Various pieces of writing from undertaking my PhD thesis entitled "Building Digital Bridges - Improving digital collaboration through the principles of Hyperlinked Practice". I undertook this research at Victoria University of Wellington between 2004 and 2010. My primary supervisor for this thesis was Michael Donn.

Download and read the final thesis here.

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user experience which overcomes the idea that a specifications catalogue must be dull, unhelpful and always two months out of date.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...

Harvard Critical Digital Conference 2008 paper

In April I presented a paper at the GSD Critical Digital Conference at Harvard University. The paper was co-authored by my supervisor Mike Donn. The conference itself was pretty good considering it was the first time it had been run. You can find my paper along with all the others online at the Critical Digital website. However for posterity (and Google) I have included the text of my paper below.

Using Project Information Clouds to Preserve Design Stories within the Digital Architecture Workplace


During the development of an architectural design a series of design stories form. These stories chronicle the collective decision making process of the diverse project team. Current digital design processes often fail to record these design stories because of the emphasis placed on the concise and accurate generation of the virtual model. This focus on an all-encompassing digital model is detrimental to design stories because it limits participation, consolidates information flow and risks editorialisation of design discussion. Project Information Clouds are proposed as a digital space for design team participants to link, categorise and repurpose existing digital information into comprehensible design stories in support of the digital building model. Instead of a discrete tool, the Project Information Cloud is a set of principles derived from a proven distributed information network, the World Wide Web. The seven guiding principles of the Project Information Cloud are simplicity, modular design, decentralisation, ubiquity, information awareness, evolutionary semantics and context sensitivity. These principles when applied to the development of existing and new digital design tools are intended to improve information exchange and participation within the distributed project team.

Using Blogging as a Research Tool

This post expands upon a talk I gave recently about using blogs as an academic research and thought development tool.

Identify interesting people in your field of study

Academic research is one part original thought and ninety nine parts identifying the limits of existing knowledge. This task can take up a good part of your time and when it comes to the Web identifying movers and shakers in your field can be frustrating and highly unproductive task.

Online communities: social networks and newsgroups

The first place to start when identifying interesting people in your line of study is the various social networks and interest groups on the Web.

As far as social networks go arguably the two most productive for finding people are Facebook and LinkedIn. Whilst Facebook is aimed at the casual user there is a diverse range of interest groups forming around nearly every topic imaginable. Don't despair at the variable quality of the content within these groups, the fact you are almost always dealing with real people makes the effort needed to browse through these groups worthwhile. Likewise whilst the business-centric LinkedIn lacks Facebook's group capabilities you'll be surprised how many people in your extended professional network share similar interests or could be of benefit to your research.

At the more traditional end of the spectrum newsgroups like those at Google Groups and Yahoo Groups are good places to to find clusters of people interested in your research. Most newsgroups are welcoming to newcomers, especially those that have something to offer, but it pays to passively monitor potential groups for a while in order to properly gauge the tone and style of the people involved. Whilst it may seem easy to charge straight in, it is hard to rebuild bridges if you start things off on the wrong foot. For example it is not good karma for your first newsgroup posting to read "can someone tell me everything about subject X".

A typical Google Groups group (click to enlarge)

Social bookmarking

There are a growing number of websites dedicated to storing and sharing your Web bookmarks.

The most notable of these is but there are others such as Diigo and Simpy that are also very good.

These online repositories assist your research by helping you find people with similar interests as yourself. This is achieved by browsing through the 'tags' people associate with their bookmarks, whilst some services can even recommend people who appear to share similar interests as yourself. Social bookmarking can also act like a human powered search engine by enabling you to track popular or new bookmarks on a specific topic. However the drawback of social bookmarking is that for the system to function at its full potential you must publish your bookmarks for the world to see. This maybe a problem if privacy is an issue with your research or you just don't like the idea of being 'on show'.

A great Web 2.0 Dilbert strip

Sad because it is true...

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.

Internet enabling Generative Components for a new breed of AEC consultant

Generative Components, also known as Smart Geometry, is a technology for describing the underlying rule-set of a geometric form. Currently it is in its infancy but potential exists for it to become the basis of a new field of AEC consultancy centered around geometric exploration. Central to its success will be the ability for its proponents to utilise the Internet to improve its technical accessibility and enable consultants to deliver the benefits of Generative Components to any interested architecture practice no matter its size or geographic location.

Even though it is smarter, BIM is still dumb

Typical CAD or BIM modeling tools are relatively simple in nature because all the major design elements are systematically defined by the architect or drafts-person building the model. Unfortunately this process depends on the person creating the model having at least some idea of the intended outcome before undertaking the work. Also once the model is built the underlying geometric motivations behind it cannot be efficiently experimented with. Generative Components empowers the designer with the ability to almost effortlessly explore many different yet related iterations of the same concept in order to determine the strongest architectural response to the given situation.

Capturing workplace knowledge with Drupal

Formally recording what we have learned in the workplace is a worthwhile process that is often forgotten or not undertaken because there is no time or immediate incentive to do so. Web-based technologies such as wikis and blogs have demonstrated that enabling people to quickly publish and publicise their knowledge within their peer group is potentially a very powerful means of undertaking collaborative knowledge capture. This article explores how Drupal, an open-source content management framework can be used to facilitate this process in a community centric manner.

So much to know, so little time

A workplace such as an architecture practice generates a lot of 'on the job' knowledge which at the time can seem obvious or worthless but afterwards can be invaluable. Such knowledge can range from the most appropriate window detail to use in a certain situation, to the most efficient way of modeling that window detail in the office CAD package. Usually these little morsels of knowledge are never formally recorded because it is just more work that typically is not budgeted for, or acknowledged by, management. As a consequence finding an answer to one of the aforementioned questions becomes dependent on your ability to understand the workplace's knowledge topography (i.e. who knows what). But even though it maybe common knowledge in your workplace that Bob has a collection of decent window details or Andrew 'the CAD guy' will help you out, what happens when they are not available, or even worse quit their job to work at the more fashionable architecture practice across town?

Architectures for Conversation presentation

Andrew Hinton has published an excellent presentation entitled 'Architectures for Conversation'. It deals with the emerging importance of conversation systems in an information architecture and its relationship it has to existing formal structures. It has some excellent imagery to support the points raised (the M16 to AK47 comparison being one that sticks out). Where it becomes very interesting in relation to my thesis are the areas when it deals with the integration of conversational architectures with existing formal structure. This is emphasised most effectively in the following diagram taken from the presentation:

Slide 30 of 71 - Architectures for Conversation, Andrew Hinton


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.