Drawing Connections between GIS and Design

16 Sep, 2009 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Wacom's pen display technology supports geodesign tools in ESRI's ArcGIS 9.4.

ESRI has been discussing the forthcoming release of ArcGIS 9.4 for more than a year, and with the beta version planned for the fourth quarter of 2009, the wait is nearly over. This major release will incorporate a palette-based geodesign toolset, reflecting the company's current emphasis on placing design in a geographic context.

In a summer 2009 ArcNews article titled "GIS: Designing Our Future," ESRI President Jack Dangermond described the concept this way:

GeoDesign brings geographic analysis into the design process, where initial design sketches are instantly vetted for suitability against a myriad of database layers describing a variety of physical and social factors for the spatial extent of the project. This on-the-fly suitability analysis provides a framework for design, giving land-use planners, engineers, transportation planners, and others involved with design, the tools to leverage geographic information within their design workflows. . . . While traditional CAD is a useful tool in the architectural design of a building, GeoDesign is concerned with designing that same building in and around the environment.

According to Mike Dana, business development manager for Wacom, an ESRI business partner, "The idea of geodesign is to take a fresh approach to the authoring and use of GIS data. . . . Can we give people a new set of tools to build GIS data? Can we make access to GIS data more intuitive?"

As GIS technology has been evolving over the past 15 to 20 years, Dana explained, developers and users have focused on expanding capabilities and skill sets. Now that GIS has matured in terms of both ease of use and tool robustness, he noted, it's time to determine how we can best integrate engineering and design with GIS. That goal may be facilitated by Wacom's interactive pen display systems, which operate in place of a traditional mouse and monitor. According to Dana, Wacom worked with ESRI product engineers to ensure that the pen-input technology will enable users to fully exploit the new geodesign tools in ArcGIS 9.4.

Reworking Workflows
When using the pen display, users navigate and create features by drawing directly on the surface of the screen. For example, a GIS professional could use the system to annotate and mark design changes on a digital map. The original file is updated more quickly than when users work on hard copies, and there is less risk of introducing errors when transcribing changes. One aspect of the process, however, remains the same as when writing on paper: "The experience of working with the pen in your hand is familiar to all users," said Dana.

In ArcGIS v9.4, new feature templates will enable users to simply select a desired item — such as a meter or lateral — from a database and drop it into place, said Dana, without having to select a feature class or drawing tool first. Also, as shown during the plenary session of this year's ESRI User Conference, users may drag and drop analysis routines into the user interface. As Dana explained, this process is faster than having one person build the GIS data then hand it off to a higher-level analyst to create an analysis routine. According to Wacom, its pen technology complements these changes in ArcGIS, making these drag-and-drop workflows more intuitive and natural than when using a mouse.

Hands-On Hardware
Wacom's systems use electromagnetic resonance technology to determine where the pen is located relative to the writing surface. The display incorporates a sensor PCB (printed circuit board) with a wire grid, which emits a signal about every 20 microseconds. Once the pen comes within 0.5 centimeter of the writing surface, it receives the signal and the two components are able to communicate with each other, Dana explained. The signal causes the pen's coil-and-capacitor circuit to oscillate, generating energy that is detected by the display's grid, indicating the pen's location.

Wacom's interactive pen displays send a signal from the sensor layer that is received and returned by the pen, thereby indicating the pen's location on the writing surface. The monitor relays the pen's position, the amount of pressure being applied, and other information to the tablet computer up to 200 times per second.

The pen does not use batteries or a power cord; instead, the display provides power to the pen through resonant coupling. The display registers up to 1,024 levels of force, and can also determine the angle of the pen. The conical interference pattern, which is strongest at the pen tip, changes when the pen is tilted in any direction.

Continuing Convergence
According to Dana, this technology will likely find further CAD and GIS applications in the future. Wacom is affiliated with partner programs with ESRI, Autodesk, and Bentley, and expects to continue to work with them directly as well as with software developers who utilize these types of platforms.

"There is a clear history of software manufacturers and developers leveraging Wacom core pressure sensitivity and tilt recognition to enhance the end user experience for their user communities," said Dana. "I fully expect that as a larger audience of end users and software developers in the GIS and AEC industries become familiar with Wacom pen displays, we can expect new software enhancements in these industries similar to the changes in animation and graphic arts software that have already developed around these technologies." For example, it may eventually be possible to use the tilt of the pen as a navigation tool in 3D environments, or to apply the pressure sensitivity capability to customize hill shading based on slope and aspect.

What we can be sure of is that GIS and CAD technologies will continue to converge. As Dana observed, we are already starting to see a commonality in the types of data that are built and employed, such as building information models that consume geographic data sets. The look and feel of GIS and CAD interfaces will also become more similar, Dana predicted, as well as more intuitive and more reliant on 3D models: "It's going to become almost the look and feel of virtual reality, a video game–type environment."

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