How construction pros can master virtual, spatial environments & embed these tools into operations
by Dace Campbell, AIA, LEED AP
February 27, 2017

Twenty-five years ago, I was first turned on to the idea of virtual reality (VR) as the holy grail of design visualization in architecture while thumbing through inspirational musings and essays published in Cadence’s “Special Summer Reading Issue.” Indeed, VR took hold of many an imagination, as popular media glimpsed into bleeding-edge work by research labs like Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab and the Human Interface Technology Lab (HIT Lab) at the University of Washington. Sadly, VR failed to live up to the hype, as it rarely broke into common industry use, and interest in VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), largely waned after the 1990s. That is not to say there weren’t valiant attempts to embrace VR and AR in architecture and construction, though.

For decades, VR has captured the imagination of architects seeking the ultimate experience for design and creation. Likewise, AR has captivated contractors, seeking the “ultimate stud-finder” to assist in layout and inspections. Unfortunately, those visionaries were saddled with limitations, such as prohibitively expensive technology, strained workflows for content development, clunky interfaces, an infantile internet and a lack of clear business cases, keeping a lid on any industry enthusiasm for VR and AR for far too long. Until now. Or about 2 years ago, when VR came storming back into popular view. This time, fueled by the internet, Wi-Fi and mobile/wearable devices with affordable GPUs, VR and AR have caught the attention of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Samsung and practically every other big name in computing. This time around, it seems architects and contractors are not immune to the visions that VR and AR inspire. AEC professionals are often surprised to discover that AR and VR are a natural extension of BIM: immersing designers, creators and their customers into an environment as the ultimate medium for conveying a concept as spatial experience. While BIM and other media can represent the characteristics of a space, VR can convey the experience of a place, and AR can enhance your understanding of that place.

The Use Cases

The use cases are becoming more clearly defined for VR and AR in AEC as well. It is worth noting that uses for VR and AR will likely not be evenly distributed across design and construction phases alike. VR is thought to be a tool better suited to architects, while AR will likely find more uses in construction. VR is a medium for transporting participants to another experience altogether. To paraphrase Michael Abrash of Oculus, the immersion, interaction and intuitive interfaces offered by VR will ultimately require participants to suspend belief, reminding them that they are not, in fact, experiencing reality. In AEC, the use cases for VR include:

  • VR can help you differentiate you from your competition today, and that is true for all AEC professionals. It can help your business development efforts, supporting your pitch in pursuit of new project opportunities.
  • VR is an ideal visualization tool, supporting the creation and confirmation of design models. It’s a natural fit with what architects do every day.
  • Further, VR is a collaboration tool, supporting design review, critique, consultation and task sharing among multiple participants. Here, too, architects ought to be able to take full advantage of this capability.
  • VR can also support education and remote training scenarios. In this way, architects could potentially develop a new generation of construction documents; contractors could process new shop drawings and field installation instructions; and owners could commission, test and maintain equipment using remote instructions.
  • Of course, there is an entertainment aspect to VR, and there’s no limit as to how AEC professionals could entertain their clients and customers with new experiences.

Unlike VR, which fully immerses participants in an artificial environment, AR enhances the experience of the real world by incorporating contextual information when and where it is needed. AR will be more integrated into our everyday lives than VR, and a much larger market opportunity in construction and facilities maintenance. The sweet spot for AR lies at the intersection and overlay of domains of information.

  • Architects design by imagining and developing their “design intent” in the context of “as-is,” real-world conditions. There is a case to be made for enabling architects to design with AR, overlaying BIM data onto the real-world context for design visualization and collaboration.
  • Probably a larger case for AR, however, is for contractors, who will overlay BIM (design intent) over an “as-built” project site, to support layout, inspections and quality control. Here, remote training may play out, but with AR overlaying assembly information on the real world, rather than a completely artificial VR environment.
  • Possibly the largest case for AR ultimately will be for owners, who overlay the “as-built” BIM information with the “as-is” (as-maintained), real facility, revealing hidden conditions in facility operations. In this way, AR can be thought of as the “ultimate stud-finder.” Further, AR can be combined with the internet of things to provide real-time status or information from building assets and equipment overlaid in context for those performing maintenance.

The Business Cases

So VR and AR technology is back. But, will it last? Maybe so, at least in B2B and professionally, if not for consumers. This time around, the tools are better, the processes and workflows are in place and business culture has never seemed more ready to accept wearing computing devices and displays. The startup investment for VR or AR used to be in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Now, the cost of quality display hardware is in the $500-$5,000 range. Further, some models can be exported and processed in the cloud to create a VR experience for just $1 a day. Truly, the barrier of entry is now low enough that every architect, engineer, contractor and owner can harness the power of VR and AR as easily as he/she can watch a YouTube video.

More important than a disappearing technology threshold and interesting use cases is this question: Are the business cases there to justify an investment in VR tools and processes? The use cases, combined with the democratization of the VR technology, alter the equation for business justification and should offer a meaningful return on investment. Professionals in the AEC industry face sufficient pain trying to accelerate design thinking, communicate design ideas and inspire confidence and comprehension in design and preconstruction visualization. There seems to be just enough disjoint between AEC professionals and visualization specialists; just enough disconnect between documentation-friendly BIM and real-time rendering; just enough disillusionment by owners who expect to experience their projects in order to understand them; and just enough dissatisfaction to train craft labor in the field to operate safely and flawlessly to explore and invest in VR for real this time.

As an industry of professionals specializing in the design and construction and operations of a physical, spatial environment, we are uniquely suited to master this new virtual, spatial environment. If you haven’t begun to embrace these tools and embed them in your operations, what are you waiting for?