Are Virtual, Augmented Reality the Answer to Construction’s Problems?

The advent of virtual and augmented reality technology enables architects to walk clients through their designs well before a spade hits the ground, while contractors can overlay images of an existing site with a digital plan of things like pipework to determine what will work and what won’t

What is AR and VR technology? 

Two technologies that allow us to see the world differently—augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)—have been around for some time.   

AR was developed by Harvard University academic and computer scientist Ivan Sutherland in 1968. It offers a view of the world through a headset that includes a virtual image overlaid onto it, effectively enabling people to see the “now” and at the same time “what could be.” 

VR came into being in the 1980s, when US computer artist Jaron Lanier manufactured a specialised headset and hand control, which allowed users to experience and walk around “other worlds” and environments without having to move. For some, this made Lanier the founding father of virtual reality

Large technology companies have inevitably piled in, with varying degrees of commitment.  

Google dipped its toes in the VR water, but later withdrew, while earlier this month Apple unveiled its Vision Pro “mixed reality” headset. Set to retail at $3,499 when it goes on sale next year, according to the Financial Times it “is the biggest gamble on a project yet from chief executive Tim Cook, who took over from Steve Jobs in 2011.” 

Apple’s high stakes reflect the prevailing view that VR—and AR to a lesser extent, though it’s still important—has cemented its place in the modern world. 

Why use VR and AR in construction?  

Where AR and VR go beyond “mere” gaming and entertainment is in the field of enhancing productivity. In construction, both technologies have been increasingly used for some time, boosting established computer-aided tools such as building information modeling (BIM). 

Real-time visualisation 

Architects like Hawkins\Brown in the UK have been harnessing VR for more than five years, guiding the firm’s teams on what a project will eventually look like and allowing it to “walk” clients through a building before a spade has gone anywhere near the construction site.  

Hawkins\Brown used VR to develop the Oculus staircase at the Cardiff Innovation Campus’ Sbarc|Spark building, enabling the practice and the client to see what the view from the bottom of the staircase looking up would entail. 

In construction, VR’s stable companion AR enables stakeholders to visit a project as many times as they wish to see what works and what doesn’t via 3D imagery that can be superimposed on existing assets.  

Planned activity within a building’s shell—such as the location of pipework, windows and doors—can be looked at onsite through a special headset, long before specialist contractors have turned up to do the job. 

Collaborative design 

According to James Worthington, senior associate in the construction, engineering and projects team at Charles Russell Speechlys, the potential benefits of VR and AR in construction include improved design, arguing that “for design-focused roles, immersive virtual reality is a natural successor to computer visualisation and modelling techniques.” 

Worthington adds that another advantage is improved buildability; that VR can be used as a collaborative tool “to allow the construction team to experience the project and see what they are getting to work with well before construction starts.” 

How can AR and VR improve construction training? 

In the significant area of health and safety, Worthington believes VR can be used “to make training safer by allowing equipment operators to gain valuable experience in a simulated environment before operating their equipment in the real world.” 

According to VR-training company Pixo, construction safety and skills training with VR “has been proven to improve learner recall accuracy, learning retention and takes less time to train.”  

Companies using VR for construction safety training have seen fewer safety incidents as a result, it adds, saving 43% in time that would have otherwise been lost due to an accident.  

Citing a study by Iowa State University, Pixo also says that students who used VR in construction training performed better on weld testing than students receiving traditional training, while it pointed to a report by Capgemini that claimed that 82% of companies implementing AR/VR indicate that the benefits exceed expectations. 

A report by Accenture appeared to agree, arguing that a group of people being trained using VR “demonstrated on average 12% higher accuracy and 17% faster time to completion than instructional video participants.” 

A survey conducted by Matthias Guegler of California Polytechnic State University concludes that VR technology “has become a part of the solution for safety issues, due to its ability to train workers within realistic jobsite simulations without the presence of danger.” 

Are there limitations to using VR and AR in construction? 

So what are the downsides to using VR and AR in construction? For some firms, resources are an issue. Technology like AR and VR can be expensive, plus one would need the appropriate software and tech know-how to integrate such tools into the fabric of a company. 

In the field of security, there are some fears around privacy and the intrusiveness of the technology. 

And there is a general lack of experience in the fields of AR and VR, which will hamper companies’ progress, but this situation is changing as younger staff come on board. 

Experts believe AR and VR will be transformative to the global economy, and by default, to construction. A report by consultant PWC argues that VR and AR have the potential to deliver a $1.5 trillion boost to the global economy by 2030. 

“A major benefit VR and AR offer organisations is the training of employees and testing of procedures, including the simulation of realistic scenarios and even high-risk environments,” the report says. 

To overcome whatever reluctance may exist in the marketplace towards AR and VR in construction training, PWC says that companies developing these technologies and those consulting on and implementing them must do more to educate businesses and society about their many benefits.  

“These conversations need to be grounded in what is possible now, not far-off promises. That means getting more people to try out the technology and take the time to understand, answer and address any concerns,” its report adds. 

Such words will be music to the ears of many working in construction today. 

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