from within NZ. However, as we grow it may be necessary for us to look offshore for certain specific skill sets.”
“It’s always a challenge when new technologies and new ways of working are starting to become evident in the market but there needs to be a connection back to the universities such that people are trained and made aware of the environment that they’re going to be working in.”
“We actually do quite a bit of work with the universities. In fact, it’s a major source of talent for us as we recruit recent graduates because of the 3D capability that they have acquired as a result of their studies. Even for a small business like ours we have one or two graduate interns which is probably quite unique for our size but it keeps us connected to what the latest academic thinking is generally.”
So what of the future for Nextspace and looking into his crystal ball what predictions can Swaffield offer about emerging trends in the visualisation space?
“I can confidently predict that this technology is going to be much more prevalent in the future. If you think about how we manage our businesses and what we expect within the concept of enterprise analytics, dashboarding and real time business performance being presented in this way even a decade ago it was flights of fancy.”
“These days it’s now become much more mainstream and I believe that’s what we’ll see happen with 3D.”
“If we think about how we prefer to interact in the world, and then think about the advent of things like gaming, which is closer to our business than most businesses, and the fact that its mainly the domain of youth at the moment where their expectation is around everything being in 3D. Then if we look at television, movies etc they’re all moving down a 3D interaction pathway as well, so why shouldn’t that ultimately drift into business as well.”
“When we think about it, that tends to be the flow. It starts in youth, moves to media and then finally appears in business. As to what the timing will be I don’t really know but while price will continue to fall it will ultimately be the return on investment that will continue to increase over time.”
The 3D revolution it seems is really only just getting started.
|Sector:||IT / Technology|
|Domestic / Export split:||30% : 70%|
|Annual growth rate:||10%|