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From the Editor: Inspiration from Comic Books, Construction and Pencils

Mark Scacco on February 24, 2019 - in Articles, Column

When I was 15 years old, I decided I wanted to be an engineer. It was 1985, and I had just read the March issue of OMNI magazine, “Special Edition: Japan 2000,” about the “future” of innovation. I was mesmerized by the impact engineers would have on the world of tomorrow. (Full disclosure: I wanted to be a robotics engineer and ended up a civil engineer, but that’s a story for another day.)

Although I knew from a young age which profession I would pursue, from an even younger age, I developed a completely different interest: art. Specifically, the art of drawing dinosaurs, creating comic books and comic-book characters, sketching space stations, and other geeky stuff. My preferred medium has always been pencil and paper; and although I never had any formal training or pursued it beyond a hobby, I still enjoy sketching and drawing. To this day, nothing tops the feel of a brand new No. 2 pencil, sharpened to a dangerously fine point, transferring ideas and pictures from head to hand to page.

The Pencil Is Mightier

Many engineers spend a lot of professional time drawing and sketching our design ideas, turning math and science into construction documents that eventually become real-world objects. Back in the day, pencil and paper was the only game in town, but that all changed with the introduction of 2D CAD drafting and 3D modeling. Well, maybe not all changed—many designers still prefer the ease of use and instantaneous gratification of working with pencil and paper (i.e., redlines). It seemed no matter how many “bells and whistles” are added to the software, the hardware never rises to the simple power of initial creation using a pencil.

One of the main hurdles to adopting time-saving tools is the way in which we interact and access the tools themselves. Computer mice, graphical interfaces, large monitors, heads-up displays, tablets and touchscreen devices all serve to whittle away at the barrier between brain and page; but, decades on, the barrier still stands. As a technology consultant, identifying and vetting tools to completely remove this barrier has become a personal “holy grail” for me. In this quest, I have found few promising leads.

The Search Continues

Recently, an intriguing little device called the reMarkable was introduced. This is an e-ink device (using tech similar to the original Amazon Kindle) designed to mimic as closely as possible the tactile feel of pen on paper. While I must admit it achieves this goal remarkably well, it’s more or less a one-trick pony that costs as much as a full-blown tablet. Further, although it’s great for note taking (which still is a huge part of daily professional life), it’s output is limited to image and PDF files. It doesn’t run any design applications, and it’s only about the size of a piece of paper: good for notes, not so much for drawing.

About 15 years ago, I commiserated with colleagues that redlines would only die when 36- by 24-inch touchscreens were readily available to designers. Well, now we have those and more—way more. At the other end of the size spectrum from handheld tablets are massive 60-plus-inch touchscreens from vendors such as iPlan Tables and Volanti. Their expansive real estate lets you see an entire 36-inch plan sheet and more all at once. Because they’re powered by a full PC workstation, you can run full versions of your favorite design apps. It sounds ideal except for two hurdles: 1) they’re much too expensive for widespread use, and 2) the most-popular CAD applications have yet to implement full touchscreen and/or stylus support.

A few years ago, the grail seemed to finally be within reach with the introduction of the Microsoft Surface Studio and the Dell Canvas joining the Wacom Cintiq line. Nestled somewhere in the middle between tablets and huge screens, these devices aren’t necessarily low cost, but they’re within budgetary reach of many firms. They’re large enough to view almost an entire 36-inch sheet and run full versions of design applications. They include a stylus, control wheel and adjustable drafting angles (like a drafting table; remember those?). Unfortunately, just as with the massive touchscreens, in a role-reversal from the standard hurdle paradigm, it’s not the hardware but rather the software that prevents widespread adoption by the civil design community: the most-popular desktop CAD applications still don’t support (or provide only limited support) for touchscreen input. So close, and yet so far.

Now we’re hearing about designing in augmented and virtual reality like in “Minority Report.” These solutions seem wonderful, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they someday become common interfaces. In the meantime, is it too much to ask for a marriage of the tech that already exists so we can finally get a true replacement for the trusted pencil and paper? I don’t think it is. Do you?

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the Editor in Residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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