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Industry Updates

How to Transform Construction, One Hologram at a Time


It wasn’t long ago that references to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) conjured up futuristic and science fiction images. But technology moves fast, and today these tools are integral in the drive towards digital transformation that is taking the global business community by storm. 

The construction industry is one that is poised for massive changes from emerging technologies like AR, VR and MR. In one recent instance, an architect designed a new hospital, built a model and then went to a large empty building to present the model using mixed reality so the hospital team could visualize the space as if they were actually in the new hospital. 

As they were walking through the design, a nurse noticed that the location of the ice machine was very far from the nurses’ station, and that nurses would waste time going back and forth between the two. As a result, the designer was able to move the ice maker closer to the nurses’ station before execution, which avoided having to change the design in the middle of construction. 

More and more examples of changes like this one — both simple and complex — are being identified in earlier phases of construction through immersive technology. Still, there remains some uncertainty in the business community about what these tools actually do, and references to VR, MR and AR are often used interchangeably. 

While they all enhance real-life experiences both inside and outside of the workplace, they are all distinctly different. For those considering purchasing — or even for those considering talking about — immersive technology, it’s important to understand the differences between them.

Know the Lingo

VR is a fully immersive technology that secludes the user to visualize and interact with purely digital content with sight, sound and gestures. Using a screen-enabled headset, VR creates a completely artificial environment that removes the physical context around the user.

AR combines the physical and virtual worlds by overlaying digital information into the user’s environment, typically through the two-dimensional display of a tablet or mobile phone. AR is like a digital “window” that displays digital content overlaid on the physical surrounding the user occupies.

MR technology blends real-world objects with digital content, interactively and in real-time. Together with holographic technology, it brings the models out of the screen and helps people efficiently interpret physical and digital information, and the spatial relations between them. In the construction industry, for example, mixed reality provides a way to help contractors support complex modeling processes and improve opportunities for collaboration across projects.

More than simply the ability to look at the model of a building construction project, advanced mixed reality solutions give users access to critical building information modeling (BIM) data embedded within project components. By visualizing and “walking through” their projects in the digital world — like the nurse in the virtual hospital — construction teams can route changes and RFIs much more quickly and accelerate the pre-construction process. 

They can also identify site issues earlier to reduce downstream rework and prevent chaos during the coordination. This helps contractors shorten project schedules, reduce costs, eliminate rework and support additional workflows like on-site assembly, progress tracking using 4-D models and even asset management.

Mixed reality helps field workers know exactly what task to perform and provides instant feedback to help identify clashes or differences between a building construction model and the as-built environment. When field workers can see their models overlaid in the physical environment, more precise collaboration, project tracking and project coordination are possible.

Clash Detection and Quality Assurance

One of the biggest areas where immersive technologies provide cost savings is through the ability to pre-check installation plans with the current as-built to identify clashes and ensure the fit of pre-fabricated parts before sending orders to manufacturers. Users can also track progress and coordinate between trades and verify on-time and in-place installs.

Recently, workers on a new office building project used mixed reality to “tour” the in-progress jobsite and noticed multiple clashes in the duct work between the 3-D model and the actual construction that had not been noticed on the paper model. Using an integrated workflow with mixed reality, the workers were able to discover the issue, log it into the application and sync the information with the people in office and then with the pre-fabricator. 

All this was done without anyone having to leave the site or make a call. If this change wasn’t discovered or communicated ahead of time, it would have resulted in a costly rework on the jobsite. The average cost of a late-state change-order is approximately $9,600 per incident. The contractor estimated that discovering these clashes early saved them between 8 to 14 percent on the project.

Guided Assembly and Training

Another big benefit of immersive technologies is the ability they provide for users to step through assembly tasks hands-free using voice commands for pre-fabrication builds, or to train new workers how to assemble components in a digital environment.

Prefabrication is a big opportunity for mixed reality. For example, if a worker is putting a steel cage together and gets 10 steps along and finds a mistake, it is very time consuming and costly to go back and fix it. On a recent prefabrication project, workers used mixed reality sequencing technology to visualize the 3-D overlay of the constructed piece of the building and actually visualize what they were doing. 

In this situation, first-time assemblers used the mixed reality headset to build a rebar cage and were able to do the work three times faster than the trained workers. In a pre-construction environment, this can also greatly reduce the potential for errors and time and materials expenses.

Mixed reality is transforming the construction industry — and the larger global business community — by improving the understanding and communication of complex spatial conditions through a truly immersive experience. Mixed reality provides a way to help construction companies support complex modeling processes and improve opportunities for collaboration across projects. By combining the real world with the virtual world, construction companies are supporting a new way of working with models and coordination throughout the building lifecycle, providing stakeholders with the most up-to-date data on their worksite.

Jordan Lawver has led the product management and marketing activities for Trimble Building’s mixed-reality product portfolio for the last five years. For more information, visit mixedrealty.trimble.com.