A couple of weeks ago, we attended the SPAR 2009 show in Denver. Never having attended SPAR before, I was not sure quite what to expect. The SPAR conference, put on by Spar Point Research, is primarily dedicated to 3D LiDAR scanning. From the SPAR web site: "SPAR 2009 is all about the business and technology of capturing, managing and integrating 3D information. We search the world for the smartest, most experienced people we can find to exchange information and share their fresh ideas, new technologies, and inspired work processes with our conference attendees. Now in its sixth year, SPAR 2009 attracts attendees from the world's largest petroleum and petrochemical producers, manufacturing companies, shipbuilders, civil and transportation infrastructure engineering firms, industrial metrologists, architects, geotechnical and mining firms, land surveyors, and federal, state and local governments. We aim to help design leads, project managers, surveyors, construction managers, maintenance managers and others who commit their careers to increasing their organizations' productivity and project execution competence."
Keynote presentations included a presentations from Hans Hess - one of the early visionaries in the field of 3D LiDAR, Charles Matta - Director of Federal Buildings and Modernization for GSA on how GSA is using 3D LiDAR to create Building Information Models (BIM) for existing buildings, and Daniel Livecchi - U.S. Secret Service and president of IAFSM about some of the work in 3D modeling done by the Secret Service in preparation for special events. Presentations through the week included a number of interesting presentations about the use of 3D LiDAR for criminal forensic analysis and industrial process capture.
The vendor community was represented primarily by the large data collection players. All the big boys that you would expect like Leica, Trimble, Faro, and Topcon were there. Each showing off their latest and greatest data collection technology. The software community, however, was less well represented. ESRI was there in force and we were fortunate to cohabit the ESRI booth with Brent Jones and our friends from the Denver regional office. Due to recent layoffs at AutoDesk, there were more ex-AutoDesk employees on the floor looking for jobs than there were current AutoDesk employees staffing their partner's booth.
The players that I was personally most interested to find at SPAR were those doing interesting software work to automate the conversion of these massive 3D LiDAR point clouds into something useful to solve business probems. There were a couple of firms represented at SPAR that I would put in this category. QCoherent is doing some very interesting work to bring analysis and visualization tools to the desktop for aerial LiDAR. For anyone in the GIS world, these folks seem to be doing some of the real ground breaking work in this area. For terrestrial LiDAR, Clear Edge 3D had the most compelling solution that I saw for automating the extraction of features into CAD tools.
A couple of weeks after the conference, I am still trying to fit all of the pieces together to try to understand the state of this industry and where the real opportunities lie. I guess my best sense is that this is still a very young industry. One attendee described the state of the industry as "where aerial photogrametry was in the 1950's". While the technology to collect more and better data in the form of 3D LiDAR point clouds is becoming dramatically better every year, our ability to derive more intelligently modeled information from point clouds is not keeping pace with the technology to collect ever larger and more accurate point clouds. Furthermore, the various modeling standards (BIM, GIS, CityGML, etc.) are really struggling to come to grips with how we can build interoperable intelligent models that scale from the door knob to the planet and provide appropriately useful information at the various geographic scales in between. The modeling community was largely unrepresented at SPAR. While there were a couple of sessions dedicated to BIM, the focus was really on the implications to the construction management industry (as you might expect from a BIM discussion) and there was no venue to discuss facilities operations issues at a larger geographic scale or issues related to landscape planning that might have drawn interest from the CityGML or BISDM communities.
At the end of the day, the proof of the value of a conference like SPAR is whether we will spend the money to return next year. SPAR is an expensive conference, particularly for anyone that wants to exhibit so the decision is not an easy one for us. That said, it provides a unique opportunity to take the pulse of a very important and dynamic industry, and an industry that is very important to us as we pursue our strategy to bring GIS inside buildings. All things taken together, we probably can't afford NOT to attend. We will be back next year.