Can you create a first-person virtual reality experience on your jobsite for less than $1,000? Black and Veatch VDC Manager Ben Bringardner says yes. The construction future’s champion has recently been working with an experimental five-tool combination that can help you walk through your site at the click of a button—all from behind a desktop or tablet. “I’ve been messing with 360-degree photos for a while and I saw that this new camera came out, so I wanted to try it on site, and this particular site was more willing to let me try some things,” explains Bringardner.
Figuring the site and project would give Bringardner a greater sense of viability for the idea than a trial run within a warehouse environment, he set out to give his idea a shot. “[The project consisted of] taking still photos at mornings and nights on areas of work, and I was working with them to try to organize the imagery for progress reports using a $2 app called 360 Panorama. I discovered a (Ricoh Theta S) camera with dual fisheye lenses that I thought might provide a better shot. We got the camera and took it down to the site just to see if it had value. It paid off. It just so happened that the app that came with the camera also had a first-person VR mode. Soon as I saw that I thought, ‘Holy cow!’ I went on Amazon and overnighted a pair of Google Cardboard to myself. Now, I am able to walk out to the site, walk back in, and share a virtual experience from our in-progress jobsite.”
Bringardner sat down with StrXur to explain that while this innovative idea might sound like something out of MacGyver, it is actually much more practical than it might seem. While it is not standard practice yet, the potential for utilizing this experimental VR on other jobs may be too large to ignore.
How did this idea come about?
It seems like one of those “Hey, why hasn’t anybody already done that?” ideas.
For about four years, I’ve been using an app called 360 Panorama, which is a $2 iOS app, and it creates spherical photos by stitching them together, adding more and more photos incrementally. We had been linking those spherical photos to floor plans and site plans in order to allow field teams and coordination teams to virtually travel throughout the site, and we’d use Revu to put it all together and then distribute the PDF to people so they could access all the photos on the PDF.
How were the photos captured?
One of our workers, Adumile Ndukwana, was using a regular camera and the app to capture the difference between the morning and the evening on specific work areas. We had been linking the images to a floor plan with Revu. Then I discovered the Ricoh Theta S camera, which is designed to take spherical images. It’s got two back-to-back fisheye lenses, with 14-megapixel resolution on each, and it can see behind itself enough to stitch the two images back together as one full image. It’s small enough, you can fit it in your pocket or PPE vest.
How does the imagery convert to first-person VR?
After we took the pictures, we linked them to a floor plan in Revu. With that program, we’re able to distribute a PDF with links to the photos in the app. If you have a VR headset or at least Google Cardboard, you can then go into the free Theta S app and engage the stereoscopic first-person mode so you can go to any one of those pictures and have an immersive first-person experience. In addition, Adumile is also taking still photos alongside the spherical photography at the same time, and both are available on the PDF of daily site photos. Our goal, or hope, is that we can put these together into time lapses, with the idea that you could be in the first-person experience and watch the changes flash through.
How do you store all of the photos? Are they all inside one PDF?
We don’t embed the photos into the file; we reference them by keeping a series of folders on the cloud, one for each day, and inside each folder is the PDF for that day. The PDF is already hyperlinked to subfolders to each zone on the site where photos are stored, so the user clicks an area highlighted zone and sees the list of the available photos pop up for the area, and then selects them. The 360-degree photos are uploaded to a cloud site, then the URL is copied and pasted to an annotation markup on the PDF, designated with a red dot and action callout. We are still figuring out some other features, and having the ability to scroll back or scroll forward in time is pretty cool.
What is the benefit to using the PDF as opposed to just sending out links to a cloud site hosting the photos?
Revu plays an important role because it allows the information to be passed from that site plan point of view, which is what our professionals are used to consuming. It also hands us a way to have one simple document that allows access to all these photos, which is really important because it takes away that barrier of entry. If I sent out a username and password to a website that hosted folders full of photos, the number of people that would even consider going to it would decrease dramatically. But if I send a PDF to somebody, they’re very comfortable with it—they can open it up and get to one hundred different pictures if they want, because they know how to navigate the site plan.
What were the costs associated with this breakthrough?
Well, the Ricoh Theta S camera is about $350, and the app that comes with it is free. Google Cardboard at most is around $20 for a pair of viewers. If you wanted to go even lower budget, the 360 Panorama app is $2, and then just the cost of Revu, which is just north of $300 with support.
So it really is VR under $1,000?
Yes. I mean, we aren’t using this on all of our jobsites, but we are starting to really explore what we can do with VR.
What were your goals when starting out with this idea, and have those goals changed?
In my mind, there are several options for success with this. First-person safety training is one option; we could use real photos from the actual jobsite, then have employees go into them via the immersive experience, identify hazards virtually, and then talk about how they would mitigate them before they get on the real jobsite. The other option is just site familiarization. As people come in for initial training or visitors come in for a site walk, maybe we can first put them in the experience and get them familiar with it before they are out on site. Another option is virtual visits from our leadership and office-based professionals. A VR experience might be a nice way for non-project-focused professionals to experience the significance of the projects that they are a part of making a reality. Finally, process standardizations could also be examined through this VR experience for build procedures.
Were you worried at all about trying to roll this out on a real project?
We started the 360-degree photos when we were just about 20% done, so just above ground in structural terms. We had support from our management, and there was really no risk to speak of since we were already committed to still photography. VR was icing on the cake; what we were really after was an organized method for collecting and sharing photos.
What do you think is the most important possible benefit to using this VR experience?
I would say doing this on our project is important because on the next project we’ll have an incredible reference tool. When we’re building another plant with a similar configuration, this process will allow us to go back and not just reference, but in a way re-experience, how we accomplished certain critical tasks. We could use this to help us standardize operations, anticipate safety concerns, and optimize workspace configuration. The key is that this tool has the potential to help us in many new ways, but the most exciting is the possibility that it may help us get better and better at what we do.
* Note all prices are in USD.