Bentley Adds KML Support to MicroStation

By Adena Schutzberg

On Wednesday Bentley briefed a good number of CAD and GIS editors on its new tool that exports 2D and 3D data from MicroStation to KML, Google's encoding for Google Earth data. I'd heard about it the day before and read the press release that morning. I admit that I wasn't that excited.

Why? Well, the news of the day before, about Google acquiring @Last, developers of SketchUp, was still spinning in my brain. "Fun, cool, hot, easy-to-use, inexpensive SketchUp" being acquired by "fun, cool, hot, easy-to-use, inexpensive Google" was big news. Now, "serious, staid, responsible, more complex, older and more expensive MicroStation" had the ability to export to KML.

Even Bentley acknowledges it's late to the KML game in its FAQ, which includes the question, " You are not the first to push CAD information into the Google Earth environment. What makes this news?" The answer is essentially, because MicroStation is a good and widely used 3D modeler, with which no one can really argue.

How late is Bentley? Google Earth went live in June 2005. SketchUp had a pre-beta of its plug-in by August of 2005. KML tools for ESRI appeared last fall, include KML Home Companion. KMLexport tools for AutoCAD appeared in Avatech's Earth Connect at the beginning of this year. First out of the gate? The Safe Software guys told me last July (!) how straightforward and powerful KML was. And, at that time they already had a beta out!

A Digression
Let me share with you some of what I've learned as an industry journalist over the past few years. In particular I want to explain the "briefing." There are, in my mind, two sorts of briefing: the private briefing and the group briefing. These can be done in person or via the Web and/or phone. Needless to say, they have different dynamics and generate different sorts of press materials.

The individual briefing is nice, since you have some high level exec listening to your reaction, questions and concerns. That's very valuable. Some hosts are good enough to forgo a prepared speech and let the conversation be freeform. Others like to stick to their planned slides and dog and pony show. The results of individual identical briefings are more or less, individual, identical articles. I'm seriously considering not running an article based on a recent briefing since frankly, another editor already did a better job presenting the material than I will! On the other hand, I do bring some individuality to my take on the whole thing, so we'll see.

Group briefings are more fun for journalists because we can interact and know that everyone saw and heard the "same story." Unfortunately, the mix of attendees can lead presenters to assume a level of knowledge which all participants may not have. Vendors sometimes fear this sort of interaction because well, we journalists can "gang up" on them. I especially like group briefings because you get to hear others questions and get some sense of their response to the topic.

Group Bentley Briefing
The Bentley presentation was fine (details, FAQ, images are on Bentley's product page for MicroStation's Google Earth Tools Integration). The basics:

  1. Existing Select (the company's subscription option) users on V8 2004 can download the tool now. It'll also be part of V8 XM, expected in May.
  2. All of the DGN comes across - borders, models, saved views, raster, reference files, hyperlinks, levels.
  3. MicroStation Geographics users who set up projections/coordinate systems will have their KML automatically georeferenced. Those with "vanilla" MicroStation go through a "registration process" to locate the file in Google Earth. The good news: Bentley is looking at incorporating the projection/coordinate engine from Geographics in core MicroStation. (I vote yes! Autodesk, you need to do that too, adding Map's projection/coordinate engine into AutoCAD.)
  4. Bentley had 150 beta sites play with the KML exporter for a month. It was a very popular beta. Architects and Departments of Transportation were well represented.
  5. File sizes can be large. The KML of the Bentley campus that was demoed weighed in at 3.7 Mb.

What I found most fascinating were the questions and comments from my peers. One asked if Google Earth Pro/Plus was needed. Another asked if Bentley and Google had a formal relationship. Another said he wanted to see weather in Google Earth. (The answers: no, no and "Sure, that's our vision, too.") What these comments revealed I think, was that at least some of these folks hadn't played with Google Earth, weren't aware of the power/flexibility of KML, and hadn't been following Web 2.0. To be fair, until now, CAD users/vendors/journalists have really not had their world rocked by Google/Microsoft/Yahoo/Web 2.0 as their peers in GIS have.

The overall sense of the journalism community, so far as I could tell, was appropriately focused on the implications of this add-on: How would MicroStation users use it to share and visualize data? How might it change Google Earth's data store? How might time series be added? How would this change CAD/GIS integration? Those are the same question many have been asking since other packages were outputting KML months ago. And, frankly, some people were asking those questions that when @Last offered a tool to put SketchUp models in ArcGIS in 2004.

At one level, this is just another KML exporter. Still, Bentley should be applauded for adding the tool and understanding the power of Google Earth as a platform for integration. Bottom line, every design package and GIS will eventually export to KML, either via tools from the vendor, third parties or end-users, sooner or later.

Published Thursday, March 16th, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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