Virtual Reality in Construction

A recent survey by ARC Document Solutions on emerging technologies in the AEC industry revealed that 65.3% of respondents indicated virtual reality would be the next big technology trend. (The use of drones for surveying and project documentation was second at 61.9%.) The top two benefits of virtual reality use cited were easier visualization of projects and faster project completion.


Virtual reality has gotten lots of attention over the last few years due in large part to a resurgence of tech companies competing to bring viable applications to market. Computer display technology and graphical interfaces have improved significantly over the last decade. The technology has advanced to the point that the promise of virtual reality can now be delivered, and at a fairly reasonable price point.


Early adopters and innovators like McCarthy Building Companies, DPR Construction and Gilbane have been experimenting with virtual reality for a few years now and have seen the benefits the technology can provide to the industry.


Advances in computer hardware and software allow improved renderings of 3D stereoscopic images, faster frame rates and minimizing the lag in head tracking to the point that it’s virtually unnoticeable, and in turn enter into a new age of construction management software. Perceivable head tracking lag, poor renderings and slow frame rates have been known to create nausea-inducing virtual reality experiences as well as causing headaches and eyestrain. Another big advancement has been the process of converting a BIM model to virtual reality simulation. Newer software has automated the conversion process making it a lot easier to get started using virtual reality.


Better construction management software visualization will probably be the top driver for adoption of virtual reality in the AEC industry. Virtual reality provides a full-immersion experience that will allow project stakeholder to engage and interact with the design of a building in ways that aren’t possible with BIM models and 3D CAD drawings.


It’s a big step up from viewing a 3D BIM model on the screen of your laptop or tablet. A virtual reality headset allows you to step inside a full-scale 3D virtual environment and interact with the design just like you would in the real world. You’ll be able to walk through a virtual copy of the building, traverse hallways and open doors and windows. Virtual reality will allow stakeholders and end-users a better understanding of the space and what a project will look like when completed. Having to make changes once construction is underway can be costly and can easily extend the construction schedule by weeks or months. With virtual reality, changes and clashes can easily be detected and corrected before construction begins.


The type of visualization made possible by virtual reality will lead to better collaboration and communication. Virtual reality may also lead to greater acceptance and implementation of BIM. Most virtual reality applications being developed for the AEC industry are using BIM models as the basis to create the virtual reality environments.


Virtual reality will speed up the decision making process thanks to improved communication and instant feedback from all parties involved: owners, architects, engineers, end-users, and general and specialty contractors. You can also have multiple people in different locations interact with the virtual environment at the same time. The portability of the lightweight head mounted displays coming out is a huge improvement over setting up CAVEs (cave automatic virtual environment) or earlier head mounted displays which were heavier. In virtual environments users can instantly change out design elements such as lighting, fixtures, flooring materials as well as incorporate furnishings to get a real sense of how the finished space will look.


Other areas where virtual reality could impact construction in the future includes safety training and equipment operator training. Workers could get exposure to environments such as confined spaces or working at height. VR simulators have been used for years to train soldiers, pilots and surgeons and could be used in the same way to train workers on everything from operating cranes and excavators to doing welding and masonry work.


Here is an example of how a virtual reality simulation is created: BIM or CAD files are inputted a gaming engine such as Unity or Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to create the virtual environment. A pair of 2D images, one for each eye, are transmitted to the screens of the head mounted display. Lenses in the headset are angled to create a stereoscopic effect which makes the two 2D images appear as a 3D image, just like those old View-Masters we used to play with as kids.


Head tracking and eye tracking technology allows you to look around the virtual environment the same way you would in the real world. In a virtual environment like a building this means if you look up you would see the ceiling and if you look down you’d see the floor. Other peripherals like game console controls, or motion tracking with controls or infrared sensors, or omnidirectional treadmills will allow a user to move about the virtual environment and interact with objects.


A number of reasonably priced are currently available and more will be hitting the market later this year. For example, the consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset will be available in March for $599.00, that’s the same price the original 8GB iPhone retailed for back when it was released in 2007. Oculus started out on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and two versions of their developer kit was made available for early adopter to start testing and experimenting with applications for the AEC industry. Oculus was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion back in 2014.


The Oculus Rift will also require a PC with high-end specifications to run the headset. Fove VR is expected to release their virtual reality head mounted display in 2016 with a price tag or around $350.oo. Unlike Oculus, the Fove will use eye tracking instead of dead tracking to simulate depth-of-field and should provide a more realistic experience. There are other virtual headsets currently available that can run on your smartphone like the Samsung VR and the Zeiss VR One and are in the $100.00 – $120.00 range. VR head mounted displays from Sony and HTC are also expected later this year.


Virtual reality technology has the potential to make a big impact on the way we design and construct buildings in the future. Some architecture firms and construction companies are already realizing the many benefits the technology can offer the industry.

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