Can today’s tech address the people part of design collaboration?

by Matt Ball on January 16, 2011

Perspectives Header

There were many different perspectives on the role of models coupled with interactive approaches at the recent GeoDesign Summit. The context of technology-assisted collaboration was present from many different vendors and practitioners. The role of technology to aid a collaborative decision making process has a relatively short history of field-tested results, with new technology and techniques cropping up all the time.

While Carl Steinitz forcefully asserted that cooperation isn’t in a computer program, and technology is often the easiest part, I couldn’t help but feel that we were seeing many innovations that are approaching real breakthroughs in how our systems assist with group decision making. The time seems right for concerted efforts to improve group think and action regarding the planning and design of our communities given the improved fidelity of our models, a growing sense of online community that is connected to real-life community, and the pressures of dramatic global change.

Lessening the Threat of Tech

While those in the know are enamored with high tech tools and toys, a measured approach is often best when working with the full diversity of a community. A model that is too polished conveys that the decisions have already been made as to the design. Similarly, a black box collaboration tool may be seen as hiding secrets and steering outcomes.

Place Matters has pulled together an interesting technology hack for displaying models and interacting with the public. They’ve harnessed a Wii remote coupled with an overhead projector on a telescoping tripod for top-down display of a model with a means for interacting through gestures and digital markers. Through this means, they allow sketching and interaction around a shared model, and the hacked together technology breaks down a barrier by being seen as accessible rather than high end and too polished.

Keypad Voting

There are a number of different technology answers to the old low-tech feedback mechanism of placing a set number of chips on a map to form community-wide priorities. This interactive group decision making process really works well for consensus building, and helping different stakeholders understand one another. Chips alone can’t quickly tally votes or display different map-based scenarios based on inputs.

The Trust for Public Lands has been helping communities with green print planning for some time, and have been innovative in their use of GIS for an interactive model-based approach that  quickly displays different outcomes based on community inputs. The group uses handheld key pad devices for voting, and then using pre-built geoprocessing parameters displays results on a map. This technique allows for quick visualization of weighted outcomes, enabling multiple voting passes to fine-tune priorities and build consensus.

Auditoriums of Interaction

The ability to display room-size visualizations of 3D models has been around for some time. So-called Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) have been prohibitively expensive given the need for high-end computers to crunch large amounts of data. Advancements in the GPU (graphics processing unit) and projectors have improved visualization performance while reducing costs. The accessibility of such visualization environments has spurred some interesting ideas.

The University of Minnesota College of Design is hard at work to build a community-size CAVE to help visualize proposed changes at a human scale. Such approaches provide the ultimate breakdown of abstraction, and will likely lead to new levels of insight and interaction.

Distributed Modeling

The Internet has enabled new ways of connecting designers in collaborative charrette-type interactions. The ability to work together through a central connected model on well-defined design parameters and intended outcomes can greatly speed the design process at the conceptualization stage.

Onuma Inc. uses this type of Internet interaction by coupling design tools to Google Earth in so-call BIMStorm events. The ability for distributed teams around the globe to work together through the model, where the model is the only means of communication, feels like a flash from the future. The BIMStorm approach provides real time collaboration of multiple disciplines within the same model. Working within the same collaborative model allows you to spot problems and identify patterns and trends as the project progresses. The use of Google Earth and Excel spreadsheets eliminates some of the technical barriers that might intimidate designers, particularly those unfamiliar with 3D design tools. The quick syncing of different inputs, along with cost estimates, provides a great tool for testing realistic scenarios.

These examples offer a rich diversity of approaches to the common collaboration problem. There’s a mix of people-centric approaches with technology assists vs. modeling environments that accomplish interaction without much need for one-to-one communication. Breakthroughs will occur within and between these distinct approaches.

The immersive augmented reality of the CAVE environment, and the coming ability to individually take designs into context on our handheld devices, will likely  lead the way forward as a means to communicate the impact of the design on the community. It will be interesting to see the new collaboration approaches that crop up around these next-generation modeling approaches where the outcomes are less centered on the designer and driven more by the community.

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