The use of Virtual Reality (VR) in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry is proving to be a complete game-changer. In the past, clients could only evaluate their construction project before building in the form of architectural sketches. Then there were the detailed 2D-renderings, or even walk-throughs in a 3D-environment generated on a computer screen. Today, we can encounter our future home or office building in a lifelike VR-environment. This gives us an increasingly better idea of what to expect. In this article, we will elaborate on the available VR technologies for construction firms.
Virtual Reality has been showcasing its success throughout many industries – most notably in automotive, oil & gas, universities, research centers and aerospace. In many cases, it has even altered the complete business, providing new ways of designing, manufacturing, and selling. For example, new car designs are visualized in VR environments continuously, allowing the engineers and designers to evaluate any alteration immediately. This allows them to experiment more freely, giving way to new ideas. Compare this to the former way of working, when wooden 3D models needed to be manually carved to evaluate every design prototype!
The AEC industry has always built physical models – often with quite spectacular results. These models were important to present the look and feel of the actual building environment. However, these miniatures are very time-consuming and expensive to build, and product materials and colors often don’t match reality. VR allows an inexpensive and faster way for modelling. This is mainly because 3D and Building Information Modelling (BIM) are already widespread in the industry. However, many contractors are facing a dilemma of which construction technology fit their projects best.
Narrow immersive environments (HMDs)
The best known narrow immersive environment is the head mounted display (HMD): a device worn as a headset or as part of a helmet. You probably have heard about the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. They are quite well-known in gaming, but have also found their way into the professional world. Many construction companies that are taking their first steps in VR are using such HMDs, smartphones or tablets. The most important motive for this, is because the investment is quite limited and the deployment is fast.
HMDs however have their limitations when it comes to collaboration and communication. They are in essence created for use by a single person. If multiple people are present, only one person is wearing a VR headset. All others are following his or her tracking on a monitor. The experience cannot be shared by all participants, creating an unbalanced experience. Furthermore, not being able to see the other person’s body language and facial expression can be very unpleasant in a collaboration context. The normal way of communicating is hindered so dramatically, that people most often take off the HMD before discussing and evaluating.
Another weak point of HMDs is comfort. They weigh quite a lot, and wearing them for a longer time is quite unpleasant. They also may mess up hair and make-up, making some people reluctant to put them on. Also field of view and screen resolution are quite limited, creating a suboptimal screen image. Last but not least, latency between the head movement and image response, often results in motion sickness.
Shared wide immersive environments
A wide immersive space, commonly known as a cave, is a physical environment consisting of multiple projection walls. Active 3D goggles are used, which are see-through and don’t cut you off from the real world. Team members then become jointly immersed into the 3D experience of a project. Multiple people can access such an immersive environment at the same time. It is therefore an ideal place to share experiences and to collaborate between several stakeholders. This includes such as architects, customers, contractors, engineers, investors, etc. It enables a high-end and social experience.
Wide immersive environments are very valuable assets in many areas of the construction industry. It allows maximizing design experiences between coworkers in large projects and enhances project collaboration and decision-making. For example, engineers and architects can visualize and discuss design decisions. Making quick adjustments of the VR models in real-time and view them in high quality is a great way to have valuable discussions. It also executes clash management in an early stage of the project. In this way, many difficulties and errors in construction can be detected early on and eliminated, before construction begins. This prevents delays and speeds up planning and the complete building process – preventing direct and indirect costs such as delay fines. The Return On Investment (ROI) of a wide immersive environment is therefore high.
Next to the obvious benefits during the design and planning phase, a cave environment is also an efficient sales & marketing tool. A virtual house or building gives sales people and marketers the opportunity to present products and services in an extraordinary way. The experience of wandering around inside your future property and changing materials and furniture, is a great experience for the customers. This provides building enterprises a huge advantage over the competition. A nice view of your future home can not only quicken the purchase, but it can also justify a first-rate price.
Also for training purposes, wide immersive environments are very effective. Instead of traveling to the construction site, experts can be trained in a time and cost-reducing way in a cave. Examples are architects, engineers and maintenance people. A simulated 3D environment allows them to understand what happens on-site in a safe and secure way. Furthermore, it shows the construction progress at any given date – enabling training the safety precautions upfront.
Reynaers Aluminium, a Barco customer, implemented a five-sided cave in 2017. The VR experience takes the procedure of operating in 3D to a whole other level. It provides an accurate sense of depth, environmental surroundings, natural light and scale from the initial phases of the design. The result is that the company is winning more projects today. Watch the video to get a feel of the solution.
HMDs are a great introduction into virtual reality. They allow viewing designs in an immersive 3D environment, in a quite cost-effective way. However, they often fall short of professional requirements. Because HMDs are in essence single-person solutions, they don’t allow viewing with multiple people. This means that collaboration and decision-making becomes extremely difficult. That is why wide immersive environments (caves) are a much better decision when big projects are involved. They allow the main stakeholders to collaborate in a more effective way, and give customers a realistic view of the architect’s ideas. This gives the building company an important edge over the competition.
Barco’s wide immersive environment solutions comprise a very wide portfolio, from standard cave systems to completely customized systems. In this way, the customer has the complete choice of setup, size, and image requirements. We even offer a transportable cave solution that allows you to take the virtual reality experience on the road. Check our webpage for more information!