An architect sitting at his desk needs to make sure that the faux marble facades on his latest creation have been installed right side up. He calls up a 3-D virtual space of the construction site and locates an avatar near the front of the building. Having identified the avatar as a site engineer he knows well, the architect requests a link to the engineer. After politely inquiring how the engineer's husband and kids are doing, the architect asks the engineer to activate her multimedia hard-hat and view the front of the building. A window opens on the architect's computer desktop containing the video output from the engineer's hard hat camera. Having ascertained that the panels are properly installed, the architect says goodbye and closes the link.
Futuristic folderol? Actually, it's a work in progress. Collaborative Integrated Communications for Construction (CICC; pronounced "kick") is a European Commission research and development project that is bringing a host of advanced technologies to bear on construction and manufacturing industry processes. The project is a consortium of government organizations and private companies engaged in a wide-ranging project to use the World Wide Web and ISDN, ATM, and mobile technologies to integrate and augment information and communication functions among various participants in industrial and construction settings. The consortium is working on so many capabilities that it's hard to know where to start in describing them.
Using TCP/IP infrastructure and World Wide Web interfaces the project will link all the major parties including the contractors, architects, engineers, surveyors, suppliers, site agents, and the clients involved in any construction site. Each participant will have a personal home page, complete with photo, contact information, a 360° view of his or her office, and a videoconferencing link and capability.
The home page also includes video feeds of "nearest office neighbors" in an effort to preserve the local-presence effects of an office environment that "talking heads" videoconferences generally miss out on. Collaborative software will allow video-call participants to view two windows for each participant one containing a view of the participant, the other containing a view of the contents of the participant's computer desktop. Available online will be a variety of documents and databases including architectural drawings, CAD and relational databases, engineering drawings, and 3-D models of the construction site as it exists and in its intended completed form.
In addition to being able to access these documents and models, participants will be able to access live video of the site. Office staff will be able to see live video in step with computer or engineering visualizations, and site staff will be able to see their surroundings overlaid with diagrams and data on the display of a wearable multimedia hard hat. The video from the hard hat will also be available over communications channels so that someone on site will be able to isolate and share a particular view of the site while discussing it with someone in any of the offices linked to the network.
The project is creating the potential for dramatically new capabilities and efficiencies. A person taking a virtual tour of the site by navigating the 3-D model of the construction site on his or her computer screen will see a model of the small contractor's trailer off on one corner of the construction site exactly where the trailer resides in reality. When the person navigates to the trailer and through its door, however, he will enter a virtual model of the contractor's home office rather than a trailer. Contractor documents and personnel appropriate to that particular construction site will be available to the visitor electronically. Key personnel at the site (those wearing multimedia hard hats) will have avatars that appear on the 3-D model of the site and will be contactable by office-bound participants.
Evaluators are examining the CICC pilots from psychosocial as well as techno-economic points of view, and the results of the pilots will affect many industries in addition to construction. David Leevers is a project manager for BICC plc (a global cable manufacturer in the United Kingdom) and the person who presented a summary of the progress of CICC's initiative recently at SRI International. Leevers is also exploring the application of most of the techniques I described above in BICC's factories. In a manner similar to the construction efforts, BICC's project is integrating technical and engineering specs of factory floors with both 3-D models and video of the actual site. BICC is even looking at the feasibility of roving video cameras for on-demand views of the factory floor. David's demonstration of the system's current capabilities resided on a CD-ROM, which is not currently available for distribution, but the consortium is considering producing one for that purpose.
A list of participants in the CICC consortium gives some idea of the potential reach of the project's results. Participants include BICC plc, Bovis Construction Ltd, Centre for Research in Information Environments, BT Laboratories, Ove Arup & Partners (United Kingdom); Frankfurt Project Group for Augmented Reality at ZGDV (Germany); Institut CERDA, Europroject Ingenieria SL, SAIS Ingenieria Recursos Naturales y Sistemas SA, Telefonica Investigacion y Desarollo (Spain); and Bechtel Corp. (United States).
Modern industrial societies consume resources in something akin to a moveable feast the harvest process moves from site to site as consumers use, discard, and often waste resources. Resources travel thousands of miles for consumption, often benefiting from subsidies of convenience that ignore or understate resources' long-term value. Only recently have societies begun to examine the long-term environmental impact of resource use, not to mention resource waste. But we still tend to look at particular resources only as crises emerge. Current concern about drastic depletion of fish populations in various parts of the world's oceans is an example.
Increasingly sophisticated information technologies are providing the opportunity to assemble and portray the big picture about resource utilization. Such a portrayal would provide the means to track and evaluate resource use on a comprehensive scale and a long-term basis, incorporate environmental impact valuations, and reallocate resources in less wasteful patterns.
In Austin, Texas, Pliny Fisk is painting such a portrait with a database of resource allocation information and the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fisk has developed a database portraying what he calls an "infinite grid" of resource use and derivation at varying levels of granularity depending on the availability of statistics. Users will be able to view any product or commodity at varying resolutions consisting of regions, cities, factories, businesses, schools, individual houses, and even rooms or items like the kitchen sink (to track water source, use, and disposal). The database will allow someone to locate a product and track the process of its manufacture from its source materials, processing, and transportation, to its distribution, use, and recycling.
The first step in the effort was the creation of a database containing information from 12 million construction industry businesses. Fisk will integrate this data with the digital maps that make up the EPA's geographic information system (GIS). The EPA's continuing work in Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) analyzes the impact of a product from raw material extraction to manufacture, distribution, use, and waste. As the EPA gradually establishes data on by-products and the environmental impact of these businesses and their products, Fisk's database will provide the framework to link company-specific data to the homes or buildings that the company constructs.
The GIS structure will provide a whole host of ways and categories with which to access the data. Fisk's initial efforts in building the framework depend on data available locally in Austin, so the current maps consist largely of supply lines and connections flowing into and out of the Austin area. Fisk's ecologically benign homestead in south central Texas is home to his Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (Max's Pot for short).
The project has run into financial constraints, but Fisk believes that even if his efforts don't pan out, it will be only a matter of time before some organization assembles the data to paint the big picture. Fisk hopes that the database will eventually be a useful tool for builders and planners, allowing them to discover financial incentives for making "green" decisions, but I'm not so sure the database will have that effect. It will probably indicate all too often that under current market conditions, "green" measures and resource use are still the most expensive.
The true value of the database system lies in demonstrating how shortsighted many of our current valuing mechanisms are. Private enterprise is unlikely to embrace green valuations that increase the price point of their products the marketplace is infamously shortsighted in all matters. Consequently, the task of championing realistic reevaluation of resources will fall to the government, which must be driven in turn by public opinion. Fisk's "big picture" of resources may be the best shot yet available for convincing society in general to marshal its finite resources and, at the very least, to waste fewer of them as wantonly as we currently do. At the very least, such a system will document the process by which the value of resources fluctuates in a market system that has few if any long-term horizons.
Some companies are experimenting with combining changing price lists with corporate email showing customer/prospect requests. They could also be combined with projects up for bid from publications like Commerce Business Daily (for government projects) and onsale.com and other Web-based transactional services.
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