Chris Andrews

Interview with Esri’s Chris Andrews

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Esri Interviews

When I knew that I was going to the Esri User Conference, I asked a few friends at Esri to find out who could tell me what super cool stuff was coming up in the platform. One name came up over and over: Chris Andrews, senior product manager for 3D.

For those who haven’t heard of Chris, he began his career in the geospatial world in 1997, shortly after graduating from Rochester University where he worked at a consultancy integrating Esri software with Microsoft. He then went to Autodesk and was soon made a product manager, working on Infrastructure Modeler (InfraWorks) and LandXplorer, Life Sciences and M&E Cloud Services for almost a decade—before joining Esri and leading the 3D products and aiming Esri’s sights on partnering and integrating with Autodesk.

Chris has a unique view of what Esri is doing in the 3D geospatial realm.

Nicholas Duggan: Hi Chris, what is your role within Esri?

Chris Andrews: Officially I’m the senior product manager for 3D across the ArcGIS platform. Product management isn’t a huge department at Esri. I have five PMs that work for me, reporting in to Dirk Gorter, the director for product management and product marketing, but Esri has a flat culture. I work with Dirk a lot of the time and have been surprised at how much we work with Jack. Esri is a place where you have a lot of autonomy and ability to take initiative and, you know, Jack just always wants the right thing to be done for the right reasons.

About half of my role is what you would think of as traditional product management and the other half ends up being business development, alliances, other stray initiatives that have value for Esri and our users.

ND: I saw that your name was attached to CityEngine and moving CityEngine forward.

CA: Yes, CityEngine is one of the products that is managed by the team of people that I have. Eric Wittner is the product manager for urban planning and procedural technologies. He’s also working on ArcGIS Urban. That’s not to say that I don’t have some stake in that domain. I was the Digital Cities product manager at Autodesk for four years, and yesterday, my old product InfraWorks was demo’d on stage here at the Esri User Conference. I still have the original requirements spreadsheet for that product. You have to divide and conquer, so Eric is primarily the PM focused on urban planning.

ND: I have a question over CityEngine. CityEngine is a fantastic tool for urban planning. But I hear from many users interested in gaming technology and CityEngine is also the only software on the geospatial side that can repackage GIS data for use in game engines.

ND: Is there any way that we could potentially see it moving towards being like something more for gaming? Or is it always going to be for urban planning?

CA: Well, so it’s funny that you phrase it that way because actually CityEngine was originally created as a tool for film and game content creation. CityEngine was originally a headless scripting engine that Pascal Mueller created as part of his doctoral work at ETH Zurich.

Early on, I actually tried to acquire his company when I was with Autodesk from my Digital Cities PM role. I remember distinctly meeting him in San Francisco in 2009 or 2010 and asking him where he was getting his revenue from, and he said, “You know … I have bits and pieces here and there but the funny thing, this planning sector is 40 percent of  revenue.” I remember saying something like, “That’s probably some place you should focus.”

Ironically, a couple years later his company is acquired by Esri, and Esri, being a company that’s in 20,000 local governments, obviously sees opportunity around the emerging geodesign discussion that Jack was introducing into the planning market.

I joined Esri in late 2014, then Eric joined my team in early 2015. He had been doing sales engineering for CityEngine for the previous two years. When Eric joined my team as product manager, we agreed that he should focus in on helping CityEngine be a great urban design tool. So, if anything, the trajectory has been to go more into urban design than games.

Having been at Autodesk and now at Esri, some participation in film and game technology helps us push visual quality and the recognition that you need new experiences, often driven by the consumer market, for users to derive new value from 3D GIS.. The film and game market is unlikely to be a big impact on Esri’s bottom line directly

What I think we’re more likely to see—and I’ve been involved with some serious gaming efforts in the past both in molecular biology and in urban planning—is CityEngine continuing to push the bounds for better interoperability with film and game technologies. The team recently released the Epic Unreal Engine Datasmith extension for CityEngine. They’re also doing some work with Houdini Game engines and high end graphics packages are highly relevant to new experiences emerging in the planning and architecture markets.

What I also would like to see is for ArcGIS Pro be able to export FBX or other formats that can be directly imported into game engines. Same thing with ArcGIS Online. Why shouldn’t you be able to have your ArcGIS Urban city model and then be able to request an export of the model to then take out into an AR/VR game environment?

ND: That would be fantastic, something I’d really like to see. It’d be great if some of those CityEngine gaming tools—like being able to edit the vertices of the normals and being able to export to the .fbx & obJ, and do some of the stuff that CityEngine does, but without the procedural side of things, especially with the bigger thought of AR and VR now coming to light. I see a future where we’re going to be able to export from ArcGIS Pro into AR environments, and it’s going to be a lot of gamification of GIS to visualize some of the things.

CA: The game DOOM was released in the early 1990s and players were able to navigate around a 3D world and shoot things and blow things up. Well, if we’ve been in a consumer market for 25 years where you’ve been able to do that, and then you sit down at a desk and you start working in a professional tool that looks like a 3D immersive world but yet you can’t do as much there, your expectation is that you should be able to do more.

I fully expect, and I already see that people expect game engine-style dynamic interaction in a variety of interfaces—not just AR and VR, but in laptop experiences and others. Users expect that they are going to see more immersive experiential tools, not just a 3D map on a screen that does not have analytical or interactive capability. Directionally, we need to shift our own expectations to redefine the map as an immersive, 4D environment that can be explored in a variety of new user experiences. If you can find me 25, 30 more 3D software developers, then I’d be very happy to move faster.

ND: Where do you see where are things going to go in 10 years? Are there any other areas that you haven’t explored that you’d like to explore?

CA: I tend to be on the really pragmatic side. Something to just reposition what you just said a little bit: Urban planning, an area where we’re investing right now, is actually a fairly tiny, but important, piece of the puzzle. And I’ve been researching urban planning for the last 12 years or so, off and on as part of my career. Urban planning is important because it drives downstream BIM and construction activity that is 1,000 times as big, if not more, than the planning market alone.

In 10 years one of the most important things that we start to do is we actually help realize the opportunity to move spatial thinking, environmental thinking, into the design and construction industry. It’s kind of odd because it’s kind of there, but not. And I say that from experience, having worked at Autodesk and MWH Global. We need to not only help urban planners come up with the concepts for what should be done according to the drivers to keep things sustainable, habitable, and economically viable. On the construction and design side, we actually need to help influence the change that will be implemented in the built and natural environment around us.

The handoff from planning to design and construction often sets the conditions within which things should be done and often identifies the budgetary constraints and other things like that, the indicators. And then somebody else has to go and figure out what is going to be done. I guess in the next 10 years I would like to be a central part of the effort to help transition geospatial information from that “what should be done” into “what is being done.” And then on the backend, being able to use that information about what has been done and what is existing back into the lifecycle planning part of the story, as well.

One of the statistics that I used in a talk on Sunday is that, by 2030, there will be eight and a half billion people on the planet and 125 billion IoT devices. Everything that we are touching, interacting with, is being—I don’t know if it’s my term, but I just use this term—sensorized. If you think about the extreme amount of information that is going to be coming in and being collected about the world, remotely sensed, but also now intimately sensed, then what you start to see is that there’s just this tidal wave of information coming that is very hard to decipher and make any sense of.

What it comes down to is there are really four things that will help identify the uniqueness of any data point and help you analyze, aggregate, and do machine learning and deep learning on the data. Those four things are location (the where it is happening), when it happened, and then who and what it’s happening to.

If you think about the various permutations of “who,” this could be an individual represented by you’re a user identity in BIM 360 and a user identity in ArcGIS Online. We are working with Autodesk to help you make the most value out of having both of those by allowing you to access your proprietary data across both systems using those identities.

As to “the where,” we’re trying to enable designers to start their projects with context and environmental information immediately accessible. Because if they do that, then we can actually put the building or bridge in the right place and ensure it has the right outcome or performance. We also want them to be sure the asset is in the right coordinate location. Georeferencing buildings and structures after the fact is brutal.

Regarding “the what,” this can refer to assets or conditions. A data point can be about a building, a moving vehicle, or it can be detecting atmospheric or geologic change.

Then there’s “the when.” There’s all kinds of when. There’s the hypothetical when, the future. Or there’s “the building was built last year,” or “the air conditioner broke yesterday and it needs to be fixed now.”

What I’d say in 10 years is we hopefully will have a better handle on providing tools and integration that allows us to do analysis against those four characteristics (and even to allow us to have machines that actually do the analysis for us) and then allow us to look at the extracted knowledge from that extremely complex data tidal wave of data that’s happening. Most of my focus is likely going to be in those directions.

I also see there’s some tremendously daunting geopolitical issues coming up that are certainly not decreasing investment in defense and intelligence sectors. That’s going to be very relevant for the foreseeable future for Esri and every other company that’s involved in any kind of spatial data and data inspection and data analysis.

Those are some of the things that I think that I’ll still be thinking about in 10 years.  More than enough to keep me busy.

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