The construction industry, which has traditionally been slow to adopt technology, is in the midst of a digital revolution. As contractors face increased demand and a shrinking labor pool, organizations are turning to technology tools to automate processes, streamline communication and maximize their current resources. Building Information Modeling (BIM), wearables, drones, and increasingly, virtual and augmented reality are just some of the technologies beginning to change construction processes and best practices. Before one can understand how virtual and augmented reality can enhance productivity and safety in construction, it is important to understand the difference between the two.
The Difference between Virtual and Augmented Reality
- Virtual reality (VR) is a 360-degree, immersive view of a reality that does not exist, projected to the user through a VR headset. Essentially, when the user puts on the headset, he or she is transported to a different (virtual) world. The virtual view could be a video recording of a real place, or it could be computer simulation. VR completely replaces true reality – often both sight and sound – with a virtual one.
With virtual reality, everyone involved in the building process, from architects to engineers to project managers and end users, can experience building designs and plans in 3D. This helps bring everyone to the table so different subject matter experts can experience the design “in real life.” This immersive experience allows them to “live the design” and identify potential design flaws or end user pain points that can then be addressed before groundbreak, saving time and potentially expensive rework.
- Augmented reality (AR) projects an image onto the user’s line of sight. Whereas VR swaps existing reality for a virtual one, AR adds virtual elements to existing reality without completely replacing it. For example, when wearing an AR headset, you would be able to see a virtual image projected onto the real sidewalk in front of you.
While VR is typically used off-site during the design and pre-construction process, AR is being used on-site, as construction crews, for example, leverage augmented reality to apply a design onto the real-world, jobsite setting. For example, through a headset or a pair of glasses, workers could project the completed design in front of them, with the correct measurements, so they can build directly from that AR-project image. This reduces the need for paper blueprints and minimizes the risk of building off outdated drawings. It also decreases the likelihood of human error.
Though virtual and augmented reality may seem like science fiction, both are currently being tested and implemented on construction projects. Arkit, for example, is a self-contained computer that allows technicians to project the service history of an elevator onto the wall during a service call, providing a complete picture of the unit’s installation, maintenance and service history. By simply wearing a pair of special glasses, these technicians can see a digital projection of information that helps them complete the task at hand.
IrisVR combines AR and VR via an engine that enables users to view and interact with 3D data. Through the use of a headset, users can utilize AR elements to visualize and test potential paint colors for a wall, for example, entirely in the digital world. With VR elements and a headset like Oculus Rift, users can immerse themselves in a building, such as a train station, or a room, such as an operating room, to experience their surroundings and identify issues such as traffic bottlenecks or instruments being too far from the operating table. Microsoft recently announced HoloLens glasses, designed to be worn by construction crews and replace traditional blueprints.
Like all emerging construction technologies, VR and AR have the potential to streamline construction processes and operations and improve overall efficiency. When workers in the field have access to the latest real-time information, and are connected to important information locked in the back office or BIM, for example, everyone wins. As VR and AR technology becomes more advanced and accessible, it will be important to keep an eye on new applications and integrations within the construction technology ecosystem.