Web API Is The Key To Information Exchange

UK Construction Online recently spoke to our very own Jon Hadley, Technical Lead here at Lobster Pictures, about our innovative web API technology and its many applications for the construction industry. 


For the uninitiated, could you explain how a web API (Application Programming Interface) functions and the benefit it affords?

Web API is a set of tools and common commands created to allow separately developed computer systems – often developed by different companies, in entirely different languages – to ‘talk’ to each other and exchange information more easily. In simple terms, think of an API as a translator and mediator.Those systems could be performing entirely different and very specialised tasks, collecting highly useful data as they go. If both systems have a web API, then your developers can much more easily combine that data and glean a host of insights and benefits. For example via a BIM system, your developers could request (or export) an “image from yesterday at 10am” from our time lapse monitoring systems web API – ‘Lobster Vision’. This could potentially be ‘underlaid’ to your 4D BIM model, allowing you to map modelled progress against the reality.Web APIs are also a great way of making your data available to external developers, who have their own resources and creative inspiration. For example, the UK government has in recent years made useful public data available via Data.gov.uk, which has enabled independent organisations such as MySociety to create engaging sites to discover your local MP’s voting habits, such as They Work For You.


How is Lobster Pictures’ bespoke consumer facing system, Lobster Vision, able to assist clients in accessing time-lapse images and high definition video?

Time-lapse photography provides a high-definition snapshot that informs, inspires and educates. We go further, giving our clients the ability to view, measure and share projects from anywhere in the world and at any time, via our consumer facing system ‘Lobster Vision’. Lobster Vision is our unique web interface, giving you unlimited access to your project. Ultra-high definition photographs are captured and transmitted to our secure servers, where you can access them through your desktop, tablet or mobile. Images can be embedded on your website, or saved for use in print, web or broadcast, and our high-definition time-lapse films are generated automatically, so you can have a new film online every week.

This system, hosted at http://www.lobstervision.tv/demo is available as standard to all Lobster Pictures clients. 


What specific applications does Lobster Pictures’ custom-built web API have for the construction industry?

The first, basic usage of our web API, is to allow construction companies with their own development teams to build their own custom branded websites using our imagery and data. Aside from Building Information Modelling (BIM), a big area for research for us at the moment is in linking to other physical devices, such as sensors for noise, dust or vibration. For example, we are currently prototyping taking a near-instantaneous accompanying shot from our cameras when an API-linked noise sensor reaches a certain threshold. Paired with our super-hi-res 8K cameras (that’s four times the resolution of consumer 4K TV screens), you would have a powerful source of information to explore the root cause of the noise disturbance.

We’re also working with widely adopted construction industry sensor suppliers, so all of these benefits could be provided with very little new kit or infrastructure. On a wider note, we’re fully on board with the burgeoning ‘Internet of Things’ movement, allowing “objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration between the physical world and computer-based systems, and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit” (via Wikipedia). We already supply weather forecasting in our interface (incidentally, sourced via web API’s provided by the UK met office and others). Using web API’s you could even choose to take suitably christmassy shots when #uksnow begins to trend on Twitter in your area. 


BIM (Building Information Modelling) is hugely important industry-wide. How is Lobster Vision’s web API able to collate data for use in modelling?

Time lapse imagery is a natural extension to time, the 4th dimension of BIM’s existing three spatial dimensions of width, height and depth. From discussions with construction industry leaders, it’s clear that 4D documents are an extremely useful tool to visually communicate deadlines and plans in a clear way, where other methods might not be understood or carry as much weight. This is particularly so when the staff involved do not speak English as their primary language. The ability to add even stronger visual information, such as near-live time lapse imagery from a construction site, is a powerful step in pushing home these messages. Taking this process to its natural next step – being able to show planned future progress, overlaid on a live image – is invaluable in providing context and motivation to contractors, by illustrating how, for example, a cladding contractors three planned site visits affect the larger build. Real imagery of site progress is similarly useful for retrospective ‘lessons learnt’ meetings. Finally, although not a requirement for our web API to integrate with it, many BIM platforms (such as Autodesk BIM), provide their own web API’s, which could allow the Lobster Vision system to import BIM based data for its own purposes (as opposed to the exporting of Lobster Vision data we discussed elsewhere).


WEB APIWhat are the challenges associated with designing a multi-faceted web API that’s able to communicate with so many different platforms?

The main challenge is to make sure we make all necessary functionality available to the web API. Our highly mature, custom hardware and software makes that task a lot easier. However we must also always remember that web API’s should remove, not create, barriers to communication between computer systems. To ensure that happens, we’ve created our API using existing and open international standards such as the JSON format for human readable data-interchange (an IETF RFC standard) and the ISO standard for date representation. 


What differentiates Lobster Pictures’ web API system from its competitors?

Our competitors have closed, proprietary systems that cannot be used with external platforms. Alongside that, we’ve been in this market for a long time and have hard-won experience as to what works (and what doesn’t). Our patented technology allows for innovation and integration where competitors ‘off-the-shelf’ systems are just not able to compete. We’re open about our API and how it functions. Indeed, our documents are online for you to explore today.

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