Keeping an Eye on Woobius

I wrote about the low-cost simple collaboration application Woobius earlier this year (first here, then here), and they’ve remained on my radar ever since, partly because of their participation in one of this year’s Be2camp events (in Liverpool in May*), and partly because they subsequently approached me to undertake a couple of small PR projects for them.

Notwithstanding my involvement with Bob and his team, I am enthusiastic about this company and its application because of how they are looking to extend functionality away from the conventional computer browser and to enable real-time sharing of information using mobile phones. Their key mobile solution, Woobius Eye, recently reached the final short-list of this year’s Vodafone Mobile Clicks competition (the finals are being held in Amsterdam at PICNIC on 25 September).

Using the downloadable Woobius Eye application, team members can interact remotely with construction project documents and drawings, and can discuss project progress in real time. For example, an architect on site can take a photograph on site and use the mobile interface to share and talk about the image with colleagues back in his design office, complete with mark-ups and comments (see their YouTube video).

Since Woobius announced its short-listing, the company has been seeking people to test its prototype on some real-life projects (I understand the UK testers are likely to include people from Gensler, Make, Capita Symonds and Hayes Davidson, among others).

Getting increasingly mobile

Back in 2005 when I was writing the final chapter of my book on construction collaboration, I included ‘Increasingly mobile connectivity‘ as one of the trends likely to influence the continued evolution of the technologies in this space, and Woobius Eye certainly confirms this. While we’ve had portable computers for many years, the construction site has not always been an ideal environment in which to use one regularly for remote collaboration (unless one was using a particularly robust or rugged-ised device, and also had access to wifi or broadband). Mobile phones have, on the other hand, become more or less ubiquitous among construction professionals wherever they are, and the growing number of touch-screen SmartPhones with operating systems supporting an expanding range of apps is now putting construction collaboration literally at one’s finger-tips on a pocket device. No longer will professionals have to wait until they get back to the site cabin before browsing construction drawings or uploading a photograph. Instead, Woobius Eye users can talk in real-time with their fellow team-members while simultaneously sharing and marking-up images relating to their work.

Woobius is not unique in its development of phone-based tools, of course. BIW Technologies [my former employer] has been marketing a mobile defects management solution that uses hand-held devices since about 2006, for example. However, BIW’s solution tended to be used asynchronously and was only available for mobile phones using the Windows Mobile operating system (not the most popular mobile OS – update, 2 October 2009 – used by less than 5% of mobile internet users, says Admob).

Woobius Eye, though, changes the nature of on-site/office collaboration. What used to be voice-only exchanges can now include words, pictures, sketches, lines and squiggles to clarify each participant’s interpretation of the conversation. For professionals heavily reliant upon visual representation of their work, such functionality can help eliminate doubt, speed decision-making and reduce rework.

In 2005, I wrote:

” … as the technology vendors begin to embrace real-time collaboration more fully, and mobile connectivity becomes more commonplace, one can foresee a time when site-based team members might routinely view project information, make notes, or even hold ‘net meetings’ with office-based colleagues without having first to return to their site cabins.” (p.182)

Almost exactly four years after publication, that prediction is being realised. Woobius Eye takes real-time collaboration out on site and enables rich sharing of data with multiple team members spread across several different offices. And not just for design professionals, either…. I can imagine various scenarios where other construction team member might want to consult with colleagues – perhaps to look at health and safety or logistics issues, to review workmanship, to clarify plant operation, etc. Before projects, planners might use Woobius Eye to share their initial masterplan concepts; post-construction, you might get facilities managers using Woobius Eye to query the operation or repair of equipment with its supplier or manufacturer. The opportunities are almost endless, and almost certainly are not confined just to architecture, engineering and construction.

(* Woobius will also be participating at Be2camp@WorkingBuildings at London Olympia, 7-8 October 2009. One session, on the afternoon of 7 October, is focused on Web 2.0 and collaboration.)

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