Builders use their heads with a hi-tech hard hat: A helmet wired for TV keeps workers in the picture if problems crop up

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BARKING power station, now being built by Balfour Beatty in Essex, has two claims to fame. It is one of the biggest of the new generation of gas power stations and it is the test bed for the multimedia hard hat. Both, in their own ways, mark a technological leap forward.

An engineer is looking down into a large hole at Barking. It is part of the giant pumping station that will bring cooling water in from the Thames, and there is a potential problem: is the wall sufficiently reinforced?

In the past the engineer would have reported back to the design department in Sidcup, Kent, by phone or fax. He and his design colleagues would have pored over the plans, visited the hole repeatedly, and would eventually have agreed what should be done.

This would be a slow process, in part because everyone is so afraid of being blamed - and charged - for a mistake that enormous amounts of time are spent logging the tiniest action. 'The claims mentality is endemic in the UK construction industry,' says David Leevers, manager of the multimedia communications group at BICC, Balfour Beatty's parent.

With the multimedia hard hat, the engineers in Barking and Sidcup can examine and discuss the problem together. A tiny television camera, cannibalised from a video entryphone, is strapped to the front of the engineer's hat. The picture is transmitted by microwave link, and appears on a computer screen in Sidcup.

The two ends can talk to each other by radio link, but the really clever bit - which adds the multimedia element - is a one-inch-square screen mounted on to the engineer's hard hat, just in front of the right eye. While the designer sees the view and a large scale plan of the hole in two 'windows' on his screen, the site engineer can also look at the plan, on his mini-screen.

The designer might mark a point with an electronic pen and ask the engineer to take a closer look. As he does so he points his hat-camera at the structure, and the view comes up on the screen in Sidcup.

Mr Leevers believes such devices as the multimedia hard hat will reduce the chances of claims, because two or more people are involved in a decision as they examine the problem together: it is almost as though the designer is standing next to the engineer in Barking. Design changes can be approved on the spot, without the rigmarole of heavily minuted meetings. 'We want to use technology to banish adversarial attitudes,' he says. The system would, of course, work just as well if the two engineers were on different continents.

The technology is Heath Robinsonish now, and is designed to demonstrate the principle rather than provide a working system. The limited band width of the radio link means that a series of still pictures are transmitted rather than full motion video. The hat needs development, too, and may not be the eventual platform for a camera: BT has a version based on a pair of headphones, while BICC has also tried strapping a camera to a shirt - a multimedia tie-pin. An alternative would be special spectacles that are normally transparent, but act as a screen if pointed at a dark surface.

These limitations do not distress Mr Leevers. His job is to demonstrate how new communications systems can be used to bring an edge to a traditionally low-tech industry, and he knows that technology is moving so fast that a high-quality link and a suitable camera mount will soon be available.

Money for the work comes from an EU-funded project called Broadband Integrated Communications for Construction, or BRICC. Eight European companies are involved, including BICC, Bovis, BT Laboratories and consultants Ove Arup, all in Britain.

BRICC's aim is to see how broadband networks - radio or land links that can carry far more information than a simple telephone or fax line - can be applied to construction. The technology is embryonic - computer / videophones, capable of transmitting video, still pictures and graphics, have only just come on the market, so the very lightweight versions BICC is pioneering are at the cutting edge. The group is well placed to undertake this work, though: half its activity is construction, but it is also the biggest UK maker of optical fibre, backbone of the so-called information super-highway.

Although computers came late to construction, the nature of the work means that if a decision is taken to computerise, it tends to be done to a high level. 'Because each project is a fresh start, if they are going to computerise, they will put a PC on everyone's desk,' Mr Leevers says. Balfour Beatty's three Jubilee line site huts are fully computerised and linked by a network, for instance.

Mr Leever's group is letting its imagination range well beyond the multimedia hard hat. It is also looking at ever more realistic 'virtual conferences', in which people will 'meet' without being near each other.

David Bowen is the author of 'Multimedia: Now and Down the Line', published on 26 May by Bowerdean Publishing, London SW15, at pounds 9.95.

(Photograph omitted)