Need some stone but can’t face tramping around distant quarries? Soon you’ll be able to pick rock from the comfort of your office, thanks to the wonders of mobile technology.

The idea of video surveillance suggests grainy footage, hooded villains in building society branches and Big Brother. However, a unique project involving UK trade group British Stone and mobile telephone provider Orange aims to change that.

“In the first instance, we’re developing a system that will offer architects and designers a ‘near experience’ of being present at a remote location such as a quarry,” says British Stone director Ray Symons.

Symons says the project, dubbed “Telepresence”, will take remote video into the 21st century with applications that go way beyond surveillance.

At present, designers choosing building stone may visit several quarries two or three times before making a final decision. In addition, the stone producers will have to send samples to designers. The Telepresence project seeks to cut out much of the time and expense involved in this process by allowing designers to see detailed images of the stone in situ.

“We’re developing a system that replaces flat black-and-white images with high-resolution colour stereoscopic images and sound. Users armed with only a mobile telephone and a laptop will also be able to control the pan and zoom features of the camera,” says Symons.

The system is unique because it uses multiple cameras to send images using mobile phones. Two cameras trained on the same object from slightly different angles give a stereoscopic effect – similar to the way that two human eyes create a single field of vision. The resultant image has a much greater level of detail. “The enhanced image gives the end user a sensation of being there – a telepresence,” says Symons.

The Department of Trade and Industry is funding the two-year project to the tune of £400 000, as part of its Information Society Initiative. This seeks to find practical applications for technologies that already exist rather than developing new ones.

Also on board is a team from the University of Strathclyde’s Transparent Telepresence Research Group, which is providing expertise in computer software and hardware as well as video technologies.

Initially, the focus is on developing applications in the building stone industry. But there is potential for a range of construction-industry applications in fields such as remote diagnostics and remote surveying.

The system works by linking a camera to a computer. The computer has hardware for translating video images into digital signals. It also has a piece of technology developed by Orange called a High Speed Circuit Switch Data Card. Digital video involves heavy data traffic, beyond the capacity of ordinary mobile phone transmissions. Orange’s card ties together mobile frequency channels to increase bandwidth, which in turn enables audio and video data to be integrated in transmissions and speeds up the rate of data transfer.

The signal is sent out over the mobile network to be received by the end user, who needs only a laptop with software developed by the Strathclyde University team. When two or more cameras are being used to produce stereoscopic images the software will “stitch” together the images to produce a 3D effect.

Strathclyde University research fellow Roger Hardiman says: “Using triangulation and knowledge of camera technologies will make it possible to measure the depth of objects within images. Potentially, this opens the door to remote surveying.“

Once the system is installed at a site, users will be able to use a mobile phone to dial the system from anywhere in the world and receive live colour video.

British Stone has brought other technological innovations to its sector. “We first of all introduced a CD-ROM with images and technical information on the various types of stone available. Then, we encouraged the uptake of IT and mobile phones to modernise the business processes of our members,” recalls Symons.

Once the Telepresence project is complete, a joint-venture company may be set up to market applications to industry generally and the construction industry in particular.

For instance, on construction sites with expensive plant in remote areas or far from its country of manufacture, the new system could enable remote problem-solving. The system would link off-site engineers to machine operatives. In this way, both the diagnosis and repair of faults could be carried out.

The system could also widen the opportunities for collaborative working. Steve Hope, technology trials manager for Orange, says: “It’s about enhancing communication. A process where, for example, an engineer takes photographs of a structure and sends them to some other engineer for analysis can be replaced with a system where both parties examine what is being looked at the same time.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the system lies in the field of health and safety. The system could enable people to be removed from potentially dangerous environments altogether by providing audio-visual access with remote control.

Telepresence on high

The telepresence system got its first trial run at Bury St Edmunds cathedral in May. The cathedral authorities felt the system could eventually be used to offer the general public an opportunity to witness the work in progress for educational purposes. The cathedral recently received funding from the lottery’s millennium fund for a £10.3m renovation and new-build project. Construction of the cathedral’s new tower will take about three years – which means that the structure will be hidden by scaffolding and sheeting for three years. Project co-ordinator for the cathedral authorities Euan Allen says: “The telepresence system was installed to make the ongoing work accessible to the general public from a remote location.” British Stone’s Ray Symons first made contact with the cathedral when he was promoting British building stone to the project team, which was considering using Italian limestone. He says: “The project uses traditional stone, traditional methods and traditional stonemasonry skills. The team were originally talking about using CCTV and I realised it would be the ideal site for both a demonstration of the telepresence project and the promotion of British stone.” The cameras can be moved around the site easily and can even be hung from the roof to make it easier to observe progress. Initial reservations from unions and main contractor Sindall centred on the potential for evidence being gathered for minor health and safety breaches. However, these were overcome when a protocol was agreed whereby the cameras would be switched on only after a visible and audible warning was given. Symons says: “After a full presentation, the main contractor and unions warmed to the idea of being able to monitor the progress of work as well as the potential to solve problems.” For example, a complaint that a piece of stone had been incorrectly cut was resolved when it could be seen the stone had in fact been installed the wrong way round. Talks between the various project team members to make the system a permanent feature of the cathedral project are now under way.