Category Archives: network

Augmented Reality

Great Idea

Augmented reality is the overlaying of digital information over real world imagery in real time – a mix of computer graphics and live video if you will.  An example of this you will have seen already is watching sport – the live video has information such as scores and other data broadcast with it the replay shows direction and trajectory of the ball.  The beauty of augmented reality is that the observer can then interact with the digital part and pull up information relating to the video.

Imagine walking down a UK high street with your phone on camera – you stop and view the high street for a restaurant, on your phone an overlay shows you menu items pulled from the restaurant’s online menu, shows you reviews from newspapers and so forth.

Science fiction? No, this is available right now from a startup called Layar, with content localised from Yellow Pages, Google, Flickr and Wikipedia (

Modern smartphones such as iPhones and Google Android devices can determine their location through GPS and an internal compass, they can download data through mobile broadband connections, and they have reasonably powerful graphics-processing capabilities.  These features make up the necessary ingredients for mobile augmented reality.

Whilst consumer applications have come first, the possibilities are endless for retail, medicine, education, engineering and construction.

Imagine standing at a construction site – viewing it with the wireframe model overlaid.

What value would that have for the client or in planning submission or public consultation?

This is far better than a traditional 2D CGI or expensive model. As nice as they are, CGIs and models do not place the viewer in the site; they do not have context and relevance. But actually visualising the building or space in its real position, albeit a muddy field, will speak volumes.

Imagine being able to click on a balcony four floors up and get the flat’s information – number of bedrooms, sales cost, floor plan, the environmental specifications etc.  As a potential buyer this would be fantastic.

And being able to “view” the shadows of buildings play across the plot and any existing buildings thorough a time-lapsed year – what would that be worth?

By blending augmented reality with local social media sites – blogs and wikis set up to allow comment on new developments, one could obtain residents’ actual (and future) comments, images and questions on the design resulting in a very interactive and pertinent consultation.

During construction, site visits could be augmented by being able to view the actual versus the planned in 3D whilst at site, simply pointing youriPhone at the building and seeing the actual and the digital overlaid.

Post-construction, facilities management and maintenance could walk round the finished building – being able to “click” on the building components and getting specifications, data, construction methods, or being able to control the elements – HVAC, security, fire, lift logic and so forth.  This would be further enhanced by the use of BIM (Building Information Model) CAD tools and software in the design process.

If you are in IT, imagine being able to scan a floor space and obtain network diagrams and floor port information super-imposed over the top, the helpdesk to-do list superimposed over your colleagues heads as you walk bout, or to view a PC or server rack and peruse its environmental information and alert logs – and then to able to dip into control and rectify.

The possibilities for this “new” technology are constrained only by our own visions of use of technology and the hardware with which to support it.

At the moment, companies are nibbling at the edges of the technology, with no commercial products yet on the market, but with all the opportunities out there it is surely only a matter of time before someone grasps the mantle.

If you would like to investigate a little further, Wikitude is an augmented reality application available now for both iPhone and Google Android phones.  It overlays Wikipedia information on the image – a little buggy, but it is early days and I firmly believe that applications such as this will literally change the way we view and interact with our environment.  There is great potential here for truly life improving applications, the internet is going mobile and search is going graphical and contextual.  It will be a brave new world.


Web Meetings

ConferenceThe concept of a virtual conference is not a new one; its roots are firmly embedded with a history of audio and later video conferencing.  What sets it aside is the ability to interact with the other participants and to accurately and converse and discuss.  The basic tenet of screen sharing ensures that all participants are indeed looking at exactly the same file and discussing the exact same piece of information – no more checking of which page are we talking about or describing in detail the area of graphic or drawing being discussed and therefore running the time consuming risk of talking at cross-purposes.

The web meeting can be had in either an ad-hoc or more structured manner and from the pleasure of one’s desktop or laptop, no complicated nor expensive equipment is needed merely some software and a network connection.  This is leaps and bounds on from the days of sharing screens on video conferencing – there is virtually no jerkiness or stuttering of the video.

From a work process perspective the beauty comes in being able to screen share with a geographically diverse located team and quickly hammer out an issue.  Control of the mouse and application can be given to other parties to further facilitate the discussion.  There is no need for all to have theapplication software – it is being “shared” for the duration of the conference.  From a green perspective, there is no travel involved – the carbon footprint is very, very low.  From a personal perspective there is no time spent travelling – time that could be better spent in the office or at home.  Of course the cost is much, much less as well, typically a license could cost between £6 and £30 per month (though depending on the vendor there may be a minimum number to purchase).

Many of them are easily adapted to providing seminars or eLearning – training diverse teams on small subjects.  It could be updates to the intranet or new CAD standards – I would suggest no more than a lunchtimes worth of training otherwise it becomes onerous..  The software will let delegates post questions and the training session can be recorded for offline playback at alter date.  Some will let the trainer know who is focused – that is to say who is actually watching the session and who is reading their email whilst logged in to the session.

Well known vendors include Microsoft with their Live Meeting, Citrix with their GoToMeeting, Cisco with WebEx, Adobe with ConnectPro.  Lesser known, though equally good and useful include Zoho and Beam Your Screen (who are unique in being a UK based company).  Many offer different prices depending on the number of users and whether it is one-to-many or many-to-many.  In terms of choosing a vendor – I would suggest trialing a number – maybe one of the well known vendors and one of the less so for comparison.  All systems offer a try before you buy option or have free versions which typically offer 2 or 3 attendees.  Look out for latency – how long the other end has to wait before the screen changes, other features such as recording the session and if audio conferencing can be included in the cost.

So in conclusion, you should be doing this already; if you are not then you are missing a trick.  You will be saving money, saving time, saving the planet and devoting more effort to creative thinking and providing excellent service to your clients.

Having said all this however, it cannot replace face-to-face interaction.  The key to success in using web meetings is to know the limitations.  Whilst web meetings may be quick and efficient, do not expect to generate group decisions, inspire and engender teamwork or build relationships with clients.

Finding a simpler way of sharing

j0415858The following was written for Building Design Magazine by myself and published on 20th October 2006.  Though 3 years old, the principles of collaboration remained the same for Broadway Malyan and they continue to use Buzzsaw to this day.  The use of Redsky’s software remains were it’s strengths are – that of strong financial management and analysis.  The desire to move to lower cost, secure file sharing remained, but other projects (such as the practices gloablisation into the Middle East and Asia) took the time and budget required to implement and focussed it elsewhere.

Broadway Malyan has long been a happy user of Autodesk’s Buzzsaw project collaboration tool. But now the practice is migrating to a rival product, explains the practice’s IT director Simon Johns

Our use of extranets began five years ago when the need to be able to shift large amounts of project-related data to our clients and significant others in ever shorter time frames became an absolute necessity.

Email can be a great tool, but its use today has become somewhat of chore. It is able to move files about, but there are limits. It is not secure. It is not guaranteed. It does not handle files well — especially large ones associated with cad or graphics. Email is a common vector for viruses, spam, Trojans, phishing and a host of other nasties associated with modern living. In short, it is not suited for the secure, commercial, timely transmission of data.

Project extranets offer many features that enable the movement of files around the internet. With built-in file viewers, “anytime, anyplace” access to these files is possible. While there are many, many extranets-in-a-box to choose from, we chose Buzzsaw from Autodesk. To us, this seemed the obvious choice we had an existing investment in Autodesk’s Architectural Desktop and Buzzsaw integrates into this well.

Our file transmission is secure and guaranteed. Buzzsaw uses FTP to upload and download files. It is available as an application and also as a browser-based version, enabling access from anywhere. The application is easily installed and updated without any special permissions. When files are uploaded the project team is notified, and a link in the email can take you straight to the new files, which can then be viewed or downloaded for further modification. This feature has worked to Broadway Malyan’s advantage where project teams work in offices across Europe and with associate offices internationally. All have access to the same data in the knowledge that changes can be seen quickly and cheaply.

File access is recorded, with user, time and date information. This is often useful when one party forgets that they have reviewed drawings already and have had access to the information for quite a while.

The files in Buzzsaw are stored across the globe data is mirrored between sites in the US and Europe. This feature is something most architects (and, let’s face it, the larger practices are only really small to medium enterprises) could never afford out of their IT budgets. So the ability to buy web space in a cutting-edge project extranet, and buy into all features such as these, is almost a dream come true.

Buzzsaw offers many features that are useful to the construction process — there are many project management tools which are easily customised. But we at Broadway Malyan only use it for the storage of project files and a few other choice items. These project files could be AutoCAD drawings, and Buzzsaw’s ability to link in reference files automatically is a great time-saving feature and one of the reasons why we chose it. These could be large, print-ready PDF or JPG files for transmission to the printers or a repro house, thereby saving time and effort in burning CDs and biking, and allowing for documents to be worked on right up to the wire.

Our IT team also uses Buzzsaw for the delivery of new software packages, using higher bandwidth internet lines rather than dedicated quality lines. In this way they can move gigabytes of data to other office servers for local installation. We have rolled out our main cad package, Architectural Desktop, in this manner as well as many multi-CD graphics packages.

The management of Buzzsaw is simple and this simplicity is of great benefit to architects big and small, as it speeds up the publication process — which is, after all, why we are using it. But it also allows for precise publication to the correct people. This layer of integrity is easy to set up and no real understanding of computer security is needed.

So what is the future for Buzzsaw at Broadway Malyan? We have benefited greatly from its use, but we touch only the edge of the product and have no need for its more complicated features. With this in mind, over the coming months we will be migrating our projects and data to another system which will allow greater flexibility in the way we can operate our extranet. Unlike Buzzsaw, the new licensing model will no longer limit us to the amount of gigabytes stored on a foreign server or number of users able to access the site. We will be free to publish what we want to whom without having to think about the financial implications. This is not without its issues, but they become internalised and can be dealt with far more effectively. We already have the infrastructure; as a multi-national practice we have large network connections and the necessary security.

The software we will use is a spin-off from RedSky IT project portal Informate, which was purchased to give job leaders and directors better financial information in running their jobs. By switching on extra modules, Informate will be capable of replacing Buzzsaw, making the whole exercise sterling neutral (that is, the cost of buying Informate will be cancelled out by migrating away from Buzzsaw). There are many other features of this portal we will aim to exploit in future, but this one gives us dividends that make the project pay for itself.

The future of our project extranet can now be branded exactly as we wish, and who knows where it will end — maybe it will contain streaming movies of fly-throughs and other media-rich applications.

Buzzsaw is a great product which, in our opinion, is better than many of its competitors because it is simple to use. At the end of the day, what more could we want? But that very simplicity for us is its downfall when we can use another product to achieve the same aims at no cost.

l Buzzsaw details are available at

l Information on RedSky IT (formerly Ramesys Construction Services) can be found by visiting

A faster, less clumsy way of file-sharing

Many pieces of software exist that enable file-sharing and collaboration, but it is worthwhile looking at wide area file services (WAFS).

WAFS work well over poor lines and allow separate offices to share files, both large and small, in real time. It can be a piece of software, but is generally is sold as a “black-box solution” — a piece of hardware with pre-loaded software.

WAFS works by caching copies of files — saving them on a small, quickly-accessible memory —from the primary site with the secondary site, that is, from head office with a site office. The caching can be “seeded” so that it can be performed on a local area network at high speed, before distributing to the remote site. This cuts down on the initial time to synchronise.

Once at the remote site, users access data and files as a normal file-share. Anything that has been cached already will be immediately available for work. Anything that it is not cached will take a little time to transfer to the remote site.

When a file is opened, it is locked at both ends so that only one person may access a file at a given time. When the file is saved, only the changes to the file are saved back across the network, not the whole file itself. This saves time and network bandwidth, further facilitating collaboration.

The fact that the file is in two places at once, in perfect synchronisation, means it need only be backed up in one place, for example, at the head office. This minimises the potential for error at the remote site, which usually has no IT staff. This serves business continuity strategies well.

Because files are cached, if the network goes down, the remote site can carry on working — if the remote site was working directly off the server in head office, then disaster would have struck. The files automatically synchronise when the network returns.

The better WAFS devices are also print servers, and provide Active Directory, DNS, DHCP and so on. In fact, they provide everything a remote site needs in order to function, and replace the need for any other server.

Anything this good has a downside, and that is price. A typical site can cost up to £10,000, but the main site needs a box too, so that cost can effectively be doubled.

However, weigh that cost against the price of a server, a back-up device, support and maintenance, and things begin to look a little better. Now add the benefits of real-time collaboration for your distributed team. You may just be onto a winner for all sizes of practice finding it difficult to operate at distance.

Many firms offer different flavours of WAFS, including Cicso, Blue Coat and River Bed.