Buildings Learn To Talk

Technology locates people and objects to help the mobile workforce work.


By Doug Caldwell

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s one of those winter days in the Bay Area where winds and a downpour are going to make that sprint from the parking lot to your office building a wet mess. If only the adjacent parking garage had any spaces. Lucky for you, you’re on speaking terms with the building. Yes, the building. It tells you that there are two spaces unfilled and one of them is near the fourth-level elevator. That “conversation” is not science fiction. And that isn’t all that a “smart” building might tell its tenants and owners.

121129_Registry_2013_Q1_2056“There are a couple of trends we see in the industry,” said David Marks (pictured), chief executive officer of Teecom, an Oakland-based technology systems research, strategy, design and engineering firm that has worked on real estate projects from hospitals to corporate headquarters. “What we’re trying to do, in a very natural and social way, using social communications as sort of platform, is informing people about things they care about … to share information that was previously inaccessible to the average person in a facility,” he said. Sharing energy data is just the beginning. The goal is to make it easier for a person to do whatever he or she wants, and needs, to do.

While in-building Wi-Fi is seen as being basic to “social” or “smart” buildings, another technology, called “near field communication” is also coming to smartphones. One developer, Flomio Inc., of Miami, Fla., sees the system quickly expanding to commercial space with building managers, retailers and others putting small tags in strategic public places where a worker, a customer or just passersby can wave their smartphones at the tag and have it connect immediately to a Web site, download information, make a dinner reservation, alert the parking valet that you need your car and more, said Timo Ronan, chief experience officer at Flomio.

The intelligent building also can be a life-saving building. “While at Motorola, I researched several methods of delivering accurate indoor location information to first responders aiding in an emergency,” said Richard Grundy, a Flomio founder. “One idea was to embed tags into office building carpet tiles and mark their position down upon installation. The first responders could wear specialized boots with readers in them that would detect the tag, relay its ID through the cloud and keep incident commanders aware of the real-time position of their personnel.”

From a floor that “talks” to the cloud, the sky is the limit when it comes to new data-based technologies for structures, said Kailash Awati, a Singapore-based information technology and management consultant. “As far as smart buildings are concerned, as far as machine-generated data is concerned, you will see a lot more happening,” he said. “You can have data entering different aspects of your life and making decisions for you or helping you make decisions.”

But humans still need to be in charge. “Data can help you answer operational issues—which server is about to break down, which product is selling well, what are the sales trends for next year,” Awati said. “What should I do in the next five years? Unfortunately, data cannot make that decision for you.”

It’s not just the owners of commercial buildings who believe new technologies will make structures friendlier, safer and more efficient. The nation’s largest landlord, the U.S. General Services Administration, is implementing smart-building strategies “to achieve department and administration goals of energy efficiency and sustainability while still providing superior workplaces for federal customer agencies at good economies to the American taxpayer.”

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