On the verge: Virtual reality reaches a tipping point in AEC

The following is the first post in a series on how immersive reality technologies such as virtual reality and CAVE rooms are reaching a tipping point in the AEC industry. Check back during National Safety Week (May 2-6) for our next installment about using virtual reality to improve safety trainings.

Gunnar Skeie recently sent a building information model to the organizers of a workshop on immersive visualization technology for construction at Scalable Display Technologies.  Only a week later, he was standing between a red sofa and a giant interactive panoramic computer screen mounted on an orange accent wall in Scalable’s lofted office space in Cambridge, Mass. Putting on the new HTC Vive virtual reality headset, Skeie’s mouth fell agape as he was instantaneously transported to a sun-splashed atrium with a four-story floating staircase. He craned his neck to observe the skylight overhead and instinctively reached out his hand to navigate around furniture. Skeie intently inspected every nook and cranny of the virtual version of a BIM model he spent a year crafting and could now see in an entirely new way.

“Mind blowing,” the virtual design in construction manager for Norwegian construction company Kruse Smith told us after pulling the VR goggles off his head as if he was coming up for air. “I was actually able to go into the atrium and see what the glass elevator shafts are going to look like.

“I’m sure our client would have loved it and the tenants would have loved it. To have that as a tool to communicate the design throughout the phases would be fantastic.”

While it only took the workshop’s organizers a few days to create this VR world, it would have taken months to convert a CAD, BIM or Revit model into a high-quality virtual reality experience for owners just a few years ago. And spending so much time on VR canabilized the time needed to design the physical structure itself. But this once laborious process has been streamlined by the advent of computer engines used for video game systems. New software programs that are quickly becoming more compatible with VR headsets are also making this process more feasible than ever.

Owners no longer have to try to imagine what it will be like to walk through their building based on drawings presented to them on a 2D computer screen that only their architects can fully decode. They can simply step inside the building by slipping on VR goggles. Owners could walk around a space, turn around and even look in another direction to gaze at what the views will be like from every vantage point. While a blueprint can give them the exact dimensions of a room, VR will given them a true sense of how big a room will feel.

The new reality

The workshop was organized by VR guru, Jeffrey Jacobson, Ph.D, who kicked off the event by asking the attendees how much they knew about using VR in the AEC industry.

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Dr. Jeffery Jacobson specializes in adapting immersive reality technologies for the AEC industry.

“Six months ago I wouldn’t have asked you that because you wouldn’t have had much to say; seriously,” Jacobson said after everyone shared their knowledge. “At that time there were only four companies in town doing anything with VR: Suffolk, Turner and a couple others. Now there are 14 construction and architecture firms doing some level of VR.

“Some of them are just using Google Cardboard and the Gear VR and others are taking it all the way by doing real work with real clients. So it’s happening very quickly.”

Jacobson told the group that we have come a long way since the first VR ventures in the 1990s and 2000s that were shelved because they were too expensive and sometimes gave people motion sickness. They were also clunky to wear. The files they used were huge too.

But interest in VR was piqued again when video game platforms such as Oculus Rift were released about three years ago. Early adopters in the AEC industry used Oculus to allow owners to walk the corridors of their building virtually so they can make more informed decisions about how to physically build. BIM CAVE rooms finally became affordable around the same time. The technology uses projection screens and 3D glasses that allow multiple people to move through the virtual interior of a building simultaneously. Most notably, it has been used to design operating rooms. After entering the CAVE, doctors and nurses can move through the space and use an Xbox controller to virtually move permanent appliances such as sinks to figure out where they would best be placed in an operating room.

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Chunjie Duan of Red Point Positioning uses an Xbox controller to navigate the CAVE at Scalable Display during a recent immersive reality workshop at Scalable Display Technologies in Cambridge, Mass.

Faster than fast

In general, it’s getting so much easier to translate a 3D BIM model from its 2D flatscreen display and project it inside a customized VR landscape. But not all of the software needed to convert a BIM model into virtual reality works at the push of a button. The technology, however, is getting pretty close to being plug-and-play.

Jacobson said there’s a variety of software for converting BIM models into VR models, some of which perform the feat instantaneously. These softwares range from free open-sourced video game engines to a $40,000 software called TechViz that literally rips 3D BIM data from a computer’s video card and automatically displays it in VR.

“It’s very expensive, very powerful,” Jacobson said of TechViz. “But If you want it to be really beautiful you have to do the work by hand and that does take skill to have the full control over it. Even TechViz will only give you a certain level of visual detail. So if you are doing high-quality finishes you want someone skilled in a game engine.”

Tipping point

Ever since Oculus and the CAVE were released, the visual immersion landscape has grown exponentially. In the last month alone, the latest generation of VR headsets have started to hit the marketplace. Ranging in prices from $300 to $800, these new headsets are more affordable than ever.

Jacobson believes these headsets will be commonplace in construction industry in five to 10 years.

“I’m like a 3-year-old on a sugar high you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this.”

Jacobson won’t have to wait much longer if the quality of virtual reality continues to grow and continues to decrease in price. We will soon see a day when an owner would not dream of putting a shovel in the ground without first touring a building virtually.

Stay tuned for future posts about how virtual reality and other immersive technologies such as augmented reality and mixed reality could move beyond the design phase of buildings and be applicable in construction itself. 

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer 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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