High tech, low bar

No learning curve with these AEC innovations

Your workload is big enough already. You don’t want to spend a lot of time learning how to use a new tool. Of course, the up-front investment of time should translate into time savings down the road. Yet the reluctance to learn something new, along with other factors, can pose a big barrier to tech adoption.

So it’s welcome news when an innovation promises to improve practices or workflow without requiring a day to figure out how to use it. In that vein, we take a look at some new products with potential. These advances in familiar technology aim to improve upon things you already use, whether in the office, trailer, or job site.

A VR vision, easy to view

“For a technology to crack the mainstream,” wrote the New York Times in January, “there is an unspoken understanding: It shouldn’t make the people who use it want to throw up.” And yet, the Times reported, at the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, the presenters of one 3D headset made barf bags available to users, just in case. It seems that wearing virtual reality goggles can be not only disorienting but sometimes literally nauseating.

A new app called Building Conversation removes these barriers by putting virtual and augmented reality on a tablet or smart phone. Imagine an architect and a developer standing at the edge of an empty lot. The architect simply hands over an iPad; the developer aims it at the site; and a 3D vision of the tower appears on the screen, overlaid atop the real-life view. If their meeting takes place instead in a boardroom, the tablet can be pointed at the table, where, through the screen, a holographic model of the building appears. A contractor and subcontractor can use the app to virtually walk through a model of the building. In whichever mode users select, they can pan through or around the image as they move. No goggles—or barf bag—required.

There’s less of a “wow” factor than with an immersive headset, but the image is clear enough and the ease of use can’t be beat. Plus, by allowing stakeholders to literally share the vision, passing the tablet back and forth and looking at the same 3D image together, this twist on VR/AR technology brings back the human interaction that is essential in project development.

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Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod

As work begins on the expansion of Suffolk Construction’s headquarters—which was celebrated with a high-tech virtual groundbreaking—we explore the ancient roots, and some colorful examples, of the groundbreaking tradition.

Like knocking on wood, crossing your heart, or crossing the street to avoid a black cat (particularly around Halloween), there are some rituals—rooted in antiquity, maybe in prehistory—that most of us carry on to this day, whether or not we consider ourselves superstitious.

So it is with the time-honored tradition of the construction-site groundbreaking ceremony. Just as a shipbuilder wouldn’t launch a craft without first smashing a champagne bottle on its prow, a developer might feel amiss were a structure to rise without a gathering of dignitaries and a plunging of shovels into earth at some early stage of the project. In a few cases, dynamite, sledgehammers, airplanes, or green smoke have been used to liven up the proceedings, as you’ll see below.

The precise origins of the groundbreaking—better known in previous decades as the “sod turning” or “turning the first spadeful of earth”—are obscured by the mists of time, but the ritual exists in nearly all cultures the globe over. In some ancient traditions, breaking the ground was considered an act painful to the earth, requiring a sacrifice to compensate. To take one gruesome example, centuries ago the Tlingit people of Alaska would kill slaves and bury them under the corner post of a new longhouse.

Less horrifying religious rites persist to this day. In India, homebuilders ask permission from Bhoomi (Mother Earth) before disturbing her. To restore equilibrium to the site, an elaborate series of rituals includes burying a box containing gold, silver, coriander seeds, a whole betel nut, and a stick of turmeric, among other items carrying significance.

In the same way, Japanese builders placate the local kami, or god of the land, and pray for the safety of the construction workers with a Shinto purification rite, known as a jichinsai. A priest marks off a sacred space with four bamboo poles and sets up an altar with offerings of food and sake, or rice wine, which is poured on the four corners of the construction site. Wooden tools are then used to break ground.

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An altar used during a Shinto rite to purify a construction site.

In the 1960s, a city assemblyman charged that this spectacle, at the site of a public gymnasium, violated the nation’s constitution (which, like ours, provides for the separation of church and state). The case went all the way to Japan’s supreme court, which found that the civic ceremony did not promote or subsidize the Shinto religion.

In Western nations, too, it’s been common in modern times for developers to invite priests or other clergy to offer a prayer or otherwise take part in a groundbreaking, despite our generally secular public life. As in Japan, old customs die hard. Besides, a little blessing can’t hurt!

And maybe builders should be a bit superstitious. The Panama Canal was initially, in the 1880s, a French undertaking. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, in our terms the project executive, attempted a bicoastal ceremony: He turned the first sod on the Atlantic end of the planned canal, then traveled by train and boat to the Pacific end. But stormy seas—or too much champagne, according to one account—prevented de Lesseps from landing. He scheduled another ceremony, in which exploding dynamite would kick off the project, but the charge fizzled.

So did the project. That first canal effort ended in failure; the Americans later picked up where the French had left off.

Dynamite was used successfully to inaugurate the Long Island Parkway in New York in 1908 (“a stick of dynamite blew high in the air an impeding tree,” wrote one observer) and the Massachusetts Turnpike in 1962. (“I only wish some of my critics were sitting on top of that ledge,” said turnpike planner William F. Callahan before pressing the plunger and dissolving the offending ledge in a burst of green smoke.)

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Source: The Boston Globe

In Boston in the 1970s, the Lewis Wharf condo development began with a “water-breaking,” in which a huge anchor was lifted from the harbor, and one hotel owner let his 20-month-old granddaughter commence a project with a “sand-turning” in a sandbox.

For ceremonies in California, skydivers have floated to earth bearing golden shovels, and “a two-story replica of a personal computer emerged from the ground in a high-tech industrial park,” according to the L.A. Times. The mayor of Brea once started a project with a backhoe; the machine lurched wildly, scattering the assemblage.

Suffolk Construction Breaks Ground on HeadquartersHow far has the ritual come since the days of human sacrifice, or even green smoke? Pretty far, to judge by the virtual groundbreaking at Suffolk’s headquarters expansion (left). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh joined Suffolk executives in donning virtual-reality headsets and scooping dirt that existed only in a 3D video-game-style environment—visible to those wearing the goggles, and projected as well on a large screen for the benefit of the audience. With each shovelful of pixelated earth, a 3D model of the building-to-be would rise from the ground in stages, as if by magic.

As far as we know, this is the first time a virtual groundbreaking has been done. Can anyone tell us different? Or offer your own unusual or innovative takes on the ceremony? Let’s hear your comments!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Three ways virtual reality could improve safety trainings

In honor of OSHA’s 2016 Safety Week, part two of our series on virtual reality in the construction industry focuses on, what else, safety. Click here to check out the first post in our series.

Professional Man Wearing Virtual Reality Headset

With all of the new virtual reality headsets hitting the marketplace these days, it’s easy to write off VR as child’s play. But the truth is that the magic of gaming has the potential to transform a number of industries, including construction. And safety is one of the most applicable use cases for anyone considering investing in this burgeoning technology. Imagine if a construction worker could be transported from the training room to the jobsite simply by putting on a headset. They could actually see a hoist tipping or feel themselves losing balance while walking across raised beams.

Being immersed in these dangerous scenes would no doubt plant a seed of caution in the worker’s mind before they even step on site. VR could encourage them to make thoughtful decisions virtually before they make a mistake in reality.

Due to weather conditions and other variables, a VR simulation could never depict a construction site 100 percent accurately. But virtual simulators have proven to be an effective training ground for police, Marines and pilots. A study conducted by the Navy found that student pilots using Microsoft’s Flight Simulator were 54 percent more likely to score above-average in real life flight tests.

Similarly, the latest virtual reality technologies could take construction industry safety trainings to the next level. While the critical but basic tenants of trainings would not change, such as tutorials, safety orientations, qualifications, etc., VR could raise the bar on the kinds of training companies could provide their workers to keep them and others safe. Here are some practical examples of how VR could augment traditional safety trainings:

  1. Workers inside the VR jobsite could be presented with a scenario in which they have to point out all the possible hidden dangers in front of them, such as live wires, misplaced ladders or a worker cutting a small piece of steel with his protective goggles on top of his hardhat and not over his eyes.
  2. If a real accident occurs on the job, it could be recreated virtually to teach workers how to avoid the same mistake twice. Only an animated avatar would suffer the consequences of unsafe acts on the jobsite. One example could be a worker setting up a swing stage. One side of the swing stage slips down and strikes his left shoulder causing a minor abrasion. Experiencing this in VR would teach workers how to avoid making this same mistake on a real project site.
  3. VR could also become a much more effective platform for teaching workers how to safely perform their daily duties in a virtual environment. This could include navigating confined spaces, safely setting up ladders, welding or preventing fires from breaking out on the job.
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Can you spot the safety infractions in this virtual construction scene? (Image courtesy of Inge Knudsen)

But the training room is not the only place VR can be valuable. VR could also be used to conduct safety inspections that are closely tied to scheduling. For example, the safety precautions for a specific task, such as erecting concrete precast planks, could be simulated weeks in advance before it is performed on the job so that everything is in place once construction begins.

While this is a tantalizing use case that could become a mainstay in the future, training is still the most practical and immediate use for VR when it comes to construction safety. Most people learn by doing, so oftentimes the most effective trainings drive home safety through real onsite scenarios and case studies. Using virtual reality to create a dynamic and lasting visual cue for construction workers would make all the difference in classroom safety trainings. Being immersed in dangerous situations virtually would surely cause workers to pause before engaging in an unsafe activity on a project site. And sometimes that short pause can be the difference between getting hurt — or worse — and staying safe.

This post was written by Suffolk Northeast’s Project Administrator Lindsay Davis. If you have questions, she can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com. Suffolk National Safety Director Gary Cunningham and Suffolk Content Writer Justin Rice contributed to this post.

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.

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HoloLens and Trimble collaboration transforming construction technology

The following is the second post in our series on augmented reality in the AEC industry. Check out Part 1 here.

While the release date of Microsoft’s holographic headset HoloLens is hotly anticipated, we were excited to get a first-hand rundown of Trimble’s new applications for the head-mounted computer earlier this month.

During a videoconference Trimble’s Mixed Reality Program Director, Aviad Almagor, was kind enough to walk us through the ins and outs of Trimble’s collaboration with Microsoft on the HoloLens project. While Trimble is known for its GPS receivers, laser rangefinders and unmanned aerial vehicles, it has gradually ramped up its Building Information Modeling (BIM) portfolio since buying the 3D modeling software package SketchUp from Google in 2012. Now Trimble’s newest generation of tools for the AEC industry, including SketchUp, Trimble® Connect and Trimble V10 Imaging Rover are being developed in lockstep with HoloLens.

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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.”

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