Virtual Presence - Collaborative Integrated Communications in Construction

David Leevers, VERS Associates, CICC Project Manager

Presented at IST 98, "Living and Working in the Information Society",   Vienna, 30th November

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Many sectors of industry are struggling with the way Information Society technologies are replacing old habits with new information. Not only is it difficult to start trusting electronically delivered information it is even more difficult to build trust in colleagues who are never met in real life.

Throughout the last 20 years manufacturing has been reengineered with the support of advanced computer systems. As a result, a sector that was inefficient and polarised into management and workers has been transformed into one that is lean, flexible and open, with high quality and high skill levels on the shop floor. Much of this was only possible because factories are stable and benign environments, suitable for early computing equipment.

The situation in construction has been very different. The industry has been structured in much the same way since the time of the pyramids - a few major organisations closely associated with the political system of any country and a very large number of SMEs trapped in the short term thinking of the immediate project. It is perhaps a demonstration of the power of the complex systems paradigm that major projects get finished at all!

However the recent maturing of three distinct technologies; 3D graphics, mobile communications and the Internet, have suddenly removed the barriers to "Work Nouveau" in a sector that is inherently three dimensional, where many are mobile and where teams are temporary and distributed.

ACTS has supported a number of project that have addressed the introduction of communications and computing services to the construction sector. ACTS project CICC (pronounced Kick) has been exploring the introduction of Information Society Technologies by developing a vision of how the new services should be used, studying the existing patterns of work and then introducing prototype components in carefully selected projects ranging from small feasibility studies to the largest shopping mall in Europe.

A starting point for CICC was establishing why the industry has worked so well until now. Construction is fundamentally visible and human scale. It is easy to monitor the work and even an outsider can exercise an informal quality control function. Staff seek stability in the culture of team rather than in stability of the workplace, hermits need not apply! In this culture every architect tends to conform to one stereotype and every bricklayer to another. This helps the rapid formation of teams with each person knowing what they can expect of the others - a first step towards trust and collaboration.

The CICC approach has been to treat the real world as an "Information Environment". Every object conveys information - very little when it is the position of a brick, an enormous amount when it is the screen of an "Information Appliance" such as an engineer's pocket computer. In this Information Environment the metaphoric approach of the Macintosh desktop and Microsoft Windows has been extended from office documents to include the whole of the real world.

We have found that this approach takes us in a creative leap from a number of self-contained metaphor modules to a seamless virtual presence within a comprehensive augmentation of reality. This augmented reality includes the virtual landscape of the World Wide Web, the virtual room in which a distributed meeting takes place and the trust-building "virtual handshake" of the first video meeting between two people. CICC has attempted to integrate this melange of metaphors into a unified "Community-Network Interface" to the many Advanced Communications Technologies and Services required to support construction.

The most tangible part of this reality augmentation is "hard" augmented reality –integrating a visualisation of 3D CAD data with the real location. Initially a video source is used but ideally the CAD model should be registereed with the real location as an overly on a head-mounted display. This link between what is and what will be is also been supported by another ACTS project, RESOLV, that uses a laser scanning range-finder and digital camera to build a virtual copy of real location so that it can be combined with the 3D CAD model.

Early experiments in supporting distributed meetings by using avatars in a shared virtual environment raised serious "embodied mind" issues. Separating the screen into a shared space for the shared task and a "mind space" of small video windows showing the colleagues and their screens showed far more promise. One great advantage of this approach is that it can be implemented using Internet voice, video and whiteboard services. The parallel ACTS project MICC, Mobile Integrated Communications for Construction, has been exploring the wearable technologies needed to include mobile site staff in these distributed meetings. MICC has developed the concept of a "Communications Container". This is a voice, video and data hub that links the mobile computers, telephones and cameras on the site with wide area networks.

Before a meeting can start it is essential to find the relevant people and the relevant information. This browsing aspect of real life; shuffling through piles of paper, hanging around the coffee machine or wandering through the construction site, is poorly supported by current communications services. The information to be browsed can be split into four categories; in peoples heads, on unstructured documents, in a structured database or out in the real world. The purpose of the CICC "People and Information Finder", PIF, is to present all these forms of information within a web browser. The PIF includes home pages, team pages, search engines, image databases, bulletin boards and any other tools that provides a sense of virtual presence within the abstract object called a project. It does not include specialist databases or work in progress. The act of publishing this data to the PIF has to be encouraged and becomes a primary role of the manager in such a project.

The prototype PIFs had a dramatic effect on potential users. We were effectively giving staff a unified way of reaching all relevant information as well as all relevant people; not only placing information at their fingertips but also fingertips at their fingertips! Whereas earlier attempts to introduce conventional IT services and databases have rarely inspired much enthusiasm, the "CICC services" have been enthusiastically welcomed as soon as they were presented in the accessible format of a web browser.

We have outlined a collaboration model, known as the "Cycle of Collaboration", that shows the changing relationship with other people and with the PIF at the different stages in the collaboration process – from initial idea to final implementation. Other construction research projects such as UK project AGILE are benchmarking construction processes and thus making them as visible as those of manufacturing. All of this opens the door to the continuous improvement thinking that has been at the heart of manufacturing for the last 25 years.

Because construction covers a wide cross-section of everyday activities the greatest significance of the CICC work on virtual presence may lie in its implications for society as a whole. As an increasing fraction of the world approached a western quality of life planetary sustainability can only be achieved if more and more real resources are replaced by virtual ones. A new ACTS project, ASIS, Alliance for a Sustainable Information Society, is now exploring the potential of IST for replacing unsustainable material and energy consumption with virtual alternatives.

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Steps Towards Virtual Presence--

1, The many communications services of today

2, Telepresence at one remote place - conference, remote robotics

3, Virtual Presence, but what does it mean:

a VR virtual place?

a community space or "mind space"?

an information space?

---- while keeping our feet on the ground

A series of European RACE and ACTS projects on the communications needs of

manufacturing and construction.

Both sectors use the power of information to tame the physical world

RACE 1 Project DIMUN, multimedia networking

RACE 2 Project MITS, metaphors

UK project VirtuOsi, using VR for shared virtual environments

RACE 2 project BRICC, multimedia networking


DIMUN Distributed Integrated Manufacturing Using Networks

Virtual Meeting Room, 1991

A new metaphor to support multimedia communications


3D Shared Virtual Environment, 1994

Colleagues and their tasks are shown in the same virtual environment

Problems with Shared Virtual Environments

 No kinaesthetic sense (yet)

Blinkered Vision, much of our culture is concerned with compressing the 360 degree real world into a rectangular frame so we may not need an immersive environment

Need virtual copies of real places - Reconstruction, (in RESOLV project)

Need to link with the real world - Augmented Reality (in CICC)

 Information Panorama

CICC Global Virtual Factory Prototype

Colleagues & Shared Task via the network

Members of Meeting and their PC screens seen in small windows

Shared task seen in a large window


Autonomous Environmental Sensor for Telepresence, AEST

Builds VR copy of a real interior using a laser range finder and digital camera

Laser mirror scans at 4 cps, 8 minutes per

capture point

Digital camera builds panorama from

multiple images

Complete interior built from multiple scans

Viewed using 3D CAD tools or VRML

The RESOLV Reconstruction

A new way of seeing

See through walls, see a building as a unity - "Angels eye view" of building interiors

Applications in Augmented Reality, Building Surveying and Refurbishment, Visualisation applications

Augmented Reality -

Technology developed by CICC partner ZGDV, Fraunhofer Centre,Darmstadt

Expo’98 Marina, built by CICC partner EuroProject

Desktop AR

Some objects are real, some are virtual

Virtual objects are arranged by moving coded cards

The Multi-Media Hard Hat, 1995

Concept for imposing the Augmented model on top of the real surroundings

Virtual Multimedia Hard Hat, 1997

MIT development

Half silvered mirror embedded in the lens reflects image in arm of spectacles



 MICC Mobile Integrated Communications for Construction

The communications infrastructure to permit site staff to join distributed meetings

The "Communications Container" is the temporary interface between mobile multimedia services on site and the rest of the communications network

The 1998 Communications Micro-Container is considerably smaller

MICC A30 Trial Monitoring truck movement

GPS receiver and GSM data link allows monitoring of truck movement on a road construction site

The CICC Global Factory Prototype

Virtual Presence is easier to explore under the factory roof.

BICC Cables wish to change from operating as many local divisions to becoming a single Global Virtual Enterprise

 CICC Factory Prototype, Factory Member of Distributed Team

Global Furnace Support Team, each member in a different factory

Furnace in VR model that is a Reference Factory, including all the standard features of all cable making factories

Video and Screen Glances of furnace experts in real factories around the world, effectively a virtual team

Each member of staff has a home page

Feeling of presence at remote factories achieved by 500 photo "Walkarounds" of every factory. Key locations, such as furnaces are cross linked between photo sets. Zoom and pan between photos at normal walking speed

Each Communications Mode is effective

But it is difficult to find the people or find the information to change from one communication mode to another

The Web browser offers the technology for a  "People and Information Finder"

 PIF, People and Information Finder

Web resources used to present all types of information in the same way, whether it is

  1. in peoples heads,
  2. in unstructred documents,
  3. in a structured database
  4. out in the real world such as the constructrion site or factory shop floor

The PIF is an example of a concentrated "Information Environment"

BT Distributed Team

System that integrates local people and objects with people and information from many remote sources

Convergence of Interfaces to People and Information,, an example of asynchronous awareness and collaboration

The Collaboration Process

Three primary stages:    1, gather the resources   2, reach agreement  3, implement


The Cycle of Collaboration

Most probable sequence of steps through many different forms of work, collaboration and communication, reflecting the  constraints of the real environment in the networked environment

CICC Pilot Highlights

BICC Cables Global Virtual Factory,  prototype services to build teams across many factories

Bluewater Shopping Mall, UK,  300Mecu project, network between 100 sub-contractors, Web site and 100,000 image database

Stent Foundations, UK, VR to plan access to sites

Ove Arup, Global Intranet of Team and Home pages, 30 locations

Europroject, Iberia, Web technology PIF between Barcelona office and Lisbon sites

Stanford, observation of construction students distributed design across Multimedia Internet

 Many  communications services were designed to achieve the sense of "being there".  However when   they are effectively integrated they combine to produce a completely new sense of presence in a shared invented place - Virtual Presence

From Virtual Presence to Global Sustainability

 There is no way that the planet can support a western lifestyle for 10,000,000 people

The only peaceful solution is to provide a virtual presence that is better than the real thing

The opportunity is that Mature Information Society Technologies can offer this

The risk is that Europe may be preserved as a "Reality Benchmark"!

ACTS project ASIS,

"Alliance for a Sustainable Information Society"

is exploring the sustainability potential of ICT


But this session is about "Work Nouveau". Perhaps it has already arrived?

Found in a Brussels restaurant, November 1998

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