How construction companies are using virtual reality to plan, build and manage complicated projects / by Scott A.

Context VR lets users take 360-degree photos of a construction site and then integrate them with project documents. Each dot represents an interactive 360-degree photo. (Context VR Photo)

Context VR lets users take 360-degree photos of a construction site and then integrate them with project documents. Each dot represents an interactive 360-degree photo. (Context VR Photo)

Construction can be a tricky business.

There are a lot of moving parts in any big project, whether it be a high-rise apartment tower, a heavily mechanical industrial building or a hospital. As they go, builders have to document everything and update stakeholders and regulatory agencies on their progress. These updates have traditionally come in the form of photographs and on-site tours. But the proliferation of virtual and augmented reality is changing that

Context VR co-founders Dmitri Bouianov and Yinso Chen. (Context VR Photo)

Context VR co-founders Dmitri Bouianov and Yinso Chen. (Context VR Photo)

Some construction and development companies are using virtual reality to plan, manage, construct and then market projects, and in other cases, new startups are popping up to handle that process. Context VR is one such company. Co-founded by Dmitri Bouianov, a veteran of Microsoft and Expedia as well as several startups, the app lets users take 360-degree photos of construction projects and store them in the cloud to make them easily accessible for stakeholders.

Users can pin photos to points on PDF drawings to show relative location within the building and progress over time. An “AR mode” lets users see what’s inside walls of the building using photos taken earlier in the process, and photos can be viewed on VR headsets as well.

“We are addressing a pain point that exists in construction today, which is a lack of photo documentation, or a presence of very sparse photo documentation that construction companies use to protect themselves against liability claims, or in case there are schedule disputes about what was the state of project at a particular time,” Bouianov said.

The bootstrapped company employs six people, including co-founders Bouianov and Yinso Chen, and they work out of Surf Incubator in downtown Seattle. Context VR is already working with general contractor PCL Construction on a pair of Seattle high rise apartment towers — Tower 12 and Potala Tower in downtown Seattle — and will release its app for licensing Dec. 15.

Will Adams and Marc Kinsman of Mortenson Construction demonstrate a virtual operating room. (Mortenson Photo)

Will Adams and Marc Kinsman of Mortenson Construction demonstrate a virtual operating room. (Mortenson Photo)

Some companies are developing their own uses for VR internally. Mortenson Construction is a national developer and general contractor, but it has chosen Seattle to build out its virtual reality capabilities, because of the region’s reputation as a hot spot in that area. Mortenson has used the technology to model 10 projects it is building here since March.

Numerous firms have adopted VR to help clients visualize what they will get when a project is done, like showing views from apartment buildings or potential office layouts. But where the technology really has the potential to make a difference in the industry, and where Mortenson sees a lot of potential, is in planning complex medical and industrial projects.

GeekWire recently had a chance to check out Mortenson’s use of the HTC Vive system in planning and managing projects, and the most interesting example was an operating room in a hospital. Surgeons are busy people, so they don’t have a ton of time to comb through documents and show designers how their rooms should be built. By setting them up with the VR program, they can check out the room and make sure they can reach all their devices from a specific spot.

Efficiency of space and movement can make the difference between life and death in the operating room, so allowing medical personnel to give feedback on the design and construction of their facilities is an important innovation. It beats past options, when crews would build the bones of a room and then put down pieces of paper indicating where monitors and other equipment would go.

“The big problem in the medical industry, when they are doing remodels, it’s very hard for the people who are actually using the space to understand what they are going to get,” said Will Adams, integrated construction coordinator at Mortenson. “They’re not used to reading drawings, and renderings don’t really give you a sense of what it is like to be in that space. They don’t know how the space is going to function because they are unable to predict exactly where the fixtures, outlets and medical gas are going to be. So giving them a chance to simulate how this operating room is actually going to function for them, and allowing them input before they actually build the space can be really valuable for them.”

Mortenson is also developing augmented reality apps — where virtual content layers on top of the real world — for construction. It is testing out the DAQRI Smart Helmet, an augmented reality device built by a Los Angeles company that focuses on construction and industrial uses. The technology has a variety of capabilities, including projecting aspects of a project, like duct work onto the interior shell, making it easier to understand and communicate what goes where.

Virtual reality could make it easier to build complex utility projects, like a wastewater treatment plant, and it could also help workers train on heavy equipment when the facility is complete. Originally, Bouianov’s plan was to use virtual reality for training purposes at hospitals and nuclear facilities before eventually deciding to focus on construction documentation. Mortenson is looking at developing VR training programs for projects it is working on, like the West Campus Utility Plant for the University of Washington, where employees will operate chillers, cooling towers, generators and other heavy machinery.

Overall, virtual reality has great potential for the construction industry, both for third party companies building virtual environments, and contractors making programs in house. Bouianov has always been interested in construction, and he saw documenting projects as a costly and time-consuming part of the process that could be simplified by technology. But he isn’t the only one, and now many contractors are facing the dilemma of which apps, headsets and ideas fit best for their projects.

“There are many potential solutions to chose from,” Bouianov said. “So going from almost no technology to a lot of technology, the challenge construction companies are facing is choice, making an informed choice.”