New Views: Virtual and Augmented Reality For Mason Contractors

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in MASONRY, and because of the value virtual and augmented reality can provide to the entire design and construction process, we felt it was important to share in MASONRY DESIGN as well.

New technology is constantly coming into play for mason contractors, and one of the more unique forms of tech making its way into the construction industry is virtual reality. Virtual reality has the potential to change the masonry construction process all the way from the bidding, building, to project completion stages.

Virtual reality is defined as “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.”

Of all the technologies expected to impact the construction sector, one of the most critical areas likely to affect the industry over the short term revolves around virtual reality. According to one industry survey, nearly 2/3 of respondents believe VR technology use in construction will be commonplace within the next 5-10 years. When you read that stat, you may think that’s either great marketing by the industry or that it might actually be true. It has certainly spurred us to find out more and we’re delighted to share what we’ve found out.

Presenting the case for VR

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is expanding quickly within the construction industry worldwide. Particularly, the BIM-M, or Building Information Modeling for Masonry is also gaining traction. When combined with the BIM-M initiative, virtual reality poses a unique value to cutting-edge technology within the industry.

As of right now, many construction and masonry companies are not using virtual reality to its fullest potential. Obviously, VR is understood for its use as a design tool, but it can also allow accurate projections to be made during later phases of a project, including onsite for workers during the construction phase.

Before we come to describing how it works and what’s involved, it’s worth recapping on what exactly VR is and isn’t. We do this by touching on its history and explaining just why it should benefit mason contractors and what the challenges to its use are.

What is Virtual Reality and where did it all start?

The promise of commercial virtual reality (VR) has been around since the early 1990s. The initial decades of VR use were pretty unimpressive and it was given a low priority due to the rise of the Internet. However, the technology was revisited in 2012, with a new wave of hardware development.

Early adopters of VR included McCarthy Building Companies, DPR Construction and Gilbane. In a 2015 Fortune Magazine article detailing their use, McCarthy outlined how much easier it was for clients to make changes to a project prior to the construction process beginning. However, the firm had to build its own BIM Cave and use projectors and 3D glasses in order for several people to see what the space would look like. For many companies, this wasn’t a practical solution.

The evolution in the hardware really kicked off with Oculus Rift, then HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, which have since emerged as the major commercially viable VR headsets. It’s no longer necessary for contractors to build expensive setups and locations for people to “see” the project. Now, with a headset and compatible computer or gaming system, contractors can bring the project to the client with relative ease.

Display technology and graphical interfaces have improved significantly over the last decade to include smartphones and tablets. What’s more, VR can now be delivered to the construction industry at a more reasonable price.

Smartphones have allowed interested users to increase demand and test their appetite for VR headsets through affordable projects such as Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR as well as fueling a range of VR software applications such as Context VR and mobile apps.

Although the entertainment and automotive industries were early adopters of VR, the construction sector is not far behind. 65.3% of respondents to the same industry survey believe that VR can be used much more going forward in both design and construction practice as it provides a highly immersive experience for users.

Virtual Reality

VR typically refers to technologies that use VR headsets to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that replicate a real environment or create an imaginary setting. It provides a realistic, immersive simulation of a 3D 360° environment, created using interactive hardware and software. Its experienced or controlled by movement of the body or as an interactive experience generated by a computer.

VR can also simulate a user’s physical presence in this environment. A person using VR equipment is able to “look around” the artificial world, and with high quality VR, move about in it, and interact with features or items depicted in the headset.

Headsets are head-mounted goggles. These can be worn over glasses, and can cost anywhere from $15 for the entry-level Google Cardboard to $600 for the Oculus Rift. Note, that those prices do not include the compatible computer or gaming system necessary to display the VR content.

Why Is Virtual Reality Important For Mason Contractors?

VR (along with AR, outlined in the sidebar) has great potential for the construction industry, both for third party companies making virtual environments, and those making programs in-house. It is a versatile construction tool and its applications can be used in multiple areas, including for construction management in the field.

VR is a visualization tool that allows users to experience models in an unparalleled way. In that sense, it is useless without models. In order for masonry to benefit from VR, high quality masonry models need to be developed.

Two kinds of models are very powerful in VR. The first is LOD 350 to LOD 400 coordination model that can be used for clash detection. At CAD BLOX, we routinely develop these models and are actively using them in VR with great results. There is not an active business around this experience yet, but that seems to be quickly changing. Companies like IrisVR are promoting VR solutions for coordination that allow multiple users to explore a single model together. They can talk to each other, mark up the models together, and resolve design and clashes without leaving the VR space. As these solutions expand, you will see VR find its place in construction. But again, these solutions are only accessible to those who have trade models in the first place.

The second type of model that is actively used in VR is a design visualization model. These models do not need to be heavy LOD 350 models. The purpose of this VR experience is to show a building, typically to an owner or designer. That renders in realistic materials and can give an incredible look into the future of a finished design. Masonry is a challenging material to represent well in this space. The Masonry iQ Revit plugin allows a design model to be rendered in materials that represent the basis of design and the exact bond pattern used for the material. Range of material can be accurately rendered. A model of this type can be rendered in a matter of minutes and ready to go in VR. It allows masonry to be presented in all it’s glory in VR on a design model.

Both of these solutions are available to the industry today. What is lacking at this time is awareness of how to best apply VR for all it’s worth. If VR delivers all it promises, and I believe it will, then it won’t be long before business finds valuable ways to integrate this technology.

VR improves on previous masonry construction processes, benefitting it in several ways.

The same survey mentioned earlier revealed that easier visualization and faster completion are the top two benefits for the construction management.

VR Allows For Easier Visualization Of Construction

For project stakeholders, a VR experience provides a realistic vision. For many verbal instructions or written layouts leave room for interpretation. VR brings a specific vision to life, stimulates collaboration among teams, and allows changes to be made more easily.

As it’s hard for stakeholders, including contractors, to understand any implications of changes that are made, VR assists designers and contractors to communicate building envelopes and interior changes as projects are built in ways that aren’t possible with BIM models and 3D CAD drawings alone. It offers a chance to simulate how spaces will look, including at a life-size scale, and for them to show their clients the implications of changes that they require. At any stage in the process this can reduce the potential of delay and added costs involved with unforeseen changes. Thus, it should improve a client’s return on investment.

VR Speeds The Construction Management Process

Using VR makes it easier to build complex projects, since documenting projects is a time-consuming (and so costly) part of the process. VR can be simplify the process, by allowing teams to see the set goals for the day, track any changes without the need for a new sheet, and track the overall project’s workflow and scheduling.

VR encourages collaboration

VR allows for greater collaboration and coordination between contractors, designers and owners. Combined with BIM-M, VR (and AR) can help bridge some of what can be frequently be lost in translation between contractors and designers. Some established construction companies are using VR to plan, manage, construct and even market projects.

VR will speed up the decision-making process thanks to improved communication and instant feedback from all parties involved. Multiple people in different locations can interact with the virtual environment simultaneously.

Many problems and errors in construction projects stem from poor communication. When collaborating partners are able to present and explain changes in a shared space looking at the same “reality,” misunderstandings and errors are unlikely to occur.

VR comes into its own where there is a lack or sparse photo documentation that constructors use to protect themselves against liability claims, or in case there are schedule disputes about what was the state of project at a specific time.

VR Helps Quality and Accuracy

Through VR, clash detection, omissions and errors can be found on a 3D model during the construction process. This data can assist in rectifying the information before further construction takes place. Coupled with this computer-generated imagery updated in real-time through the VR process, this helps all concerned to visualize the next stage or end result, offer a means of quality control, improves accuracy and even gives the possibility of improved health and safety.

It is useful for establishing how deep excavations are, seeing in 3D whether or not they need to go deeper, or how close they are to underground pipes or utilities.

VR Aids In Training And Safety

Through VR, workers can learn and trial new construction methods in a highly experiential way before going on site. In this way, VR can lead to changing the onsite behavior patterns of workers with regard to health and safety.

VR Is Not Expensive

Some say that VR is a somewhat common technology available right now, which you don’t ‘own’ in a traditional sense. There are many different applications that require a number of smaller steps involving modest investments and trials in terms of adoption rather than a large singular investment.

By utilizing wearable VR gadgets, such as headsets, and associated software and apps more frequently, many will begin to recognize the benefits of VR technology described above.

How Is It Created And What Is Available To Mason Contractors?

A variety of technologies, like 3D laser scanning and images collected from drones are used to create realistic pictures within VR digital models.

VR Hardware

The two leading Virtual Reality platforms are Oculus Rift and the Valve & HTC Vive.

These can combine with head tracking and eye tracking technology and other peripherals like game console controls, or motion tracking with controls with infrared sensors. Things like omnidirectional treadmills can even allow a user to “move” about the virtual environment and interact with objects.

VR headsets are the most common hardware items, but smart headsets, glasses, and helmets (like the Augmented Reality DAQRI Smart Helmet®) are also available to contractors.

These are compatible with AutoCAD and BIM-M, provided that a compatible computer is used along with the headset.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift came onto the market in 2012. It is an immersive high quality visor. In 2016, Oculus developer kits (second version) came onto the market.

VR headsets such as the Oculus can provide an enhanced BIM cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE) where you can walk around and track body and eye position.

Valve and HTC Vive

Another immersive high-quality visor is HTC Vive.

VR Software

Context VR

Context VR is a software application that allows users to take 360° photos of construction sites, store them in the cloud and render them easily accessible to them, integrating them with project documents. Each dot represents an interactive 360° photo. It has been used for high rise apartment tower buildings as well as complex medical and industrial projects.

Users can pin photos to points on blueprint PDFs to show relative locations within buildings and construction progress over time. Photos are viewable on VR headsets (it also has an “AR mode” allows users to see inside buildings using photos taken earlier in the process).

What Are The Primary Challenges To VR In The Masonry Industry?

It’s Not Just For Gaming

Although the benefits of VR are becoming well known, its main obstacle lies in the public perception of it. As it originated from the entertainment industry, through video games, some are wary of adapting its use for actual occupational use.

Design Stage Using It Most

VR has been given the most attention during the design stage, as it offers clients the opportunity to ‘walk through’ and ‘experience’ the building as it will function and appear when the final as-built product is delivered.

Increasingly, and arguably urgently as all stakeholders in the sector strive to improve productivity, increasing importance and should be given to the benefits and potential of its use for the field. That’s why mason contractors should at least look into the technology now, before the design surges ahead and capitalizes on the use before it even gets to the building stage.

What can be done to counter the challenges and reap the benefits of VR in the masonry construction sector?

Changing the perception of VR and increasing its application in more professional settings, such within the construction masonry sector will help expand the technology. For this to happen, more construction companies must apply it. This will help showcase the benefits of this technology, and most likely provide a useful marketing boost for the companies using it.

We believe that the emphasis of VR being an ¨experience technology¨ is critical to this. As a VR ¨experience technology¨ can used across many sectors such as residential, hospitality, healthcare, and commercial in two key ways: by empowering the younger generation and facilitating health and safety training.

Using VR For Health and Safety Training

Safety training using VR could possibly prevent fatal tragedies, a simulated construction site can show how and where to use safety precautions and site progress at any given time.

If new hires and apprentices are given the opportunity to be immersed within a virtual construction site with a variety of potential hazards and unsafe practices, it gives them first-hand immersive experiences of hazards before even getting to a job site. Subsequently, they can share that experience with peers and discuss what could be done to better manage risk in such situations.

VR simulation is created in the following way: BIM or CAD files are placed into a computer or gaming engine to create the virtual environment. A pair of 2D images, one for each eye, are transmitted to the screens of the head mounted display. Lenses in the headset are angled to create a stereoscopic effect which makes the two 2D images appear as a 3D image.

Words: Masonry Design Magazine
Photos: Masonry Magazine, Oculus Rift, HTC