Virtual Reality in the Construction Industry: Part 1

Published August 22, 2016 by Whirlwind Team

 virtual reality for construction

Do you see virtual reality as a technology only suitable for gaming or the Star Trek holodeck?  VR is getting ready to move decisively into the architectural design and construction industry. When you think about it, construction may be the most practical use for virtual reality.

Defining virtual reality use in construction

Virtual reality (VR) in construction is used to create and experience three-dimensional computerized building models before the ground is even broken at the jobsite. VR also enhances project management, design and workflow sequencing, and client interaction.

With VR, you can detect problems before construction begins because the designer can see, really see, whether or not an idea will work.

Virtual reality is a combination of computer graphics, wireless tracking technology, headsets, high definition projectors, polarized glass, and other technologies that have had most of the kinks worked out.

They all combine to provide an interactive experience that feels life-like.

History of virtual reality

Only six years ago, virtual reality was extremely limited, both by location and cost. VR was a highly specialized technology that required trained VR developers to build highly customized applications which were then limited to a specific location.

You had to go to a special room to be able to have the virtual reality experience. That room required a large investment for the room rental and the VR development.

Today the construction industry heavily uses virtual mock-ups, but these have a couple of shortcomings. The models are small-scale and highly detailed plans created using Building Information Management (BIM) applications. These models contain the same details or rooms that used to be created in a physical mock-up. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to show a three-dimensional representation on a computer monitor or overhead projector. The 3D information in the BIM model had to be flattened back into 2D for viewers to see it.

Current trends in virtual reality in construction

According to a survey of architecture, engineering, and construction professionals by ARC Document Solutions, Inc., 65% of them predicted virtual reality applications would be used for a better design experience before construction begins. Nearly as many expect VR to be commonly in use within five to ten years.

Virtual reality technology, along with drone usage, Big Data, and the Internet of Things (IoT), promises to provide many benefits to the industry.

Benefits of virtual reality usage in construction

The same survey referenced above broke down the data to determine where VR would see the most use. Over half said it would make project visualization easier; nearly as many thought it would speed up work completion. Others felt VR would result in the need for fewer workers and less material.

Since construction is well known for thin profit margins and low efficiency, anything that reduces cost savings and gets the building erected faster will be a big plus. Virtual reality is also expected to reduce construction errors because design viability testing that includes environmental factors can be performed with the 3D model, highlighting design and construction errors.

Predicted uses

Virtual reality has a number of predicted uses. One is in the realm of project management, where it will be used to enhance or replace 2D and 3D drawings. With a three dimensional experience, a PM will have better insight into the sequencing of the project, making planning and scheduling easier. Cost estimating will be another area where VR can make more accurate. Sustainability and facilities management can be planned and demonstrated through VR in a building process called “7D.”

Site surveys and planning are streamlined and more precise with a combination of virtual reality and drone flight. An engineer can perform a physical survey of the building site and illustrate 1:1 scale interior spaces for building systems such as HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and fire and lightning protection. Even acoustics can be better predicted with VR.

The best use may be the ability to give clients and workers a virtual walk-through “inside” the 3D space. Design discussions and collaboration are easily carried out. As people “move” inside the model, it is easier (and cheaper) to make live design modifications: moving partitions, walls, and furniture, or adding finishes to see how it looks.

VR can be leveraged for real-time analysis and problem-solving. Onsite, "augmented reality" could become the norm. Three-dimensional model layouts will be combined with GPS data of worker location within the model to show exactly where work needs to be performed. Workers may wear goggles or hold up tablets to find out where to install outlets or walls, or to understand the proximity of pipes and utilities to the workspace within an excavation.

Sid Newton, a professor and chartered quantity surveyor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, believes training and occupational safety and health can be improved using virtual reality.

Workers can learn new construction methods before going onsite or practice specific installation. They can “see” workplace accidents like electrocution, drowning, or falls more realistically and, hopefully, change their behavior patterns to stay safer.

Obstacles to virtual reality adoption

Virtual reality is still seen as something for the future instead of a technology that exists now. Memories of poorly executed VR in the 1980s and 1990s may still influence some opinions.

VR is also seen as an expensive investment that may not be as wonderful as everyone thinks. The project-based nature of construction doesn't allow project managers or other construction professionals to have an industry-wide trial or the chance to use VR on a regular basis to gain proficiency.

The “real” reality is that virtual reality is already somewhat ubiquitous and its use will continue to grow. Smaller projects with more modest trials require less investment of time and money, making implementation more attractive. Just don’t get taken away by any hype. Like any tool, it will take time to position virtual reality technology within the construction industry.

Virtual reality promises an expanded three-dimensional experience that will streamline planning, scheduling, budgeting, and construction work. Certainly, anything that can detect and resolve problems before anything is built will be welcome in an industry sometimes besieged by expensive boondoggles.

Clients can get a more realistic experience of the building they are asking for, and workers will make fewer errors when they can see exactly where something should be installed. Fewer utilities will be interrupted when the crew can "see" where they are digging in relation to underground pipelines.

Virtual reality will eventually become just as common in architectural offices and construction sites as hardhats. 

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