mobile computing goes afield

31 Aug, 2003 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg Cadalyst

In the year since I last wrote about CAD for the field (Cadalyst, June 2002), hardware advances have created a revolution in mobile communications. PDAs (personal digital assistants) have become much more powerful and now incorporate even cellular phone and digital camera capabilities. Wireless 3G is available everywhere, and the Tablet PC is now a reality. These advances, combined with software that takes advantage of them, bring the field closer than ever to the office.

Sprint and Verizon are the leaders in 3G wireless networks in the United States. Both offer enhanced wireless capability at 144KB per second (50KB-70KB in reality). WiFi (802.11) short-range wireless is also becoming widespread. Many offices and homes now use these inexpensive systems, with ranges up to 1,000 feet. By year's end, Sprint expects to install WiFi hot spots in more than 2,900 hotel and airport locations. Even McDonalds is experimenting with hot spots in its San Francisco restaurants. Expect to see most construction sites equipped with WiFi networks soon.

Portable computer power is being implemented in several new ways at the job site. PDA devices (personal digital assistants) are merging with cell phones. Palm and Pocket PC-based PDAs, such as those from companies such as Handspring, Samsung, and Toshiba, run Palm or Windows Pocket PC applications and make wireless telephone calls.

Tablet PCs running Windows XP for tablet PCs are becoming more popular with those who want a larger format display. These portable computers feature 800GHz or better processors and 100-120 TFT screens. At the time of this writing, the most powerful tablet PC is the Toshiba Protégé with a 1.33GHz Intel Centrino processor.

Pen-based computing is a feature common to all of these portable devices. Some also have built-in digital cameras, handwriting, and voice recognition systems. Computing power is increasing, as is the demand for software that architects and engineers can use. Here we look at some software particularly suited to mobile computing. Some applications are aimed at handheld devices, while others make pen-based input more efficient.

PocketCAD mobile engineering software from ArcSecond lets a wide range of users capture, create, manage, and publish design and engineering content for use in the field. The software runs on Microsoft Windows-powered Pocket PCs. ArcSecond also develops several PocketCAD add-ons-for example, PunchList and Site Management-and indoor GPS technology for high-precision indoor and outdoor applications.

Pocket CAD 4.0 supports both Bentley's MicroStation V8 DGN files and Autodesk's DWG files. A DWF Viewer add-on lets you open DWF files in PocketCAD. You can print PocketCAD 4.0 files directly from the mobile device to a variety of infrared-enabled printers. Pricing for

Figure 1. PocketCAD PunchList add-on for the Pocket PC can even insert a voice note and flag into a CAD file.
Pocket CAD with support for either DGN or DWG and DXF files is $199. A version that supports both AutoCAD and MicroStation files costs $258.

PocketCAD PunchList (figure 1) runs on top of PocketCAD to leverage the power of the PocketPC to catalog critical inspection information and notations. Its project management features let you view inspection data and notations gathered in the field and tag them to the actual CAD drawings. You can then assign, manage, and document punch list tasks. The software supports voice notations, digital photography, and video, thus increasing data input and documentation options for users in the field.

PocketCAD's As-Builting Bundle combines the drawing capabilities of CAD with a laser measurement device that captures measurements and imports them directly into drawings stored on a handheld device.


Figure 2. ZiPCAD is the only CAD option available for PDAs that use the Palm operating system.
ZiPCAD (figure 2) is the only CAD option for PDAs with the Palm OS and Windows sync capability (or PDAs with a memory card and Mac sync capability). Designed by a principal with an architectural firm, this software is particularly adept at documenting existing conditions. The company says it may save hours of documentation time on every job. ZiPCAD comes with a full suite of CAD tools, and you can export drawings to any major desktop CAD system via the DXF file format. You can also convert DXF drawings directly on your handheld device to send and receive drawings in the field. ZiPCAD ($149.95) is available for download at the ZiPCAD web site, where you'll also find additional information such as a manual and list of frequently asked questions.


Figure 3. RiteMail enables any pen-equipped computer to e-mail interactive graphics.
RiteMail 2.0 is an exciting and inexpensive software solution that works on all pen-based platforms (figure 3). It's the first unified note-taking application that lets you take handwritten notes on mobile devices (on all major platforms), transmit the notes in the body of any e-mail message, and then process and recognize them on the desktop. The riteMail delivery system displays handwritten letters, drawings, and charts. The latest edition works with any Java-enabled browser. That means recipients can instantly respond to one handwritten message with another without the need to first download and install special software.

The Note capture feature enables unified note taking and processing between pen-enabled mobile devices and computers on multiple platforms. You can transfer notes between mobile devices and from mobile device to desktop via a wired or wireless connection. Deferred notes processing capability lets you edit handwritten notes on your PC. You can move, copy, delete, resize, and change color, width, and style. Shape recognition helps perfect common shapes and full freehand charts. It adjusts, aligns, resizes, corrects gridlines, connects arrows and adjacent shapes, and fine-tunes concentric shapes.

You need to see riteMail in action to believe it. It's a definite must-have, and for $25 for the first year ($15 per year thereafter), it's also a steal. Try the 30-day free demo at the Pen&Internet web site.


GiveMePower develops desktop and mobile/wireless software solutions for the AEC market. The PowerCAD line is designed to run on any Microsoft Windows-based device.

PowerCAD CE does not require that you translate drawings while using a mobile device connected to a host PC. Instead, through direct on-board, round-trip 2D and 3D drawing translation, you can receive drawings in native DWG or DXF file format, make changes, and send the changes back to the office or to another mobile device operator in DWG, DXF, DWF and/or PowerCAD's own FLX file formats. Sample training movies that demonstrate file transfer and other PowerCAD CE functions are found at

The Pro version of PowerCAD CE offers 2D and 3D viewing, editing, and markup, with more than 300 powerful 2D and 3D design and editing functions. Raster image tools let you import onsite inspection photos from a digital camera, underlay aerial photographs, and so forth. PowerCAD CE also supports lasers and Lisp or C/C11 programming so you can create your own solutions and extensions. A complete listing of features appears at the GiveMePower web site.

PowerCAD CE products work as independent mobile CAD solutions or as synced companions to the company's PowerCAD line of desktop, laptop, and XP tablet solutions. They can also serve as full-powered mobile/wireless extensions for desktop CAD systems such as AutoCAD, MicroStation, and others that accept DWG, DXF, or FLX file formats. PowerCAD CE is available in three versions: Viewer ($99), Classic ($249), and Pro ($495).

The eZ real-time collaboration solution incorporates patented technology that lets you conduct virtual meetings anywhere when combined with a pen-based, wireless-enabled computer. eZ works with 3D models, CAD files, PDFs, digital photos and graphics, screen snapshots,

Figure 4. The eZmeeting collaboration tool lets you communicate from the field with someone in the office in real time.
and Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files. In most cases, you don't need the application originally used to create the document. Meeting participants can sketch, draw, or write on eZ's electronic whiteboard. Use of a 144Kbps connection (the typical wireless speed) lets recipients view the results in real time (figure 4).

I recently had a firsthand demonstration of this program's capability when Charlie White, CEO of Sigma Design, the developer of eZ, called me from Logan airport on his cell phone. While talking, he opened files, redlined drawings, collected information from multiple file types and combined them into a single document, and then transferred that file to me as if we were in the same room. All this was done wirelessly from his pen-based laptop to my desktop computer.

The eZ software is sold on a subscription basis by the minute or by the month. The entry-level subscription-two licenses distributed among 30 users-is $79/month, or 30 cents per minute. For special projects, you can just buy time as needed. You need to see and use eZ to fully appreciate it. I have architectural clients in several states, so eZ will definitely increase my productivity. You can download a trial version from the eZmeeting web site.

The convergence of a wireless infrastructure, small yet powerful portable computing devices, and software designed to suit the limitations of portable devices means unprecedented options for mobile workers who want to stay connected.

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