Change can be fast

September 6, 2011

Sometimes things happen much faster than we expect. I was surprised to read how fast mobile information processing is becoming commonplace, at lest in certain countries: one third of adults in the UK use smartphones with considerable intensity. The breakdown of their activities (as well as that of teenager users) may suggest that it is all due to the wrong reasons (e.g. too much emphasis on social networking) but this is a common complaint about some phenomena we simply cannot change. At least possession and familiarity with a smartphone creates an opportunity we shouldn’t miss for professional applications.

Arguably more important is that people in the UK have started using their mobile devices as more than just phones: almost 50% goes online using mobile connections, even though 77% of households have now an Internet connection. Once again the story behind such impressive numbers can be linked to the wrong reasons (in particular teenagers avoiding parental control regardless of cost or performance) but once again the fact remains that the opportunity is there and cannot be ignored, even though some people are remarkably slow in recognizing the change, while others just join the bandwagon and make superficial use of the technology.

For example, I wonder how many universities and colleges really use the fact that their students have access to mobile information devices in education, especially with respect to the subjects they are studying. I’ve just finished my first ever course on mobile information processing in architecture and building and student performance was much better than I expected. I hope the students have realized not only the changes they will experience as professionals but also that they can influence their development or at least their application.

In praise of styli

July 30, 2011

Book reference: pp. 103-104

The more I work with the capacitative screens that dominate current mobile offerings, the more I miss styli. There are practical advantages to not having to use something other than your fingers to control a device but we could already do that with resistive touchscreens: we could always use our fingernails instead of a stylus. Multi-touch is an undeniable interface improvement but aside from that I miss not having a writing implement protruding from my fingers. Without going into historical, ergonomic, cognitive or practical reasons why it is better to write and draw with a pen, there is something special in the partnership of pen, eye and brain. By comparison, current capacitative interfaces remain crude and childish – a regression to finger painting.

Apps and clouds

June 28, 2011

Book reference: pp. 71-76

It is practically official: with all the emphasis on apps and clouds, mobile computing is no longer about synchronizing to your computer but about connecting to the Internet where all your stuff exists in a complex network of repositories and services. On the one hand, this is a good thing: quite a lot of information we use on mobile devices (form our daily time schedules to most things on social sites) is rather ephemeral and deserves to exist in ethereal forms only. It also helps with the way mobile devices access and process online information (see earlier post on the subject).

On the negative side, it doesn’t stimulate serious software development (already mentioned in the earlier post), although this may be alleviated by the interest many major developers are currently showing in mobile software. There are also serious questions about data security and privacy that have to be answered sometime, as well as a fundamental question concerning the relative advantages of online versus offline information: it’s bad enough we have to depend so much on electricity, should we become totally reliant on network access too?

Size matters

June 28, 2011

Book references: p. 6; p. 16; pp. 35-37

With the new wave of pads and tablets, the market for mobile peripherals is booming once again. There are obviously all kinds of audio accessories, as entertainment remains the main purpose of mobile devices. Unsurprisingly there are bags and covers of all kinds too: mobile devices are getting more expensive but remain rather vulnerable (which helps our moving on to the latest models with sometimes amazing speed).

I can live with such additions to the basic mobile device. Still, there are others I prefer not to use like the various docking stations, even those integrating speakers for listening to your device at home or in the office. If I need to listen to a mobile device in hi-fi, all I need is a cable to link it to a computer or a sound system – often the same cable used for charging the device. The bane of computing today is all those cables and chargers you permanently need to have within hand’s reach. We shouldn’t make it even worse than that.

Other mobile peripherals like keyboards are beyond me. Their utility is undeniable if you want to write long texts (especially with current capacitative interfaces) but they are superfluous in mobile computing. If I wanted to use a keyboard with a pad (or tab or tablet) all the time, I would have probably gone for a lightweight laptop. The price wouldn’t have been that different and the software would suit me better for long writing sessions and large files. What’s worse, external keyboards give developers an excuse not to invest in handwriting recognition – in my opinion, one of the truly high points in mobile devices.

In the end, mobile information processing is very much about size. After a few months of working with different tablets, I have again returned to my earlier conclusion: mobile computing is about devices that you can hold comfortably in one hand and operate with the other, just like a paper notebook. If it’s bigger or more complicated than that, then it probably requires a table.

Augmented reality: adding to the visible world

March 16, 2011

Book reference: p. 152

Augmented reality is one of those lofty, ambitious computer terms that tend to attract attention, both positive and negative. At the basic level of use it is a rather simple concept: the combination of digital information with normal or mediated perception of the real world. Good examples of augmented reality are astronomical apps like Google Sky Map: you start the app, hold your device in front of you and by virtue of the built-in GPS and digital compass the device knows which part of the sky map to show and from which viewpoint. What you see on the screen is what you also see of the sky. This makes identifying celestial bodies and constellations rather easy, even if you know very little about them. There are of course those who bemoan that with such aids an increasing number of people is becoming unable to read a map but we should also bear in mind that these aids also help people become acquainted with new things and, in the final analysis, they are efficient and generally reliable. There are several advantages to being able to compare directly a representation to reality.

Augmented reality programs fall under two main categories: those that make complete representations that complement what you see (such as Google Night Sky) and those that use overlays on other representations, including the view from a mobile device’s built-in camera. Two general-purpose apps that belong to the second category are the multiplatform Wikitude World Browser and Layar.

When you start Wikitude World Browser, the program first presents a list of overlays relevant to your current location. You can choose as many as you wish and then move to the Cam or Map view, where you can see respectively your device’s camera view or a map of your location. In both views items from the overlays appear as POI icons. If you click on one of the icons, you open a small pop-up window with some information on the POI. From there you can go to a larger window (whole screen) that includes more information on the POI as well as a link to navigation programs on your device so that you can plan your route to the POI. At my location, there are two architectural overlays available: the architecture guide of Delft (Architectuurgids Delft) which I have added to Wikitude World Browser and archINFORM, the well known world-wide list of architectural works. While I am glad to have archINFORM POIs on my devices and have made thankful use of them in my travels), their location can be off by some distance. Take care to double-check the address if you are planning a visit. Adding your POIs to Wikitude World Browser is quite straightforward: through wikitude.me you can add individual POIs or KML or ARML files containing a number of POIs.

Layar offers more or less the same facilities and an extensive number of layers related to architecture, including archINFORM, MIMOA, a comprehensive online collection of architectural works I have used with great pleasure over the years in a number of navigation systems, UAR of the Netherlands Architecture Institute and Funda, a popular real estate listing.  Creating layers for Layar requires that you are a registered developer.

Architectural guides in augmented reality are useful because they facilitate identification of buildings but probably the most interesting applications concern the ability to add the unseen to what we see: visualize new projects in their prospective locations, unbuilt designs where they were supposed to come, alternatives that never made it, demolished buildings where they used to stand, buildings closed to the public. There are already several examples of this type of visualization and, despite the greater technical challenge, I am sure there is more to come.


The logic of apps: mobile information windows

February 14, 2011

Book reference: p. 157

If like me you try to keep up with the apps that appear all the time for the various mobile platforms, there must be moments when you feel that it is impossible: there are simply too many of them already and they are getting even more. This is happening for a number of reasons. First of all, a small app for a very specific task is easier to make, market and maintain. Secondly, several mobile platforms and mobile computing in general are peaking once again and everyone with an idea is coming into action. Perhaps more significantly, apps have clear advantages with respect to usability, as they make information and interaction better suited to mobile needs and ergonomics.

For example, there are several apps like the Dutch public transportation planner 9292ov that derive from websites. What you can do on the site, you can also do with the mobile app but the app has a simpler interface that makes mobile operation easier by providing a small, focused window on a vast information landscape. Just compare the app to accessing the corresponding website on your mobile browser: even the most mobile-friendly sites are clearly more complicated and difficult to use than the apps. Moreover, the app can combine online information with other sources or facilities – in this case GPS or other localization so that you don’t have to enter your current location as departure for a trip.

Most apps are radically different from earlier mobile software in that they assume that the mobile device is permanently online. This makes information they convey actual and accurate but also means that you cannot use the apps when there is no data connection. As a result, most such apps are useful for accessing and processing information that is already available on the Internet. Their ability to combine sources and facilities in a simple interface is promising of more advanced future applications but the promise remains limited to relatively light tasks – possibly critical and important such as building logistics but nevertheless relatively undemanding n terms of processing power and facilities. Other tasks like viewing and editing a CAD or BIM model on e mobile device still require extensive software facilities whether the model is online or offline. So, even though I am genuinely pleased with the way apps make so much accessible in mobile computing, I hope that more demanding taks will not be neglected by software developers.

Erratum

November 12, 2010

Book reference: p. 109

The caption of Figure 90 should read: “Layer structure in Figure 86” (not 95).

I guess something went wrong with the cross-reference with the last changes in the layout of the page. Apologies for the confusion.

(with thanks to Vicky who pointed it out)

Operating systems

October 14, 2010

Book references: p. 9, pp. 10-11, pp. 60-68

Making predictions about computer-related developments (p. 9) is always risky, even in the short period of the few months between writing down my expectations in early 2010 and now. Happily, it all turned out as expected: Android is impressively popular among recent buyers of mobile devices (source: Nielsen). Apple iOS, which had its popularity spurts earlier, is attracting substantial attention among developers, resulting into a lot of new software that includes several CAD apps. Expect to see more on these in this blog in the coming weeks. The new Microsoft mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, is out and many powerful devices running it are to be released soon (see Engadget). Hopefully, this will stimulate development of similarly powerful professional software. If the same happens for Android, 2011 will bring exciting prospects for mobile information processing. The only thing that worries me is that there are too many devices on the market already (including various slates, tablets and pads) and they are getting even more. Such numbers imply certain expectations and if sales do not meet htem, manufacturer interest may wane dramatically, as in the past (pp. 10-11). This will not mean the end of mobile devices but it can reduce software development to basic and popular applications (social and office applications, pp. 60-68).

Erratum

September 15, 2010

Book reference: p. 39

On p. 39 the title of 2.7 should be “Connectivity and communication”. I have no idea how that “S” came in front. Silly.

(with thanks to Dirk who was the first to notice it)

What this blog is about

April 7, 2010

The blog is about my book Mobile information processing in architecture and building. It is published by Multi-Science – http://www.multi-science.co.uk/mobile-info.htm.

Well, that’s it: the book is now definitely out of my hands. The publisher has taken over and there’s little I can do but watch how it becomes available on the Internet and in bookstores and hope for positive reviews. Above all, I hope it will stimulate interest in the use of mobile devices in architecture and building and constructive discussions on applications of mobile information-processing technologies.

The main purpose of this log is to keep the book up to date. Mobile devices and networks change all the time, even since I’ve finished correcting the proofs just before the summer holidays. Many of the changes are trivial with respect to what the book tries to convey but it is nevertheless useful to know of new developments, especially when they provide good examples of what mobile information processing is about.