One Screen to Rule Them All, One Screen to Find Them, One Screen to Bring Them All and In the IT Bind Them

Consumer technology pundits say there is a war going on over what screen size will prevail: mobile, desktop, or room-size. For engineering, all such talk is nonsense; they all have a place.

By Randall S. Newton

There is much talk of convergence-as-war in consumer technology these days, and it is all about screen sizes. Some say the mobile screen (cell phones, netbooks, and tablets like the iPad) will become the dominant platform, with PC screens and televisions as their adjuncts. Others argue for the continued dominance of the PC and the desktop screen, while others say television always has been and always will be the center of the average person’s experience, with the other screens playing a supporting role for the couch potato of the 21st Century.

Rhino was one of the first 3D products to get a viewer for iPad (Source: Robert McNeel & Associates)

Such debates are the idle nonsense of pundits who will be driving taxis soon. The idea that any one platform must become the locus of control just doesn’t add up, not for consumers and absolutely not for engineering. The future is about three screens, interrelated.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett is with me, dismissing screen war as poppycock. As reported by Forbes recently,”Those three screen sizes are the devices of the future,” Barrett says. “The big screen is for entertainment primarily, some Internet. The intermediate screen, the PC, is for most interactivity. And the small screen, like the smart phone, is for small doses of communication, text, short videos and quick information access. … Anyone who tells you there won’t be those three predominate screen sizes, those predominate device types, is crazy.”

In engineering and content creation the three screens are mobile, desktop, and panorama (large-screen group display). Going forward, any decisions about new software and hardware should be based on taking best advantage of these three platforms.

Screen #1: Mobile is the Connectivity Platform

Mobile devices are for staying connected with quick messages, short videos, model view updates. As design teams become more geographically disconnected, and as Cloud Computing becomes a part of the IT infrastructure, the more important becomes in-your-hand connectivity. So-called social networking software (more on that shortly) takes on new importance as real-time connectivity continues to evolve.

Mobile doesn’t have to mean cell phone. The new Apple iPad has rescued an entire genre—tablets—from a Window-based extinction. Viewing is where many engineering IT vendors are focusing their mobile attention. There are iPhone viewers for most major software products. Some of them scale up well to the iPad, some don’t. My favorite right now is the Rhino 3D viewer. The user can load models from web sites, Google Docs, email attachments, or from iTunes.

The Apple iPod Touch—essentially an iPhone without telephony—will likewise be an excellent tool for in-pocket connectivity with its WiFi and full graphics capabilities. Adding the high resolution “Retina Display” first introduced with the iPhone 4 to the iPad Touch will increase its usability for these kinds of applications. High resolution screens for small devices mean a higher level of detail, more vibrant colors, and easier reading. It will be a point of competition, and pricing, for future devices.

SharePoint is becoming the lingua franca technology of engineering IT data. A SharePoint app tied to the company PLM server, becomes a pocket dashboard and it would be a hit. Viewing technology is still a work in progress with SharePoint, but it will come along shortly. There is already at least one SharePoint app for the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch environment (iSharePhone); I am sure there will be more to come.

Adobe AIR technology should be a contender in this space, but Apple’s refusal to support Adobe technology is slowing down innovation on this front. We will have to wait for the coming wave of new Windows-based tablets and non-Apple mobile devices to push Adobe AIR development in the mobile space.

Screen 2: Desktop is the Creativity Platform
Desktop PC workstations will remain the platform for creativity as long as people need to sit at a desk. It is home base for design, simulation, analysis, review, content creation … all the stuff that floats our boat here at JPR. HP and Intel now call the technical user’s desk the Digital Workbench, a phrase borrowed from scientific research. During the workday, it may feel like it is the center of the universe, but increasingly it is just another node, albeit a rather creative and busy one.

With rare exceptions, engineering has already lost the sense that our PC workstations are isolated. Most CAx/PLM products are integrated at some level into the World Wide Web. In a three-screen infrastructure the desktop becomes another node in a larger context, along with the mobile and the panorama. What we now call social networking software is taking this convergence to another level.

Younger engineers are on the vanguard here, bringing social networking services into the office via mobile devices and PCs. Software products originally used for personal time are finding their way into workflow. Consider Twitter, the public instant messaging platform where users choose to receive the ‘tweets’ (messages of 140 characters or less) of others. While many use Twitter to say “I’m going to walk the dog now,” others are starting to use Twitter to create an instant collective mind experience. founder Rick Stavanja has a day job as engineering IT manager for a small manufacturer. Once in a while he tweets a question about Teamcenter customization or something else he is working on. Within minutes a dialog between several other Siemens PLM site administrators busts out, as questions, answers, and comments fly.

The cute Twitter bird has become an icon of social networking. But can he model in 3D? (Image courtesy DecisionStats.)

If everyone in a design group were following each other on Twitter, one could tweet out a quick question about a CAD technique, a spec, or a regulation issue, and have several responses in the next few minutes as others in the office look over recent Tweets. Chris Williams, who created Seemage and sold it to Dassault Systems, is working on a CAD-embedded version of this scenario called Vuuch. It turns documents into web pages that are linked and updated. “In our personal lives we connect with people based on interests, hobbies and friends,” says Williams. “At work connections are specific to what we are working on and are therefore dynamically changing with our changing work load. Performance, efficiency and outcome are directly related to the strength of the connections within a network and the lag-time associated with communication.”

Vuuch applies social networking technology to engineering, calling its software a “social work management platform.” While the work of connecting starts as an add-on to a CAD program (right now SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, AutoCAD, Autodesk Inventor, as well as MS Office and a standalone desktop client), the resulting network can quickly adapt to mobile users; all that is needed is the ability to view a web page.

Mobile and desktop are becoming increasingly intertwined and they are influencing each other. The iPhone and iPad have popularized touch as a User Interface, and Engineering IT is listening. Various touch-based technologies from Microsoft and others will be on the market quite soon.

Screen 3: Panorama Should Be the Collaboration Platform
The largest manufacturers and construction firms already rely on large screen group presentations for design review. As the technology comes down in price and rises in quality, the Panorama will become more mainstream, especially when touch or gesture UI—such as the “G-Speak” interface from the film Minority Report—comes to the giant screen. AMD’s Eyefinity Display which enables a 6-display-wall is changing the economics of the large scale displays.

Caves and wall displays will become collaboration mediums. In this case, the user is exploring the interior of a concept car (Image courtesy University of Michigan Virtual Reality Lab.)

Panorama comes in two types, wall mount (flat) and immersive, where viewers enter a room or special “cave” for viewing. Today’s technology relegates the panorama display to one-way data traffic—the images go to the panorama but there is no good way to annotate and send data back. Until markup becomes as easy as redlining a CAD model on an iPad, the panorama as collaborative platform is still a few years off for most. However, applications like HP’s Halo system and Cisco’s Telepresence are already eliminating the need to get on airplanes for face to face meetings. The combination of a high resolution display video, high speed internet, and real time interaction via camera connections quickly eliminates any sense of distance.

Engineering IT is becoming a three-screen system, but really we’re talking about the evolution of all devices as part of one machine, the World Wide Web. The three screens are just convenient ports of entry.