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Phablets, augmented reality and other innovations

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Technology continues to transform communications and information sharing, enabling construction firms to be more efficient and save money.

builder with tablet

Cell phones are one of the first innovations to enable better communication between office, job site, suppliers and subcontractors. The ability of smartphones to connect to the Internet allows the transfer of files and emails to field staff. Taking photos and videos for updates and marketing is also quick and easy.

At the same time, computer-aided design (CAD) software enabled architects and builders to digitize plans, blueprints and specs. CAD automated an otherwise unwieldy manual process for creating and modifying building projects.

BIM, building information system, is the next generation, with time (4D), costs (5D), and as-built, operations and maintenance data (6D), added to CAD designs.

The missing connection was providing CAD information in the field, and laptops and tablets are a partial solution.

Now a new hybrid piece of hardware is the fastest-growing item. Called a phablet, the device combines phone capability with a screen size large enough to view plans and other documents.

Made with a 5.5-inch screen and larger, manufacturers producing phablets include Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia and LG. These retail from $850 (Apple) to $450 (LG). In contrast, an iPad mini has a 7.9-inch screen and retails for about $350.

A rise in phablet popularity is impacting software vendors as they scramble to create applications that can work on those as well as tablets and phones.

Web-based storage is also growing, since parking large documents in the cloud reduces hard-drive requirements on hand-held devices. Another benefit of phablets is cellular service, since it expands usage outside Wi-Fi-enabled locations.

Another growing technology sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Augmented reality (AR) allows users to see digital information about the real-world object they are viewing.

Often tied to GPS locations, augmented reality overlays BIM data onto the area of the building or site being evaluated. Proponents see AR as a practical way for construction managers and workers to become more familiar with BIM applications, often used only by experts at this time.

AR applications include visualizing the completed project, component and systems install, inspections and looking inside walls. Sometimes called the “ultimate stud-finder,” AR is available on tablets, phablets, projectors and even headsets.

A wearable item is Google Glass, which looks like an empty set of eyeglass frames but has a tiny computer screen next to the right eye to display relevant information.

Google Glass is still in development and has plenty of detractors. But its hands-free, easy-to-wear format seems to hold great promise for AR technology and other similar competitive products that are sure to follow.

Advocates believe full-vision hardware will soon be available, making AR easier to use. Georgia Tech professors and students are among those presently studying wearable technology, including Google Glass, to discover applications for the construction market.

In contrast to AR’s space-age feel, near field communication (NFC) is a new technology based on an old one: electromagnetic fields. An electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by electrically charged objects. Laws governing magnetism and distribution of electric charge were first developed by Carl Friedrich Gauss as early as 1835.

Regarded as a subset of radio frequency identification technology (RFID), near field communication devices can speak to each other without touching or entering information into an interface application. Devices can be active, with the ability to write and read, or passive, able to transmit only. Channels can be made secure, and the information is encrypted as it travels from one device to the other.

In construction applications, near field communication is used to track materials and components, verifying the right items and amounts are delivered. NFC can take inventories, aiding in job-site control. Equipment can also be tagged with an NFC device for monitoring and maintenance purposes. In addition, workplace safety, employee tracking and deficiency management are possible applications.

Leading smartphone vendors have added NFC technology as a standard feature so purchasing a scanner is not necessary. The software can also create active or passive tags.

New technologies and devices are exciting, but before making the investment, it pays to study and compare. Right-sizing capabilities and applications will make the most of limited technology dollars.