Rick Bongers has people calling him with new and complex problems every day.
But the project manager at Breslau, Ont.-based T3 Integrated Solutions Inc. is no customer support staff worker. He’s an engineer working in British Columbia, and he often needs to help his field workers find a solution to a problem that is best described with pictures, not words.
If only there was some way those workers could use their mobile phones to capture the problem in a nutshell and let him collaborate on a fix.
“It would save me a trip to the site,” he says. “It would make problem solving almost instantaneous.”
Still in development, a mock-up of Scoop’s mobile application.
Babak Sardary had the same epiphany after 10 years of servicing industrial robots in the field. Thoroughout this period he witnessed field workers take images, scrawl down notes, and then leave them with a technician to put together back at a hotel room. He was fed up with the inefficient process.
“It would pretty quickly turn into a mess,” he says.
So the project manager for Vancouver-based Trusterra Technologies Inc. conceived of a multimedia mobile memo logger that would allow field workers to use BlackBerrys and iPhones to document problems and collaborate with managers via a Web portal. Talking to managers in other industries boosted his confidence that such a tool was widely needed.
“Any industry that has people on the road has a need for a tool that can explain a visual situation and then collaborate on that,” Sardary says. “It could be a construction worker who visits the site and notices a half-dozen deficiencies that need to be documented. Or it could be a live blogger visiting a trade show, who wants to quickly report on gadgets he sees there.”
Dubbed “Scoop”, the application is in beta development and a mobile application for BlackBerry is slated for a March release. Users can also log in from a PC through a Web portal. The overall idea is to combine an issue-tracking collaboration style with photos and videos, and focus on an easy-to-use mobile interface.
The project has a beta-testing partner lined up in Surrey, B.C.-based Bellstar Hotels and Resorts. It also has a partner in Shahram Tasazoli, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, who will help open the project up to greater academic review.
Having an end-user and university partner involved were requirements for Sardary to scoop up $75,000 in funding from Precarn Inc.‘s Technology Gap Assistance Program. Using money from Industry Canada, the fund helps companies work on intelligent systems and get their products to market.
Scoop addresses a niche need of making it easy to use applications in the field, says Gary Gudbranson, Vice-President of Operations of Precarn.
“There’s a real issue of taking standard computer screen size applications and making them work on a small screen,” he says. “We like this perspective on solving the mobile worker problem.”
Many companies use proprietary systems that do similar things, he adds. Courier companies use them to support package delivery systems, for example. But Scoop is an application that is more general and could be applied to a wide range of industries.
The $75,000 is the maximum amount Precarn awards for its funding program.
At T3 Group, collaboration service Box.net is used by workers to collaborate on problems that often include visualizations, Bongers says. But his group doesn’t make use of the mobile features offered by the service.
Still, the project manager is certain such an application would help.
“It sure as hell would make things a lot easier to deal with,” he says. “I’d know what problem I was trying to solve rather than having it explained to me.”
Scoop will design its applications for mobile first, then implement the Web portal. It’s different from the usual reverse engineering that’s done when a mobile application is an afterthought, Sardary says. The collaboration model will be done through turn-taking instead of real-time, and the design will focus on simplicity instead of adding lots of features.
A design concept for Scoop’s Web portal front end.
Funding from Precarn will be spent on hiring developers to create the product. It will also be put towards BlackBerrys to test the applications.
The money was “tremendously critical” for this start-up project with four members, Sardary says.
“The formula is a good one because it puts just enough controls in place to make sure good companies get the money,” he says. “Once you’re approved the system allows you to focus on what you have to do instead of a lot of paperwork.”
Funding is provided as reimbursement to companies after they’ve spent it, Gudbranson explains. There is just one string attached after the money is approved.
“If they don’t take technology to market, Precarn can licence it and take it to market,” he says. “In 22 years, we’ve never done that.”
In 20 years of applying the funding model to more than 260 similarly structured projects, Precarn has seen a success rate of 75 per cent for the start ups it has funded. That’s well above average.
So it looks like the odds are good for Bongers. Soon, he may be making less site visits and solving more problems.