How augmented reality can benefit the construction industry

There’s no doubt that Augmented Reality (AR) is having an effect on the construction trade.

The University of Cambridge is already working with HoloLens app developer Trimble to make use of Microsoft’s holographic technology in the sector. The outcome so far has been that on-site users wearing the HoloLens headset can see the architects’ design overlaid on to the actual construction – see image above.

Trimble has developed the SketchUp Viewer app as a result of the project, and the endgame is that inspectors will be able to use the information harvested from the HoloLens to see all the necessary information without actually going on site, and all this process will automatically detect dame in structures such as bridges, allowing early identification of solutions before the situation becomes an emergency.

Here, Gaia Dempsey, co-founder and director or public relations and marketing at AR and holographic technologies firm DAQRI, based in LA, talks with UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown about the emergence of AR and its application to the construction industry. DAQRI, she says, has technology built for the construction trade, rather than adapted for it….

How would you describe augmented reality to the uninitiated?

Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that overlays 3D digital content seamlessly onto the real world, using specialised hardware and software. For example, you could use AR to overlay digital building information modelling (BIM) data directly on a construction site to help spatially orient architects, construction workers, and clients. AR BIM data can provide both a preview of what the completed project will look like as well as operational guidance along the way.

What is your vision for the role augmented reality can play in the construction industry?

We believe that AR is one of the key innovations that will help to more tightly couple the design and build phases of construction, reducing excess back-and-forth and improving communication, quality and efficiency across all the stakeholders involved in making a new building a reality.

At the beginning of the cycle, architects and designers can use AR to visualise their work in a life-size format, and keep track of new model versions and changes. Beyond a simple display, AR can display information in the right spatial and task context, including all of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, as well as architectural details such as walls, colours, and textures, and even furniture. This means visualising the design onsite in its correct scale and orientation, showing its relationship to the landscape and any existing infrastructural features. This makes it possible to catch design issues early on, and make any necessary changes before construction begins.

After construction, many AEC firms are now taking on contracts to maintain the buildings they create. AR will serve as an essential link connecting design, construction and facility management, having captured all critical design decisions along the way, and providing a way to easily visualise all the information needed to inspect, repair, and upgrade infrastructure.

Is it fair to say that the introduction of augmented reality could be revolutionary in its applications across industry?

AR will be revolutionary in the workplace because it will set a new bar for “normal,” just like the internet and mobile devices have done in both our work and personal lives. Three decades of research in areas such as manufacturing, aerospace, and surgery have shown that AR training and task guidance significantly reduces errors, speeds up learning, and accelerates task completion time – literally making mental and physical tasks easier. AR has held this promise for a long time, but up until now, the missing link has been cost-effective and comfortable wearable hardware that is up to the task in terms of form factor, processing power, and robust tracking.

What role can augmented reality play in training?

AR can be used in training applications in much the same way that it is used in operations, and that’s exactly the benefit. AR makes higher training fidelity easy and cost-effective, ensuring that trainees experience life-size construction site models as they work their way through interactive content in an AR interface.

Is it the case that technology needs to be tailored to specifically to the construction industry rather than trying to utilise devices designed for the consumer market?

When it comes to using technology in work operations, both the hardware and the software need to be designed to fit into the environment. From privacy on the software side to ruggedization on the hardware side, most consumer devices simply don’t work in the demanding environment of a construction site. If the solution is tailored to fit the exact environment where it will be solving problems, it’s much more likely to succeed. That’s why the DAQRI Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses are designed from the ground up to work in places with lots of dirt, dust, and grime. They are meant to be handled like standard industrial equipment.

How different would you envisage the job of an average construction worker changing over the next 20 years in terms of technology? What innovations are we likely to see?

Twenty years is a long time! A lot sooner than that – in the next 5-10 years – I expect a lot of innovation to come online in the 3D sensing space that will change the construction industry from the inside out. There are already a lot of efforts to build a 3D map of the construction site, and merge that map with digital BIM designs.

In the future, 3D sensing capabilities will improve to the point that they’ll be able to deliver a sub-millimetre-accurate map of the world around us. Computing infrastructural improvements in areas like data compression, battery technology, and connectivity beyond the current push to 5G will allow that super intelligent map to be accessible to everyone, including the average construction worker, through their AR wearables.

Robotics and 3D printing will evolve a lot in this timeframe as well, resulting in construction workers’ jobs looking a lot different. Robots are already starting to build architectural structures today, and improvements in robot versatility will increase this trend. On the 3D printing side, it’s going to get faster, bigger, and capable of using more materials in a single print.

With these types of capabilities in place, construction workers will be more focused on programming and directing the activity of their new, quirky teammates.

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