Bluestreak and the birth of a collaboration kernel

Successful Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) collaboration depends on the timely dissemination of relevant information throughout the project team. This task is made difficult by the number of collaboration interactions that occur and the diverse range of digital tools used to support them. To improve this process it is proposed that a collaboration kernel could weave together these disparate interactions and tools. This will create a more productive and efficient collaboration environment by allowing design discussion, issues and decisions to be efficiently and reliably exchanged between team members and the digital tools they currently use. This article describes how Project Bluestreak, a messaging service from Autodesk Labs, can be transformed into an effective collaboration kernel. To guide this transformation, the principles of the Project Information Cloud have been used to evaluate the existing service and identify areas for future development. These fundamental digital collaboration principles are derived from lessons learnt in the formation of the World Wide Web. When these principles are embodied within a digital collaboration tool, they have demonstrated an ability to improve the timely delivery of relevant information to members of the project team.

Seamless collaboration within a fragmented digital environment

A successful AEC digital collaboration environment brings multiple parties together so that they can productively work towards a satisfactory and achievable design outcome. During this process participants must engage in a variety of interactions between team members and the digital models used to describe the design. These interactions, and the technologies commonly used to enable them, are summarised in the following diagram and table.

Note: The term 'model' refers to a CAD or BIM digital model that represents the proposed design. Digital models play an important role in the collaboration process as they communicate ideas, impose restrictions and can be manipulated to reflect a participant's opinion.

Be2camp presentation on architectural micro-blogging

Below is the slide presentation I will (hopefully) present at tonight's Be2camp North un-conference. Basically the presentation graphically summarises my recent blog post on the use of micro-blogging within architectural collaboration.

The conference is in Liverpool and I am in New Zealand, so if the technology gods are not in a good mood things may go pear shaped very quickly...


Using micro-blogging to record architectural design conversation alongside the BIM

The majority of professionals within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry use the telephone and email to collaborate on immediate design problems. Unfortunately there is a disconnection between this communication and the underlying Building Information Model (BIM) where the agreed upon architectural solution is recorded. As a consequence it is difficult for a person interacting solely with the BIM to take part or learn from this external conversation because they are often oblivious to it taking place. Micro-blogging is an emerging, Internet-based communication medium that may provide the common thread to tie these disparate sources of project information together. It will achieve this through enabling the issues and outcomes discussed during architectural conversations to be quickly recorded by any member of the project team. Those working on the BIM will be able to actively monitor and search across these conversations to keep up to date with the project’s state and help solve new design problems.

Unlike blogging and instant messaging, micro-blogging can communicate simple messages between groups of people using mobile phones or any Internet connected device. These conversations are published online so they can be referenced in further design discussion, or indexed for searching alongside other sources of project information. For adoption to occur the technology must be integrated within the BIM toolset so that being part of this conversation is a natural extension of the digital workspace. Current micro-blogging services such as Twitter, lack this integration and have not (yet) been tailored to meet the specific demands of architectural collaboration. A focused implementation would likely improve architectural collaboration because micro-blogging embodies many of the principles of the Project Information Cloud. Its qualities of simplicity, ubiquity, decentralisation, modularity, awareness, context sensitivity and evolving semantics make it a promising collaboration medium, and one that could move the AEC industry towards the goal of hyperlinked practice.

Autodesk Seek gets a new look and more content

Autodesk has not yet abandoned their web-based services endeavours in spite of a wilting construction industry and sinking global economy. Just prior to Autodesk University 2008 their Seek service received a significant makeover. Now this week it was announced BIMWorld has been acquired by Autodesk so that its BIMLibrary catalogue can be folded into Seek's. These events all sound good on paper, but how do they stack up, and more importantly is this a step forward for the Seek service?

The new user interface

The old white on black style of Seek has disappeared in favour of pastels on white. Overall this is a welcome change, but more importantly the overall appearance has been tidied up, with more attention paid to the rendering of onscreen elements. The result still feels very database-driven, but compared to the previous interface it does have a better flow and a less haphazard look. The Javascript-based Yahoo! User Interface library has been used to good effect and overall it feels very snappy. Unfortunately under this new coat of paint some things have not changed, for example the URIs for each product are shockingly bad. The option to email a link of the product has improved, but most people are used to simply copying and pasting URLs from the browser. If Autodesk expect others to link to content they need to resolve this problem. Until then it is very difficult for people to collaborate using Seek as a point of reference.

Making digital collaboration "more betterer"

Recently I gave a presentation at Victoria University on the work I am doing with my PhD. For posterity I have uploaded this presentation to Slideshare.

The talk covered the problem of digital architectural collaboration and how it is an immature field compared to other aspects of architecture. Due to the pressing nature of architectural collaboration the solutions to this problem will not be revolutionary, e.g. Second Life-like, but rather evolutionary, and at times even haphazard.

After introducing the problem-space I went on to discuss the emergence of the Building Information Model (BIM) as a central figure in digital architectural collaboration. However whilst BIM is an excellent productivity tool it does not address many of the industry's collaboration issues - in fact in many respects it compounds them.

WIth BIM identified as a significant yet problematic collaboration technology I outlined the need for an overriding set of digital collaboration principles that can be applied to future collaboration technology decisions. Rather than starting from zero I propose that we build on top of the underlying theories of distributed systems such as the Internet. With this need and methodology identified, I go on to introduce the seven principles of the Project Information Cloud:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Decentralisation
  4. Modular design
  5. Information awareness
  6. Context sensitivity
  7. Evolutionary semantics

Through application of these principles it is hoped we can establish Project Information Clouds within architectural projects. These unbounded information clouds will link significant amounts of projects data into intelligent, loosely joined, knowledge-bases.


Autodesk Seek talk by Mike Haley

A day after posting my critique on Autodesk Seek I came across this presentation Mike Haley of the Seek team gave in March. Boy I wish that I had come across this last week as it answers some of the outstanding questions that I posed. The video covers the technologies that Seek is composed of, i.e. Atom syndication feeds (PartAtom), schema design, Amazon EC2 and open source modules. The entire thing looks surprisingly good (and open) for a big company like Autodesk. The presentation is an hour long but worth watching as it is probably the most significant thing one of the big-AEC software vendors have attempted on the Internet.

Another interesting thing Mike mentions is that Amazon are working on Windows-based EC2 instances...

Autodesk Seek steps towards ubiquitous AEC search

Note: Before reading this critque I would recommend checking out this Autodesk Seek presentation as it answers many of the questions raised here.

In May Autodesk released a beta of Autodesk Seek, a web-based Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) specific, 3D model and specifications search tool. Rather than a free for all model index in a similar guise to Google's 3D Warehouse or CADoogle, the service is focused on exposing the model and specification catalogues of AEC suppliers. This is hardly going to interest the armchair designer, but for architects and engineers the ability to quickly locate, access and reference specifications and 3D data could potentially reduce design development time and costs significantly.

Gauging by the initial contents of Seek it would appear Autodesk have partnered with some large U.S. suppliers in order to kick-start their index. Whilst the index signals a clear sign of intent its current contents is hardly awe inspiring. That being said raw index size itself does not ensure success, to really make a mark and stand the test of time the Seek team need to execute on three things:

  • Quickly build out this index with up to date and relevant content so that it becomes the first place AEC professionals head to.
  • Create a compelling user experience which overcomes the idea that a specifications catalogue must be dull, unhelpful and always two months out of date.
  • Work to integrate Seek into as many aspects of Autodesk's existing modeling and drafting tools. By doing so the line between desktop and Web will be blurred and Seek will become a natural extension of their professional digital toolset.

What differentiates Seek from the crowd?

The idea of an online product catalogue for AEC specifications is certainly not new. However Seek is unique in that it is the first online product catalogue backed by a large company who's primary customer-base is not AEC suppliers. In the past online AEC catalogue initiatives have been spearheaded by suppliers or third-parties financially dependent on these suppliers. This close association has hindered growth and because for a Web-based, universal product catalogue to be successful it must stand independently from its data suppliers. This independence establishes trust which is important because users do not want the relevancy of their search influenced by who is paying the bills, nor do they want a 'walled garden' where only products from selected (paying) suppliers are on show. Consequently even though many supplier-backed catalogues exist, none can be considered the Google of the AEC world.

Seek has the potential of filling this 'Google' void because Autodesk's primary income is from people who make material purchasing decisions (architects, engineers and contractors, etc.) and not the suppliers themselves. This difference places Seek in the position of being able to design a catalogue that acts in the best interests of the search consumer. At the same time suppliers are practically forced to take part given Autodesk's vast global audience. The challenge facing Seek it is that Autodesk are not known for producing search indexes or successful Web products.

So given this background and the potential rewards on offer what works and what doesn't in this early beta release? Let's take a look...

Architecture Astronauts

A blog post by David Megginson brought to my attention an article posted six years ago by Joel Spolsky about architecture astronauts. Who are they? Architecture astronauts in Joel's words are:

"Smart thinkers (that) just don't know when to stop, and they create these absurd, all-encompassing, high-level pictures of the universe that are all good and fine, but don't actually mean anything at all."

The moral behind Spolsky's story will continue to remain relevant simply because it is a lesson often forgotten in the heat of a debate or brainstorming session. David Megginson agrees with many of these observations but does point out architecture astronauts have had a positive, if not always successful effect on technology development. From the real world of architecture I am always reminded of Mies van der Roe's ability to grasp the big ideas of modernism whilst still keeping his head when it came to functionality and details (after all, 'God is in the details'). This ability gains even more credit when you compare his work to Le Corbusier, arguably one of architecture's great astronauts, who's ideas often far outstretched their functionality or success in the real world.

On a technical tangent I especially agree with one of David's last points about XML and the heady effect it has had on technology architects and evangelists in the past:

"(Architecture astronauts) believe that if a bit of standardization is good, a lot must be even better."

If anything both posts highlight the importance of stopping work, taking a step back and readdressing what it is you are actually trying to achieve and the way it is being done. Unfortunately for most of us it is all too easy to get caught up in the big idea or the nuts and bolts, in the process missing the chance to grasp what we were really on to in the first place.