We are all familiar with smartphone applications like Tom Tom and Google Maps, and they can be extremely useful tools for navigation around our estates. However, soon it will be possible to use augmented reality (AR) applications to provide estate-based staff with far more information.
It is already possible to develop a mobile application that gives the user a view of their actual surroundings using the device’s camera, and augments this view to show the details of the tenants around them as well as other information such as information about ASB cases reported in their location and even things like the arrears balance of each of the properties and their method of payment. A solution like this could take the form an Android or iPhone app and could be integrated into your HMS to let staff access information in an intuitive and efficient way while in the field.
The core feature of the application will be to use the host device’s camera to capture the surrounding environment, display this on screen and then augment that in real time to show information from the HMS overlaid virtually onto the image. The user can move and turn through 360-degrees and the map will move and rotate with them, synchronised with the real landscape displayed on screen. It could show the name of the tenant in each property, their rent account details and things like warning flags associated with anti-social behaviour. It would be much more intuitive than using a text-based electronic form or a static map.
The client app would need to connect to your HMS and so it would probably have to be written by, or at least in partnership with, your HMS provider. Your estate management staff would need to log onto your network to connect them with the HMS and download the map data. It could also store the locations of other devices using this app, allowing staff to keep track of their respective locations. The server could keep track of where staff are using the app, giving them the ability contact each other in an emergency. Devices would also be able to communicate with each other via the server, allowing staff to send each other photos and other information. This might be helpful if a member of staff spots some fly tipping or a potential fire hazard.
Most modern phones contain a GPS but increasingly mobile devices are also being manufactured with a built-in accelerometer. This could be very useful when using the device in high-rise blocks as it would enable the mobile device to know which floor the member of staff is on. The altitude reported by GPS is often not very accurate due to the figure being a ‘mathematical altitude’ based on the WGS84 reference ellipsoid, and the actual altitude varying depending on your location due to changes in the Earth’s shape and density, which affects local gravity. While possibly partially correctable, this may make it difficult to calculate the exact floor that someone is on, although the app could poll a web service to obtain the exact altitude at the current location, such as the USGS Elevation Web Service or Google Elevation API.
An AR system that takes information from your housing system and overlays it on a video image from your smartphone or tablet would be very useful. But if the information could flow in both directions then it could be even more useful. Imagine if you could report fly tipping or a potential trip hazard by simply pointing your mobile device at it and touching the screen? If the housing systems could receive images and data from the mobile devices and attach them to jobs that could be sent to other staff to complete, then the amount of text that needs to be entered could be reduced and valuable time saved.
The technology to develop these AR systems is already available and the current roll-out of 4G networks means that these systems could be quick and easy to use. I believe that all that is needed to turn these apps into reality is for the HMS suppliers to wake up to the possibilities and to include these features in their future development plans.
Chris Deery is head of ICT at Solihull Community Housing.