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How Virtual and Augmented Reality Will Impact the Future of Construction

June 20, 2017 | 4 min read

An industry that’s been notoriously slow to accept technological change has become an early adopter of two of the most advanced technologies in existence.

As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies continue to gain more and more traction in consumer gadgets and software, many industrial and professional markets have been a bit slower on the uptake. While many leading-edge AEC firms are investing heavily in AR and VR, the construction industry as a whole has been somewhat behind the curve when it comes to tech adoption — much to its own detriment.

Today, construction is up against increased regulatory complexities, a growing demand for building efficiency and diminished environmental impact, and a longstanding negative productivity curve. By failing to embrace innovative new technologies like these, the industry has been, in effect, trying to dig itself out of a hole without a shovel.

Much of this failure can likely be attributed to a general lack of awareness and understanding — many see the primary applications for VR and AR tech as gaming and entertainment, rather than in a professional environment. Moreover, they tend to lump these technologies together when in fact, each are used quite differently in the design/construction process.

What’s the Difference Between VR and AR?

VR is already being widely used by developers to review real 3D environments of architectural designs. Using a combination of Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology and immersive VR headsets, architects, project managers, engineers, and others involved in the project can identify design flaws and better plan out their approach to building it. This technology has immense potential to help developers avoid extremely expensive change orders ($15.8 billion is wasted through the poor use of data by the construction industry each year) by pinpointing potential issues early on, but it’s limited to the planning stages of the building process.

AR, on the other hand, projects virtual images into the user’s line of sight, and therefore has the potential to be used on-site as a tool for creating the structure exactly as the design intended. This could greatly speed up construction projects and minimize the number of errors made during the actual building process, but the technology is still in its development stages. However, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders aren’t already imagining the many ways these technologies might transform their industry in the not-too-distant future.

AR Has the Potential to Significantly Improve Project Efficiency

AR presents phenomenal advantages in the construction industry. AR applications are able to see and interpret the external world in real-time in order to project images onto it. Microsoft has already released a proof-of-concept for an application of its HoloLens AR-enabled glasses to guide a construction project by eliminating the need for physical blueprints.

For this to be a real, workable product, however, AR’s interfacing ability with BIM needs to be incredibly precise. As Upload VR writes, “to reach a point where viewing the BIM model on the work site isn’t just a novelty, it needs to be overlayed within an eighth of an inch of accuracy. Otherwise AR elements won’t line up with physical ones, and things will look off.”

But this isn’t just a problem from a technical perspective — there are serious safety risks involved as well. AR tech like HoloLens can be distracting, and on an active construction site, even small distractions can cause serious injury or even death. For this reason, the technology needs to be not only precise, but also carefully designed to ensure it seamlessly integrates with the real-world environment in the safest and least distracting way possible.

VR Is Opening New Doors for Architects and Designers

VR is proving to be an effective planning and rendering tool. By providing an immersive, virtual environment, architects can get a better sense for a space before it physically exists, enabling them to make more informed and accurate design decisions. Moreover, it allows firms to make a more compelling case when making a bid for a new project — instead of presenting a 2D rendering and a model, then asking stakeholders to “use their imagination,” architects and designers can actually take them on a virtual tour of the future space.

The point is, as the overall level of demand and complexity in modern building continues to increase, embracing AR and VR, along with other innovative technologies, will be key if construction wants to keep its head above water. Historically speaking, no major industry has gotten very far by burying its head in the sand — if we want to forge ahead, we need to start taking better advantage of the new, impactful tools and resources at our disposal.

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