Mixed Reality and AEC: A Match Made in Heaven?

Mixed reality technologies enable AEC firms to leverage their growing data streams into increased construction worksite efficiency.

The ever-increasing prevalence of building information modeling (BIM) solutions represents a promising step towards AEC modernization. The 3D modeling capabilities, enhanced information sharing, and data insights delivered by the most advanced BIM software are, of course, incredibly useful; however, the most forward-thinking AEC firms are also beginning to explore the ways in which BIM can be leveraged to even greater effect using virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) technologies.

Microsoft’s HoloLens, the world’s first self-contained holographic computer, exhibits the remarkable value that MR in particular can bring to AEC processes and on-site project management. Not only does MR facilitate better visualization and problem solving both before and during construction — it also enhances collaboration and communication among the hundreds of teams that work on any given project. But in order to fully comprehend the ways in which MR can revolutionize the AEC industry, it is essential that we understand precisely what MR is — and what it is not.

What’s the Difference Between AR, VR, and MR?

Virtual Reality

In general, VR is typically used during the design stage of a construction project. In a VR experience, the user is immersed in an environment completely detached from their physical surroundings, and there is minimal interaction between the real and virtual worlds. That being said, the user has total control over their virtual environment and is free to manipulate any element of it as they see fit.

VR is particularly useful in two ways:

1. Gaining a better understanding of how people will interact with a space before it’s actually been built, which helps inform the design process
2. Helping architects vying for a project craft a more compelling proposal.

Augmented Reality

AR is much more similar to an MR experience, which is why the two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably. AR superimposes digital information within a user’s field of vision. Devices like Google Glass, for instance, overlay the real world with data, creating an experience analogous to say, a first-person video game in which critical information is always kept within the player’s line-of-sight. In a construction setting, AEC professionals could use AR to insert life-sized 3D models into a real-world environment in order to better visualize how a particular floor plan will manifest.

Mixed Reality

MR bridges the gap between the virtual and the physical worlds. Users can manipulate and interact with objects in both environments — for instance, you could put a virtual sticky note on a real refrigerator, then move it across the room, and the sticky note would remain attached to that refridgerator.

The Promise of MR in AEC

The potential applications of MR tech in an AEC context are numerous. At a rudimentary — though incredibly important — level, MR ensures that everyone involved in executing a project plan remains on the same page throughout its entire lifecycle. No matter how detailed and precise they are, 2D renderings can only communicate so much. As such, it’s unrealistic to expect dozens of stakeholders to visualize a 2D drawing in the same way, meaning team members inevitably end up talking past each other during planning and problem solving discussions.

By introducing MR into the process, AEC firms can immerse their workers in identical 3D visualizations, effectively eliminating confusions stemming from inconsistent 2D-to-3D imaginative projections. What’s more, when an entire team is equipped with MR headsets, each individual’s manipulations are visible to the others. Remarkably, with the proper configuration, advanced headsets can even indicate each user’s current line-of-sight within a group’s shared MR environment, making it easier to direct the attention of other team members towards a particular object or location.

In addition to clarifying communication and facilitating collaboration, MR makes pre-construction design and construction worksite problem solving significantly more efficient. At the drawing board, MR helps an architect or engineer understand the broader consequences of each of their decisions in real time. Even with AutoCAD software — and certainly with pen and paper — it’s not unusual for a project design to include flaws or contradictions that don’t end up being discovered until construction has already begun.

With MR, every manipulation an architect or engineer engages in can be immediately checked against the overall plan and/or project site to guarantee that it doesn’t introduce any sort of inconsistency. Similarly, when a construction professional encounters a problem on a worksite, MR helps them understand how each potential workaround would impact the rest of the project, even if very little of the structure has actually been built.

In short, as the industry continues to digitalize, data-driven, reality-altering technologies provide paradigm-shifting functions and, by many indications, pay for themselves rather quickly. This is the future of construction, and it’s those AEC firms who are willing to embrace change and innovation that are ultimately going to win out in the end.

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