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.

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.

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.


Adobe Genesis brings fresh AIR to business portals

Adobe Genesis is an AIR take on the venerable enterprise dashboard, or "enterprise desktop" as it is referred to on their development blog. Development of this business platform has not taken place in secret, but it has only recently been given its first public outing at the Office 2.0 conference. Below is a 40 minute video presentation by the Product Manager Matthias Zeller on Genesis, but if you want a higher resolution view check-out this March 2008 screen-cast.

Genesis is an attempt by Adobe to position their AIR run-time as the platform for business applications. Given the eagerness of business developers to use Flex, Adobe are hoping AIR will see similar levels of adoption. However unlike Flex, which produces Flash content that any modern web browser can consume, AIR applications reside in their own, dedicated run-time. This requirement, alongside improvements in browsers, may prove too big an obstacle for Adobe to get around, but you have to give them credit for trying.

Overall Genesis is a shiny looking, but still fairly standard, enterprise dashboard. The biggest problem is that the majority of the functionality demonstrated could be achieved using modern Javascript and Flash. Besides the ability to drag and drop files to and from Genesis there appears to be very little demonstrated benefit to using the AIR run-time over a standard web browser. This is unfortunate but the signs are there that if luck went Adobe's way Genesis could become huge.

AttendAnywhere brings high-end video conferencing to the corporate masses

Disclaimer: I have undertaken some consulting work for AttendAnywhere in the past. This post only covers what is publicly available and I haven't received a penny for writing this. About the only thing I may get from the AttendAnywhere guys is a beer (or a slap on the head) the next time I am in Melbourne. Anyhow, on with the show...

Rising fuel prices, hectic schedules and incessant climate change warnings are making us more aware of the hidden costs of 'same room' meetings. Whilst telephone conferences alleviate the need for travel, a lack of visual feedback leaves such exchanges feeling one dimensional and disjointed. Up till now video conference choices have either been too costly or rudimentary to be viable business solutions. In an effort to change this, Melbourne-based AttendAnywhere have partnered with Vidyo to offer an affordable, on-demand, high-quality video conferencing solution.

That's me (on the right) taking part in a video conference. (click to enlarge)
Yes that is a .Net book in the background - I was young, naive and she promised to be gentle...

But what is wrong with Skype?

At this point many people start to wonder why you would want to spend money on video conferencing when Skype video is free. The AttendAnywhere/Vidyo combination provides a range of advantages over plain old Skype:

  • Multi-party conferences - Skype is limited to one on one video.
  • Screen sharing of applications - Is possible in Skype but requires third-party software.
  • Very low-latency audio - Ever tried having a conversation on Skype only to talk over people? Vidyo has pretty much solved this problem.
  • High quality, robust calls - Skype video works, but is not that consistent as far as video or audio quality goes. Vidyo dynamically degrades the video and audio quality to make sure the conversation can still keep going.
  • Meeting management - Skype lets you make calls but it does not help when it comes to setting them up.
  • Ad-hoc meetings - With Skype you really need to be 'friends' with someone to start a meeting. In a business environment where you could be meeting with hundreds of relative strangers this is unwieldy.
  • Support - Skype is a subsidiary of eBay focused on mainstream audio services. AttendAnywhere is dedicated to business to business video conferencing.

Projjex: Online project collaboration for the rest of us?

I have recently been checking out Projjex, a relative newcomer to the online project/collaboration/document management market. The "cool kid on the block" when it comes to this field is 37signals' Basecamp, but it seems like the two companies are after very different audiences. Basecamp is synonymous with "Web 2.0" and has a look and feel that suits this crowd. In contrast Projjex seems to be going after the older (more mature?) audience with an offering that emphasises practicality over design.

My sweeping generalisation is that if you read TechCruch religiously then Basecamp is for you, whereas if you have never heard of TechCrunch (or prefer 'real news') then Projjex is probably more to your liking.

The genre clash dilemma

Before I go over Projjex I need to get a couple of things off my chest. The problem I have with these project/collaboration/document management tools is that they are trying to do too much with too little. It is like a summer blockbuster that cannot decide whether it is an action, comedy, drama or romance film and just ends up being nothing. Pulling something like this off is almost impossible and at some point the software developer has to put a stake in the ground and focus their efforts on one primary thing. For example when you take a look at the 'traditional' desktop each one of these functions is handled by a dedicated product:

Every one of the above products has a very deep feature-set and whilst it is possible to monitor projects in Sharepoint or manage documents within Outlook, these capabilities are purely secondary and often accidental.

Wikis in plain english

This is a nice little video for explaining to those who do not know or understand what wiki are without using words of more than two syllables. It does not push the theoretical envelope in any way but it is fun to watch all the same.

Second Life, AEC collaboration and Ryan Schultz

Last week I had a pretty interesting email conversation with Ryan Schultz about Second Life (not to be confused with First Life) and its potential for architectural collaboration. In a nutshell I am not a fan of Second Life. Certainlly one day 3D will play a much stronger role in our experience of the Web but I don't believe Second Life is 'it'. If you are interested in reading our conversation then Ryan has done a pretty good job of presenting it on his Studio Wikitecture site. I come off sounding reasonably intelligent which I guess means those long hours of watching Discovery Channel are beginning to pay off.

I can’t help but feel the online 3D market is at the same place as the 2D online world was between 1990 and 1995. Back then we had walled gardens like Compuserve, AOL and even Microsoft Network (which originally shipped with Windows 95). Whilst these communities had a lot of money behind them the rapid adoption of open HTML and HTTP concepts quickly usurped them.

When it comes to 3D architectural collaboration I really do not see much of a role for entirely immersive worlds like Second Life in a business context. Immersive worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft have a tonne of conceptual baggage that is part and parcel with the whole experience. Your average business person, be it client or architect, just wants to focus on the job and hand which is interogating and understanding the building design in a clear and comprehensive manner. 3D is just one avenue for this exploration, conventional 2D architecture drawings and conversation is no less important. Because of these demands architectural collaboration will continue to trend towards standalone and portable 2D/3D media such as DWF and PDF rather than moving into online worlds. These are relatively lightweight and immediately accessible mediums compared to Second Life, where just finding the architecture could prove problematic for unaccustomed users.

Another undiscussed factor which is just impossible to shake off is the stigma associated with any entertainment-centric technology when applied to a business problem. For ten years I have been watching demonstrations of how architecture can be 'experienced' within a 3D game engine yet nothing has really come out of it apart from a lot of promising demos and the odd chuckle when a reviewer gets bored and decides to virtually shoot the other attendees. Whilst it may seem a little silly I think deep down many people just cannot take these derived tools seriously (although they would never admit it). This may change over time, especially as the generations who have grown up with Doom and Quake begin to ascend corporate ladders. However until such a time I think any architectural visualisation experience centered around entertainment or gaming technology is going to struggle for credibility in what is in general a fairly conservative AEC market.

Why Autodesk should 'Open' DWF

Beyond the Paper's Scott Sheppard recently pointed to McDwiff as the first partial example of a Mac-based DWF viewer. Unfortunately for the DWF starved Mac community McDwiff is simply a wrapper around a WebKit browser window pointed directly at Autodesk's own Project Freewheel web service. It fails to qualify as a true desktop application for a number of crucial reasons:

  1. It does not (yet) add functionality beyond what is present in the Web-based Freewheel viewer.
  2. DWF files must be first uploaded to the Autodesk web service.
  3. There is no off-line mode or local caching to improve performance.
  4. The lifespan of the software is entirely dependent on the existence of the host service.

Note: These limitations are not the developers fault as they have obviously only just initiated the project. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Following up on CAD Collaboration

I have had a fairly positive response to my last CAD Collaboration post. Feedback has highlighted a couple of areas that need clarifying and developing a little further.

On Snapshots and Deltas

Paul Wilkinson of the Extranet Evolution blog put up a fairly long post that discussed many aspects of the article. Of most interest was his comments on the snapshots and deltas idea, significantly the fact that a similar approach had been adopted three years ago by BIW Information Channel from BIW Technologies.
BIW’s Accelerated Transfer pack condenses file revisions to a fraction of their previous size allowing faster transfer – up to ten times faster in the case of some files.

In the case of BIW it used delta encoding as a means of increasing data transfer speeds to remote, poorly connected places such as construction sites. This is slightly different to the concept I proposed because it deals with binary deltas rather than deltas at an abstracted digital model level. Binary deltas are great at a file level because they do allow changes to the same file be transferred somewhere very quickly. The problem is that binary deltas are intended to convert a file to a carbon copy of the remote source file from top to bottom.

Using delta's in a collaborative digital model is all about exchanging design intentions (i.e. rotated wall A 45 degrees) so that the model is updated but many properties of the actual file remain the same. In many respects it is more complex process than a low-level delta courtesy of a tool like diff. However this added complexity provides the benefit of enabling users to choose what design intentions they wish to inherit from other team members without worrying about the associated digital baggage that accompanies their team member's file.