Chances are, if you are an architectural professional you are already familiar with Apple’s popular iPad devices and those by competitors. You may in fact already have one or be on your second model.
But even if you are not familiar and have not used a tablet computer before, you will likely not escape using one in the future of architectural practice.
Nonnegotiable: Factors Driving Change
This isn’t the time to make a full-scale argument about why tablets will be in your future. Yes, we have heard the Apple-IBM and other enterprise announcements. Those are important but not as essential to the transformation coming on the technical side of this particular computer-form factor. Here are some change factors that are truly nonnegotiable and will drive computing use patterns throughout the AECO industry:
- Semiconductor Industry is Centering on Mobile — The epicenter of the semiconductor industry has been shifting away from the PC (personal computer) for quite some time. In regards to CPU advancements—much like how the evolution of bleeding edge technology in computer graphics shifted from the workstation markets to the consumer gaming markets—where the biggest dollars go so too the biggest minds, research and innovation. ¹
- Larger Tablets Have Laptop Power — The larger tablet and 2-in-1 form-factor devices that provide touch-based interfaces will provide laptop compute strength, thus heralding in powerful mobile apps previously only made possible under desktop and laptop form factors. ²
- A Sensor Rich Future — Paired or not paired, tablet computers of all sizes will contain (standard) and utilize many types of sensors that provide mobile apps with new kinds of data. The combination of extreme mobility plus sensors generates new found ways of using these devices to measure or scan-capture the built and natural environment. ³
- AR in the AEC Market — AR or “augmented reality” is an emerging visualization technology that will one day be so common place we will wonder how we lived without it. There are prototypes today that enable AEC professionals to see through walls and ceilings, revealing the “as-built” BIM geometry model data for things like piping, HVAC and lighting equipment behind the walls and ceilings as you aim your tablet’s camera. Remember how Superman could see through stuff? You got it! (see, Architosh, “AIA: Trimble’s new Concept Apps on Google’s Project Tango Look Compelling,” 8 July 2014)
Sensors, more compute power and augmented reality are all driving forward and advancing at rapid rates. Paired with new solutions on tablet computers these advances makes these always-connected Internet devices incredibly powerful for a host of field-based and office-based applications across every phase of the building delivery cycle.
Finding the Fit Today: Debate About Use and Practice
Regardless of the exciting array of emergent technologies found and around tablet and smartphone devices, architects today can often have a discrediting opinion of the use of these devices in useful practice scenarios. Others, on the other hand, have found immediate utilization with mobile apps powering workflow efficiency changes, particularly on the backend of the MacLeamy BIM Curve. (also called the Effort Curve, see image 01 below).
Yet, tablet computers should and can be doing a lot more than punch lists, markups, BIM model viewing, field observation notes, and a host of collaboration abilities. Not that those workflow improvements aren’t valuable, they are. What is missing in the industry is an equal focus and imagination on where tablet computing can go in the front end of the architectural design process, which will grow more relevant as both tablet compute power rises to truly match laptops and as software fuses the power of sensor data with crowd-sourced and other freely available metropolitan data.
Yet, there is more to this bigger picture than how architects tap into Big Data on mobile devices. The next generation tablet devices like iPad Pro with Pencil will usher in a phase of technology that largely infuses everything we have always liked about paper and pen (and one might think of the architect’s beloved roll of trace) with everything we have liked about working on computer screens with mouse and menu.
The Tripartite Supercomputer
Pen and trace paper rapidly nurture what we think of as an iterative design process. The idea is of layering refinement and alternative direction over our earlier notions. The beauty of this analog process with these particular tools is that there is a sense that one is going about a search: one discovers heuristic interactions upon an interpretation of layers of trace, as a kind of reading in itself, a sedimental geology that works in reverse as the ideas and notions that carry the most value slowly work their way up to the top. This is the architectural creative process when powered by pen and trace paper.
Although CAD systems have long incorporated layers from the beginning, working on the computer with mouse and menu largely short circuits the iterative process. Today one can walk through hundreds of architectural offices the world over and the only real remnants that remain from the analog tools of the 80’s, 70’s and earlier are scales, pens and rolls of trace. All the other tools are obsolete, but these three remain. And that’s because no software has yet been able to supervene upon their core strengths.
If “the pen is mightier than the sword,” as Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton famously said, then when combined with the instruments that allows architectural creatives to iterate—which itself means to say, state, or perform again—we recognize the pen and roll of trace, when coupled with the human mind, as a literal analog supercomputer.
Is it any wonder than that the digital computer hasn’t been able to force its obsolescence? This tripartite human-analog computer has one incredible super power: invention.
CAD systems largely emerged to address the “post-invention” stage of the architectural process. That segment of the architectural creative process we still call design development and construction documentation. One can argue that the digital revolution has yet to truly offer the architect a digital device largely designed to address the “invention” stage of the architectural process. And we could say the same about the “pre-invention” stage.
Currently the architectural world is enamored with a new type of tool and mindset. Computer software is increasingly oriented towards both analyzation and simulation of architectural problems. We have written extensively about the trend to front-end analysis in architectural design. This means to bring engineering type analysis to the early stages of the design process. The goal is simple, to strengthen final design outcomes, to optimize.
Architects are also involved in simulation, in such things as natural light, airflow, environmental comfort, energy use and conservation, pedestrian flow and structural dynamics. Typically these have taken up back-end analysis sessions, with poor or moderate results forcing design iteration after the design phases have largely been depleted. The goal with front-ending these processes is multifold, but a primary reason is to arrive at key results sooner so there is more time to make fundamental change. This is largely consistent with the goals of the MacLeamy Curve, as the early stage is where architects have the highest ability to control outcomes such as cost and performance. (see Effort Curve graphic above, 01).
Iteration + (A & S)
Currently today the bulk work done to optimize design outcomes, which involves both analysis and simulation, is handled on desktop computer platforms utilizing mouse and menu interfaces. On the other hand, the work done in the most highly iterative phase, the powerful invention stage, is engaging in that tripartite supercomputer, where the human mind is a vital third component rather than a disembodied element. The immediacy of pen and trace paper is ultra powerful.
So what happens now that Apple seems to have created a digital version of pen and trace paper? Forget about what Steve Jobs said to Walter Isaacson—”God gave us 10 styluses. Let’s not invent another.” In the same biography he questions whether he believes in God or not. He engaged the word “God” to merely strengthen an argument he already knew was weak. It’s cleverness was foil to the fact that Apple had not yet invented Apple Pencil and the technology that would largely imitate and re-create two of the key elements in the analog tripartite super computer outlined above.
The human mind plus a pen and trace paper have remained a powerful threesome in the architectural process, despite their analog limitations. Nothing digital has usurped their authority in the area of invention. Yet, powerful digital computing in the areas of analysis and simulation will offer evidence-driven authority in regards to outcomes. These two domains of the architectural process are rarely relished by the same individual, but in time this may change. A symphonic union between the two has been waiting for the moment when the digital could disguise itself as analog. It appears, with devices such as Apple’s iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, that we are at the eve of that moment. —- ANTHONY FRAUSTO-ROBLEDO, AIA, LEED AP
Postscript: New Survey for Architects using Tablet Computers
With this Viewpoint feature, Architosh is commencing on a first-ever study on the use of tablet computers in architectural practice. Results of this study will be freely published here on the pages of Architosh.
We hope the above article has inspired you to think about tablet computers and where they exist and fit within your creative workflow. How do you use them today? Do you use them? If not, why? What would you like them to do for you in the future? What is your vision of their future in architectural practice?
If questions like these interest you, if learning how other architects think about these interest you, please consider sharing your thoughts and learning about where our research here at Architosh is going with respect to this subject by taking our 10-minute survey. (the survey results appear at the survey completion. Full report to be published on Architosh.com later.)
1 – Once upon a time it was companies like Boeing, Ford, Lockheed Martin and others whose big dollars drove innovation in high-end 3D graphics computing, as these companies were the primary innovation drivers and consumers of computer graphics innovations. Later the personal computer would usher in a sea change, particularly with PC gaming, with respect to which companies would ultimately lead 3D computer graphics going forward, where the leading edge of innovation would fall. Gaming GPUs would ultimately take over the next-generation reference designs in silicon, with professional applications coming after.
In today’s “devices” era the personal computer no longer holds sway over the biggest purse strings. IDC projects that by 2019, smartphone units will reach 1902 million, while desktop and laptop computers combined will total around 182 million, and tablets and 2-in-1 devices will account for 239 million. So in other words, smartphones and tablets will account for 88 percent of all computing devices. (see image 02 below) With the personal computer’s long falling average price and the rising prices of tablets and 2-in-1 devices, the personal computer (PC) will no longer command the attention of the biggest purse strings. This is why Intel has been so desperate to secure a beachhead in the mobile devices market for central processing or graphics processing units. If the history of the computer industry teaches us anything it is this: the leading edge follows the biggest dollars.
2 – The article that speaks to this includes this article backing up Apple’s iPad Pro performance claim that the iPad Pro’s A9X processor is faster than an Intel i5 processor at the same price point and is approximately faster than 80 percent of the portable PC (laptops) released in the past year. In our talks with Autodesk, who had early access to the iPad Pro, we learned that they were duly impressed with the performance of the A9X chip-based device. There is a back-channel of chatter in the industry that some are feeling that Apple’s semiconductor development capacity is every bit as equal to any other semiconductor player in the world, including Intel. While this author has slammed the idea of Apple replacing x86 in their Macs with ARM architecture-based Apple CPUs, part of their strategy for not replacing may have something to do with allowing the Mac to continue to chip-away, slowly but consistently, at Wintel market share, while Apple plots and sews the future of computing around iOS. (see note 4 below).
3 – The discussion of sensors and their use in capturing data useful in AEC is an under-served topic among the leading journalists serving the global CAD community. The very issue was core of the Smart Geometry Confab in Copenhaggen in 2011, of which this author was in attendance. Generally, the biggest focus on sensors in mobile devices these days remains centered around the health sector. However, one can image that this data will be actionable by urban designers, planners and architects practicing in the areas of healthcare and senior citizen focused community design.
4 – Tim Cook literally said during the iPad Pro introduction, “the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.” See reference here and here.