Small architecture practice and the Cloud

What follows is a presentation we made this morning to the Australian Institute of Architect‘s Small Practice Forum, providing an introduction to cloud computing and argument for its benefits to small architecture practice.

All characters appearing in this presentation are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

practice and the cloud 01 practice and the cloud 02 practice and the cloud 03 practice and the cloud 04 practice and the cloud 05 practice and the cloud 06 practice and the cloud 07 An overview of cloud computing can be viewed here.

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The Dropbox website can be accessed here.

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Dropbox pricing is available here, and details on the Prackrat upgrade here.

practice and the cloud 10 practice and the cloud 11 practice and the cloud 12 practice and the cloud 13 practice and the cloud 14 practice and the cloud 15 practice and the cloud 16 practice and the cloud 17Details on Dropbox mobile can be accessed here.

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Minimal folio can be downloaded from iTunes here.

practice and the cloud 19 practice and the cloud 20 practice and the cloud 21 practice and the cloud 22 practice and the cloud 23 practice and the cloud 24 practice and the cloud 25 practice and the cloud 26 practice and the cloud 27The Trello website can be accessed here.

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The Harvest website can be accessed here.

practice and the cloud 29 practice and the cloud 30 practice and the cloud 31 practice and the cloud 32 practice and the cloud 33 practice and the cloud 34 practice and the cloud 35 practice and the cloud 36Information on Dropbox security can be viewed here.

practice and the cloud 37 practice and the cloud 38 practice and the cloud 39 practice and the cloud 40

Evolution of the cyborg

Cathy Hutchinson controls a robotic arm and takes a sip of coffee. She is directing the arm via signals transmitted directly from the motor cortex section of her brain

What is it?

A team at Brown University in the United States, led by Professor John Donoghue, has developed an electronic device, called BrainGate, that is surgically implanted into a patient’s brain where it detects the electrical impulses of adjacent neurons. The device links to an external computer that deciphers patterns in the impulses and converts them into commands that can be used to control a mouse pointer on a computer screen or even a robotic arm.

Recalling our article from June last year, Kevin Warwick, the world’s first cyborg, we are pleased to discover that research into this sophisticated area of neuroscience is continuing apace.

The astonishing characteristic of the BrainGate study that takes Warwick’s research a significant step forwards is that it utilises patients who have suffered spinal trauma resulting in quadriplegia. Hutchinson (above) has not possessed control over her body for fifteen years, yet the study shows that her motor cortex still functions. For fifteen years her brain has been trying to send signals to her body, but up until now they have had nowhere to go.

Moving from controlling a mouse in two-dimensional space to the complexities of three dimensions is a substantial jump in complexity requiring fine depth perception and spatial co-ordination. Professor Donoghue says that an important success of the study is the ability of the team’s software to differentiate between detailed neural signals controlling position, speed of movement and whether a patient wants to open or close her hand.

Though more research is required into both the neuroscience and robotics, including the establishment of a wireless interface between BrainGate and computer, we can’t get over the radiant smile that spreads across Hutchinson’s face after she takes her sip of coffee. The article that caught our attention, and a video of the experiments, can be viewed on The Age, here.

What do we think?

We feel like this research, and the extraordinary nature of its successes, lies at the frontier of an exciting new advancement for all of humankind. The medical possibilities are easy to imagine: we will be able to replace lost limbs with robotic prostheses wired directly into the brain; we will even be able to install implants that skip broken segments of nerve tissue and overcome paralysis.

The possibilities extend even further: trade, mining, construction, telecommunications, social media, travel, space exploration… All are ready to be transformed by the next revolution in computing: from powerful microprocessors in our bags and pockets, to even smaller chips inside our bodies:

  • Hard drives that record every moment of every experience of every sense.
  • Photographic lenses behind our eyes.
  • Phone and email inside our conscious minds.
  • The vast knowledge of the internet accessible by a thought.

It may only be the beginning, but it seems that this brave new world is already here.

Gamma testing

What is it?

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of medical researchers developing a new drug. To make sure the drug cured what it was supposed to cure, and was safe while doing so, the team subjected it to a battery of tests, first on animals then on humans. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the drug was both effective and safe. The drug was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of car designers developing a new car. To make sure the car performed powerfully and was durable, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They tested it while driving down cobblestone roads, they tested it in wind tunnels and they tested it in car ovens. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the car performed powerfully and was durable. The car was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

Once upon a time, there was a dedicated team of software designers developing a new computer game. To make sure the game played smoothly and was free of glitches, the team subjected it to a battery of tests. They undertook alpha tests in-house, assessing the game against a long list of performance objectives. Then they undertook beta tests, nudging the game out into the world, where it was required to survive the handling of its first batch of strangers, and live or die based on their criticism. After many years, the tests were finally complete and the team was satisfied the game played smoothly and was free of glitches. The game was released onto the market, perfectly formed.

But recently, something strange happened. A game was released onto the market, though it was not quite perfectly formed. There were features yet to be added, expansions to the game world yet to be designed, balances between characters yet to be tweaked. The core product was complete, but its future shape had not yet been determined.

What followed next, we call the gamma test.

What do we think?

The gamma test is a new approach to software design that is changing the way we, as consumers, engage with our products. Facilitated by widely accessible, high speed internet and online software markets like Apple‘s App Store, the release of a program onto the market no longer necessitates that it be complete.

The previously distinct phases of development and use are significantly blurred. Bug fixes, patches, entirely new features can all be incorporated into a program after it is already in use. Technically, this is achieved via centralised control – a game whose software resides not on users’ computers but online on the developer’s own servers; an online App Store that acts as a gateway between users and regular software updates. Experientially, this blurring is in fact integrating development and use with hitherto unachievable interactivity.

For example:

Version 1.0 of a game is released and users start to play. Within days, the first discussions about bugs and glitches appear on online forums. Version 1.1 is released, correcting the imperfections of its predecessor. As users rack up more game time, they discover imbalances in character strengths – more discussions appear, not only identifying the imbalances, but suggesting myriad ways of rectifying them. Version 1.2 is released, following some of the more creative proposals. Users running unusual hardware come across a few more bugs. Versions 1.2.1 fixes those. Yet more discussions appear as users begin to imagine all manner of improvements to the game and expansions to its gameplay. Version 2.0 responds to the most popular ideas, improving the user experience and adding many more months to its longevity.

The gamma test moves beyond the traditional boundaries of development, shedding discrete objectives and deadlines in favour of a crowd-sourced approach that allows the users of a program to dictate its future development.

This process provides access not just to the hardcore enthusiasts willing to sign up for the controlled environment of a beta test, but to every user every day. The user reviews on the App Store not only furnish potential customers with previous users’ opinions, they are a mechanism via which developers can obtain free and honest feedback from their users. The gamma test is ongoing, limited only by the preparedness of a developer to follow its customers’ suggestions.

What should we learn?

We would love to see this approach find its way into our practice of architecture. As the creators of one-off projects, we are almost never presented with the opportunity to tweak an element of our design to align with unexpected usage patterns. Our designs must emerge from the page and into the world complete, perfectly formed.

Only through the adoption of prefabricated processes and repetitive detailing are we able to challenge this paradigm. Through prefabrication, we force a continuous feedback between design, production and use. Similarly, though more subtly, repetitive detailing from project to project enables us to refine an aspect of a project – a typical handrail for instance, or a bathroom vanity – gradually improving upon it across decades of design.

Compared to software development, compared really to almost anything, architecture is a slow undertaking. Any incremental changes will be similarly slow. We must learn to be more proactive in seeking feedback from our clients, even when that feedback might be negative. Only an architect prepared to risk hearing his design is terrible can possibly learn how good his work really is.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

What is it?

Australia’s first volume production all-electric vehicle, with zero drive time emissions (depending on how its owners source their electricity, potentially zero emissions, period). First seen on a billboard hovering over the CityLink tollway.

The i-MiEV (which we presume stands for the obligatory “i” followed by Mitsubishi Electric Vehicle) is powered by an electric motor driving the rear wheels that generates 47kW of power and 180Nm of torque, and produces a top speed of 130km/h. As the motor is mounted in line with the wheels, the transfer of energy is direct so no transmission is required. Electricity is stored in a 16kWh bank of lithium-ion batteries that require 7 hours of charging from a standard power point and enable a maximum driving range of 160km.

What do we think?

Normally, we do not look too favourably upon Mitsubishi vehicles. Even aside from their recent and much-publicised financial woes, they generally produce bland cars that are long on features but short on style and driver-enjoyment. In this vein, the i-MiEV has cute exterior styling let down a little by predictably plasticky interior detailing – hardly the looks of a visionary car of the future. Its short range (compared to petrol engine cars) will further limit buyer interest. It is undoubtedly best suited to individuals who make short trips around town or companies whose staff do.

Nevertheless, this car represents a big step in the greener direction almost every car manufacturer is scrambling to take. It’s an important step too: the WWF Energy Report released earlier this year (and discussed in a previous post, here) cited the transition away from liquid fuels to rechargeable solid-state energy storage as critical to an environmentally sustainable future.

What should we learn?

With electric cars by Nissan, Peugeot and Citroen also coming to markets around the world, plus many other manufacturers developing their own soon-to-be-released models, we expect to see an explosion of both electric vehicles and fast-charge electric fuelling stations over coming years. Corporate interest for zero emissions fleet cars will further intensify this development – indeed, Origin Energy, News Limited and Google already have their first i-MiEVs on the road.

For Australia at least, dare we say that Mitsubishi has at last given us something to get excited about?

The electric Rolls-Royce

What is it?

Currently a one-off prototype, the 102EX Experimental Electric is making the rounds of stronghold Rolls-Royce markets to determine potential customer interest in the car. Based on the top-of-the-range Phantom, it does away with a thirsty 6.75 litre V12 petrol engine in favour of a bank of 96 batteries under the bonnet and 2 electric motors where the fuel tank used to be. The 102EX runs emissions free and cost the car maker a cool AU$3m to build.

First seen on The Age online, here.

What do we think?

While the rest of the world is still bickering over how much pollution we are prepared to accept, car manufacturers have already sensed the change in the wind. In an impressive effort at self-preservation, the entire automotive industry is clamouring to develop energy efficient hybrid and electric cars. Many of the hybrids are already in production and at almost every price point possible – all the way from the BMW 7 series down to the car that started it all, the Toyota Prius.

Unfortunately, the market is still at a point where new energy efficient technologies cost a lot to produce: one of the common impediments to buyer uptake of hybrid cars is their price increase over similar combustion engine models. The Toyota Prius starts at AU$35,000 while the similarly-sized Corolla starts at AU$23,000. Rolls Royce is by definition already a step ahead in this regard – their buyers care less about astronomical cost than they do impeccable quality.

To this end, the 102EX is equipped with a bevy of features that extend beyond its environmental credentials and will hopefully encourage potential customers to reach for their chequebooks (or possibly no-limit credit cards). Our favourites of these include the 18-coat paint job whose ceramic nano particles are said to be 8,000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair, or the instantly recognisable Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet emblem that is bathed in a sci-fi blue glow. Without doubt though, the best is Rolls Royce’s solution to overcome the “undignified” act of recharging the car’s batteries: an induction pad is mounted to the underside of the car and receives a wireless transfer of energy from a loop embedded into the owner’s garage floor.

Automotive perfection or compromise? You can join the debate here.

What comes after the shuttle era?

What is it?

Running since 1981, NASA‘s shuttle program will come to an end in just 12 days. On the 21st of July, space shuttle Atlantis will return from its 135th and final mission to the international space station and the United States of America will lose its ability to send men and women into orbit.

What do we think?

Of all the negative news items clamouring for our attention, we feel oddly most saddened by this one. The American space shuttle program has been a visceral symbol of hope during the second half of the 20th Century – after looking for millennia towards the night sky with a powerful sense of wonder, here was our opportunity to actually travel there. The end of the shuttle program suggests we are turning our backs on the universe, retreating to the (dubious) safety of our tiny little planet.

This sense of retreat is only compounded by the recent cancellation of the SETI@home program, an ingenious distributed network of personal computers around the world all sifting data received from radio telescopes listening in on possible extra-terrestial communications.

But looking deeper into the story, we have discovered that all is not as bleak as it seems. Dr. Andrew Thomas, the Adelaide-born astronaut working with NASA, supports the closure of the shuttle program, stating, “It’s time to move on… It’s the right thing to do and it’s time we looked at new methods of getting into space and build on the legacy of the shuttle to do that.”

Importantly, Barack Obama has committed the US$4 billion it has spent annually on the shuttle program to the research and development of new craft that will again take us to the moon, and possibly even beyond. NASA’s Orion capsule, together with craft from private outfits like SpaceX and Boeing are such examples. We hope these efforts realise results, and soon.

We look forward to the day that sees us once more setting out for the stars.

The “wee” book

What is it?

Otherwise known as the flipback book or dwarsligger in the original Dutch, it is a lightweight, small-format book invented in 2009 by Dutch publisher, Jongbloed. The book is designed to be read in one hand, is printed on super-thin onion skin paper, measures 120 x 80mm and weighs slightly more than an iPhone.

First seen in this article in The Age online.

What do we think?

While we are nonplussed by a new book format, we are bemused and embarrassed that The Age, together with other news outlets including the UK’s The Guardian, have chosen to write about it in the way they have. “New pocket-sized books could compete with eBooks” is blatantly ludicrous.

An eBook is primarily attractive not because it is small and light, but because it is a device that holds thousands of titles. A flipback book may be small, but it can and will never compete with a whole library in your hand.