VR and AR Add New Dimensions to Building Projects
By Jay Fitzgerald | Special to Banker & Tradesman | Feb 24, 2019
Here’s the new reality in the building design and construction industries: virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are just around the corner.
Companies like DPS Group, a global project management and engineering company with regional headquarters Framingham, and Boston construction giant Suffolk are among the companies testing and, in some cases, deploying the new technologies. They allow designers and builders to take closer, 3D looks at architectural plans and even, via holograms, detailed examinations of components of buildings, such as electric and sprinkler systems behind walls and ceilings.
DPS is poised to use the technologies at a planned building project in Waltham. Suffolk has started using virtual reality technology at building projects for Boston’s Children Hospital and for Millennium Partners’ Winthrop Center tower.
“It’s coming,” Eric Ross, the virtual design and construction manager for DPS’s U.S. operations, said of the eventual full deployment of VR and AR. “We’re two to three years away from most construction companies adopting the technologies.”
VR and AR share some common technological characteristics, such as using specialized headsets to view things in 3D, but they function differently for different purposes.
For VR, think of immersive online games such as Halo, League of Legends or World of Warcraft. VR construction programs enable project team members to “walk” in, around and through 3D models of new buildings, even at the same time – going up planned stairways, strolling down hallways or inspecting individual rooms, taking notes and suggesting changes along the way.
As for AR, think of Princess Leia’s hologram message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars.” In the construction world, it’s more likely to take the form of a 3D model of a sprinkler-system component hanging from a ceiling, allowing users to “pull out” and zoom in on an item for closer inspection.
Both use sophisticated but different headsets to view 3D images. In the case of VR, users can also enter what’s nicknamed a “cave,” or an entire virtual environment room. Among the technology players currently in the VR and AR fields are Microsoft, HTC, Vale Corp. and Magic Leap.
“There’s a lot of potential applications out there,” said Kelsey Gauger, director of Suffolk’s new Smart Lab in Boston, where VR and AR have undergone extensive tests for their practical uses in the field to determine whether they’re worth the investment.
AR Benefits Remain Hard to Gauge
The bottom line is still the bottom line, said Gauger, and every new construction-industry technology, including VR and AR, has to meet certain cost-benefit standards, or they’re not adopted.
In the case of VR, Ross and Gauger agree that the analysis justifies the technology.
The practical benefit of VR is to let clients, designers, engineers and contractors see a future building in a new way. 3D models of buildings allow people to appreciate and examine building features, suggest design changes and avert costly last-minute changes.
And VR is surprisingly affordable – under $10,000, when hardware and software are included.
AR’s prices are slightly higher, yet still in the affordable $10,000 range. But its eventual benefits are harder to gauge – making it harder for some to justify the technology at this point.
DPS’s Ross is a believer in Augmented Reality, saying his firm has already used AR’s hologram technology to more closely examine specific components of building plans.
In one case, the firm used the hologram technology to analyze the dimensions of a sophisticated metal platform earmarked for a new tech building – and found it wouldn’t fit as originally designed. As a result, the company saved money by catching a potentially costly design mistake that would have become evident, without AR, only after workers had tried to install the platform.
As a construction company, Suffolk’s mission is obviously different from that of a design company and, so far, it can’t justify full deployment of AR in the field, said Chris Mayer, chief innovation officer at Suffolk.
The firm sees it one day being used for “quality control” and regular building maintenance purposes, in addition to other functions that are not quite evident yet, he said.
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