Augmented reality is driving construction's creative reinvention / by Scott A.

As the use of AR grows, the building industry will benefit from the ability to visualise virtual objects in the real world

Construction projects can often be besieged by problems. Planners typically work off paper blueprints and drawings, which makes it harder to capture and analyse data and share information with contractors to ensure quality control and smooth running.

The industry has, up to now, been one of the least digitised industries, according to research by global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, but digitisation allows information to be shared in real-time and leads to better outcomes. For instance, by overlaying virtual data and images on to a physical space, potential flaws that may arise in complicated processes such as laying ceiling pipes can be spotted early. Workers are able to see how a construction schedule might be affected by potential problems and take measures to avoid them.

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“The construction industry is in the midst of creative reinvention. Clients are increasingly wanting to speed up their time to market, and designs and systems are growing in complexity, with buildings being assembled in new ways,” says Sue Klawans, a senior vice president and director of operational excellence and planning at Gilbane Building Company, a Rhode Island construction management firm, which tested Microsoft’s augmented reality (AR) headset HoloLens a few months ago. “We knew we needed to continue offering our team members the tools and technology to support the evolution of how we build.”

The market for digital AR tools is growing. Earlier this year, Californian startup Daqri launched a smart helmet similar to HoloLens and designed specifically for industrial settings. Meanwhile, apps like SmartReality from JBKnowledge, allow users to hold a smartphone or tablet over designs or plan files and see 2D drawings projected as 3D models.

AR is making it easier not only for planners and architects to collaborate with contractors, but to reassure clients and address any concerns they may have. Klawans says its immersive nature means they can “interact with their building and give feedback on the design before ground has been broken”.

The technology’s capacity to deliver cost savings and reduce the chances of a build falling behind schedule can also lead to less cautious investors.

“Using AR to showcase a building or piece of infrastructure to potential investors in its proposed real-world location will help them understand how that asset will connect with its surroundings,” says Dominic Thasarathar, construction industry strategist at Autodesk, the software company that provides the building visualisation data for Gilbane’s system to work. “Such as what the view from the 30th floor of an apartment block might be like. This will make it a more attractive prospect.”

There are signs that, beyond bringing flat blueprints and designs to life in front of clients, reducing on-site problems and easing investor worries, AR could provide an end-to-end service. Software is being developed that enables companies to show clients what the inside of a build will look like when furnished a certain way or the finishing touches have been applied to the outside. Of course, virtual reality allows this to be done before a project has been completed and sometimes in more detail, but viewing it outside its context and environment has its limitations.

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“The beauty of AR is, if you go to a property that’s just been built and you’re not sure how your car will fit, you can stand outside the property and, with your car loaded into the software, position it on the driveway,” says James Barry, head of visualisation at Area Sq, a London-based office interior design firm passionate about the benefits the technology can have.

Area Sq is yet to use AR commercially – it has already integrated VR into its services – but is considering adopting it soon. Barry says that he expects the ability for clients to picture fittings and materials in place will be powerful. He adds that AR will not only be effective at bringing clients on board from an early stage, but at being a pipeline tool.

It makes sense. The technology is already being used to market and sell products to homeowners and shoppers. Apps such as Dulux Visualiser enables users to hold phones up to a wall and picture how they would be painted a certain colour. And Ikea allows them to scan images from its catalogue and picture them in their house before they decide to buy.

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Maximilian Doelle, the chief prototyper at Kazendi, the first UK developer for HoloLens, built the HoloLiving app, which allows users to virtually furnish a room, for its client Selligent. He says that the furniture industry, along with the construction sector, will benefit hugely from placing images and virtual objects in the real world. The caveat though is that 3D graphic designers may add things that, while they look good virtually, can’t be replicated in the exact same way. “There could end up being a discrepancy for customers, between what they expect to see and what’s actually there,” Doelle adds.

A true marker of AR’s ability to innovate and provide an end-to-end service may well be whether it will then be used to sell a piece of real estate. Could the future showroom see prospective buyers wearing a headset or walking round viewing it through a smartphone? Not as things stand, says Doelle, but as visuals become more photorealistic and software more sophisticated, the possibility of it being used to sell homes won’t be far off.

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