By BUILDER Magazine Staff. Many builders believe that letting field supervisors access scheduling and project management data via wireless handhelds will make them more efficient. So why has wireless been slow to catch on? In past issues, BUILDER has identified the main culprit as the network: the slow data transfer, weak signals, and competing standards that plague U.S. cellular systems. But at least some people believe that the interface--not the product--is the problem.

"A worker on site might not need a steady connection," says Christian Buergy, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. Instead, he says, it might be sufficient to sync the handheld with the office computer at the start and close of the work day. Buergy is part of a team of professors and graduate students looking at ways to deliver wireless data to "field-based knowledge workers," including auto mechanics, bridge inspectors, and of course builders. Their conclusion: The key to getting such workers to embrace wireless is to design the interface with the jobsite in mind.

James Garrett, the engineering professor who oversees the team, says that field workers aren't as enthralled with technology as are technology providers. They just want access to the needed information, regardless of where it comes from.

And hand-held devices have yet to match the convenience of paper. "Nothing has surpassed its usefulness and resilience," Garrett says. Contrast that with the typical cell phone or PDA-based application, which may require users to click through a complex menu structure on a small screen--the least convenient interface on a dusty jobsite on a bright day.

"We interview the people who will use the device to try to understand their needs," says Garrett. He and his students have worked with Turner Construction and Bosch to develop prototypes of wireless handhelds. One of these, an application for bridge inspectors, includes voice recognition and a pen interface.

Photo: Richard Borge

Instead of a Palm or a cell phone, the team chose the Xybernaut Mobile Assistant, a hands-free device with a tiny display mounted on a headband. While admittedly a bit clunky for builders, the goal was to show that hands-free devices could work. (Xybernaut has since launched a smaller, lighter, and less-expensive model called the Poma.) At this point, says Buergy, the speech-recognition technology is practical only for menu-driven programs that respond to specific voice commands. "In my opinion, it's not very useful: A wider vocabulary has to be recognizable in noisy environments," he says. But feedback from the field has convinced him that he's on the right track. "We heard from users that if voice recognition got better, they would be more likely to accept it."