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19 junio 2024

Oboria Digital and the Las Vegas Sphere: Artificial Intelligence at the service of architectural design

The best known project of the Aragonese technology company is the so-called Las Vegas sphere, but they have also intervened in unique buildings such as the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida.

The company from Zaragoza is dedicated to the development of Artificial Intelligence tools and modules for the design of architecture, engineering and construction.

Oboria Digital became world famous after the presentation of MGS Sphere, popularly known as the Las Vegas sphere, one of the last great projects of this singular studio from Zaragoza founded by the architect Miguel Fontgivell (Zaragoza, 1981). One of the first companies to participate in The Wave, Tech Expo of the Government of Aragon, which will be held between today and tomorrow at the Palacio de Congresos de Zaragoza, the company has in the use of programming and Artificial Intelligence the basis of its uniqueness, at an international level, of its efficient, agile and flexible way of working. Fontgivell, CEO and founder of Oboria Digital and general director of Saco Technologies in Spain, has led with his studio projects such as the digital facades of the Burj Khalifa (Dubai, the tallest building in the world), the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida (a building shaped like a guitar), and the Los Angeles Rams stadium, in USA.

MSG Sphere website. Photo: https://www.thesphere.com/

Miguel Fontgivell will speak today at The Wave about the key digital technologies in the present and future development of companies and society, such as IoT (Internet of Things), Cybersecurity, Cloud Computing, Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence, technologies that are “the key to where we are”, he explains. Not in vain, the company has been using AI in its design processes for nearly a decade, with a first approach in 2017 in the design of the digital facade of the Burj Khalifa, in 2017. In this case, the Oboria Digital team employed “evolutionary algorithms or genetic algorithms for design optimization: not so much for the algorithm to do the design as a whole, but to optimize certain parts of the design process. Before that, in 2014, in a project for the Qatar World Cup, we already started to change the work methodology to be based more on programming and not so much on conventional design. Two and a half years after the Qatar project, in 2017, since we were working on programming, we thought of adding one more layer of artificial intelligence and let it optimize designs. The result was that in two weeks of work we achieved an $80,000 cost savings, without being AI specialists at the time.”

LED façade of the Hard Rock Café hotel in Florida. Photo: https://casino.hardrock.com/hollywood/hotel/the-guitar-hotel

The third language, programming

Oboria Digital’s evolution towards the use of Artificial Intelligence for the optimization of work processes in architectural design places it as a “rara avis, even at an international level, we do something very niche,” explains the CEO and founder. “If we had to do the sphere project the conventional way, we wouldn’t have been able to. Because in a project like this you have to be able to work fast and without mistakes. Errors disappear when you work with a database where everybody attacks, what’s called the ‘Single Source of Truth’, the single source of truth. When you have a database that everybody is attacking, you can make sure that that data will be correct and consistent, because everybody is working with it. And if someone finds something wrong, they report it. Having twenty people working against the same database makes you debug errors that you couldn’t debug if you had eighty people, each working by hand, because you don’t pool, contrast, or verify that information. Not only are we four times more productive and efficient, but there are things we are able to do that you wouldn’t be able to do with conventional methods,” he says. And as an example, here’s a button. “Despite having generated 15,000 plans for the sphere,” thanks to artificial intelligence, he says, “there hasn’t been a single error. Because, he says, “once the machine learns, it doesn’t make mistakes. That is the qualitative leap.

Miguel Fontgivell at the Oboria Digital offices. Photo: N.M

Oboria Digital is composed of a team of 22 architects, engineers and programmers in permanent training and updating. “We are a small company and we are guided by not so technical questions when we interview someone. Obviously, we ask that they have a technical discipline profile (architecture, engineering, computer engineering), because you need them to know mathematics, algebra… basic issues for the operations we perform here. But after that cut, in the end, as we work on new technologies, we do not expect them to come trained in them from the University, we train them ourselves. We train them ourselves in a ‘startup’ way, we see what is new, what can be integrated into our design process. Everyone contributes here,” says Miguel Fongivell. “I’m an architect and now I program neural networks,” he notes, while commenting that “the third language should have been programming years ago”.

A rara avis in its field

The Zaragozan company is dedicated to the “development of Artificial Intelligence tools and modules for architectural, engineering and construction design”. A qualitative leap in which the company has managed to be among the first worldwide. “From the way conventional architecture is done to us, there are several evolutionary leaps you have to make. One of the first is to work on a methodology that has been in use for the last fifteen years, but which has boomed in the last eight, which is Building Information Modeling (BIM) or building information modeling, which the European Union requires to be implemented in public administrations. Spain is late. In Zaragoza, architectural firms or companies that are working with this methodology (when it was supposed to have been implemented two years ago) probably account for 20% of the offices. This is one of the leaps, and there are still two more to come to our way of working,” he says. For this reason, in Oboria Digital “we are more oriented to markets like the United States, where this is already a reality, or like the one of the big projects, with big architecture firms, where this is also a reality: Foster and Partners, Zaha Hadid… all of them work like this”, he argues. BIM is the first evolutionary leap, says Fontgivell, and the other two that would remain to approach his way of working would be the use of programming and Artificial Intelligence. “We are still a rara avis in this area,” he explains.

Most of the projects that are addressed in Oboria Digital are international, although they are currently working in national territory. “We are very excited, we have finally been able to sign a project in Spain. Now we are at an impasse to see where we want to go, where circumstances lead us, and try to decide the best option for the company to continue with this environment. With the sphere project there are many people calling us, but I want to take advantage of this to be masters of our destiny and decide where we want to go. Because I don’t want a company of 200 people, I prefer a solvent and friendly company, where we have a good time, to having a company of 100 or 200 people and spend the day looking at the accounts”, says the founder of the company, who bets for “the turnover per capita, to improve the income per employee, and not so much the absolute ones”.

Oboria Digital offices. Photo: N.M

The Sphere: 15,000 plans and not a single error

Miguel Fontgivell considers that in Aragon, in his field, “there are possible synergies. In fact, the boom of the Las Vegas sphere has helped me to meet people from here. Because we are all working abroad, we don’t know each other. The Wave event, as well as others, has helped me to meet quite powerful companies. It is true that our field is not so much, we are a rara avis, even at an international level, we do something very niche, but there are people doing tangential things with whom we can collaborate”, he comments. At the event today and tomorrow, Fontgivell talks about real cases in which the technologies being discussed at the congress, such as Artificial Intelligence, have played a relevant role. For example, “the only incidents we have had in the design of the sphere have been that, of the input parameters, constraints or assumptions that we had used, some, at some point, had been incorrect. When we adjusted them and pressed the button again, they were redesigned,” he says, although, as he points out, “despite having generated 15,000 drawings for the dial, there has not been a single error.

Another example of the effectiveness of Oboria Digital’s way of working that the CEO of the company points out was that of a client who realized an error in the data provided to the Zaragoza company “three or four weeks after the installation of the exterior façade. Everything was designed according to criteria that were not met. We redesigned the exterior façade project in a six-week process, but two weeks later we were already providing them with data so that they could work and not stop the work. The 4,000 plans for that façade were redrawn in those six weeks. We were able to do it because we had all the processes automated,” he recalls.

A way of working that allows them to connect in a much more agile and efficient way with the tools used in the manufacturing phase. “You can connect with other systems, with ERPs for manufacturing, logistics… you already have the database, you don’t have to pass a file, so that the customer then has to program it in an API… you are already working everything digitally, which means we are closer to the industry. We don’t pass a drawing so that they have to take the data and put it into their numerical control machine. You give them a file that they can program for their CNC machine. You give it to them with eight decimal places of precision: we give them the data, not drawings that they have to interpret,” he explains.

Miguel Fontgivell at the Oboria Digital offices. Photo: N.M

Vuvari Global, the origin

Oboria Digital emerged from a division, as a result of the MSG Sphere project, of the founding company, Vuvari Global, into two companies: Oboria Digital and the European headquarters of Saco Techologies. “When Madison Square Garden decides to have Saco Technologies do the project, it wants to come in as a shareholder. And one of the conditions to enter the shareholding is that the entire vertical of the business would be part of Saco,” he recalls.

The Aragonese company has carried out projects that include the Goya Museum, for the former Ibercaja Obra Social (now Ibercaja Foundation) or the digital façade of the Cincinnati Football Club. As Fontgivell explains, only certain companies embark on this type of project, and most of them come from the USA, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. These are markets they access from their headquarters in Zaragoza. “As a company we would be more successful in the U.S. in terms of clients, financing… you only have to look at the macroeconomic data. Economically, we would be better off,” he explains in relation to his decision to maintain his headquarters in Aragon. However, “in the U.S. it would be more difficult, for example, to hire people. I manage some of the departments of Saco Canada, which has a similar market, and the challenge is to find competent people, retain them, the company’s costs… Success is more guaranteed in a booming market like theirs, but in Zaragoza, working abroad, we are doing very well. Because if you are able to compete in technology with these markets, at a fraction of the cost, the business part is easier to carry on. There is a lot of talent here, but you have to work hard for it. Everything has pros and cons. It’s very good here, people are happy with the work environment we provide. If you’re here and you have a job outside, you can have the best of both worlds,” he concludes.

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