The reality of augmented reality

The following is the first part of a series on augmented reality in the AEC industry. 

While most people’s only exposure to augmented reality is that thin yellow line marking how far their favorite football team has to move the ball to complete a first down, the technology that overlays digital images on top of reality is no longer relegated to sports broadcasts. Augmented reality (AR) currently sits on the bleeding edge of several industries and sectors and is especially poised to become a mainstream tool in the architecture, engineering and construction fields.

In fact, Digi-Capital, a well-respected technology consultant and researcher, projected that revenues by businesses using virtual and augmented reality could hit $150 billion by 2020.

“That’s remarkable,” Paul Doherty — the president and CEO of the digit group, which designs and builds “smart cities” — told us. “We’re talking about stuff that only a few years ago was just in science fiction movies but … we’re living in a world where there are a lot of different experiments going on.”

Most people are familiar with “virtual reality,” but many people still don’t know “augmented reality” by name. The difference between these often-confused technologies is that virtual reality immerses a user in an entirely animated world while augmented reality superimposes graphics or computer-generated images over a user’s view of actual reality.

AR’s potential in the construction industry is undeniable.

Some developers are already using it to sell residential units before the condos are even finished. Instead of imagining what an empty living space under construction might look like completed, potential buyers can stand inside the unfinished walls and use a tablet or AR headset to see what their customized finishes, furniture and appliances would look like in the space — flipping through computer-generated custom finish options right before their eyes similar to Ikea’s AR app. Augmented reality’s ability to boost early condo sales is not only tremendous, but it’s also a real estate developer’s dream come true.

Similarly, AR could have a significant impact on the healthcare sector. Doctors, nurses and even patients could don augmented reality goggles while standing in the middle of an unfinished high-tech operating room prior to its design being completed. Overlaying the virtual images of state-of-the-art operating equipment, beds and cabinets, the person could provide valuable input on the locations and positioning of those items based on the actual physical layout and spacing in the room, minimizing expensive and time-consuming design changes that typically occur after the equipment and furniture is already installed.

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AR glasses, combined with Building Information Modeling (BIM) technologies, can also help architects and contractors anticipate design conflicts with plumbing, electrical work and mechanical infrastructure earlier in the process by providing an accurate visual reference, rather than merely a 3D image trapped inside a computer screen.   

Augmented reality isn’t just useful during the design phase. The technology can also prove valuable during construction. In the field, AR helmets such as DAQRI’s Smart Helmet, currently being beta tested, could free a worker’s hands while performing technical tasks. Workers using AR can read instructions in their field of vision rather than constantly having to refer to an instruction manual or tablet, saving time and minimizing mistakes. Products such as the Microsoft HoloLens headset could allow you to see your project rise before your eyes as you walk through the job site. And Austin, Texas-based Zebra Imaging is presenting architectural renderings as holograms.

Doherty, who blogged about AR for Construction Executives Tech Trends in 2014, just before it became such a hot topic in the industry, believes augmented reality could be used much more widely in the construction industry today.

“It’s funny when you write about something and people are like ‘whaaaat?’” Doherty said, “and then a year later it’s the big thing. Timing is everything and AR is getting to the proverbial tipping point.”

We will be exploring augmented reality more deeply in the coming months with reviews of specific AR technologies and uses in the industry. In the meantime, check out DAQRI’s Crayola Color Alive AR app with your kids. 

This post was written by Justin Rice. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

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