Augmenting The Future

OP TECHNOLOGYBy Dr. Eunseok Park 

Having long been set in its traditional ways of manual processes, the building construction industry is quietly undergoing a revolution by adopting innovative technologies to enhance jobsite safety and efficiency. This includes drones, IoT, and augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). The result is a big opportunity for construction companies to differentiate themselves through their application of disruptive technology.

A panel discussion among construction professionals and project managers at the Groundbreak 2017 conference in Austin explored the rising trend of AR and VR. In many ways, the outlook for AR and VR in construction matches the current trajectory of these technologies overall. Although neither technology has reached mass adoption just yet, VR has been first to enter mainstream consciousness, but AR has more long-term potential. And just like other industries, there’s a reason for this in construction.

Construction companies are currently adopting VR more widely than AR largely due to the hardware development of the two technologies. Groundbreak panelists explained that the primary use of VR for construction today is to create immersive walkthroughs to better understand simulations of physical spaces. Users can interact with virtual environments, move equipment or materials around, test project plans, and more. This is where eye-tracking, hand-tracking and positional tracking capabilities can come into play. 

The idea for VR in construction is to create a 4-D model and go inside of it to help customers make more informed decisions earlier in the bidding process, which saves both time and money. This also allows companies to support their customers more collaboratively. Customers can feel more confident in their decisions during the mockup process and participate more actively in the planning stages. Much like gaming, VR can already do a lot in this regard, so it’s been easier for companies to adopt.

The Promise of AR

AR, meanwhile, has the potential to be used more broadly, but its intended use is more complex. With overlays of digital information over the real world, users can interact with their physical environments, access and share information in compelling new ways and utilize actionable data in real time. For construction, this means enabling workers not only to take the technology into the field, but also to communicate the data they collect with project managers and stakeholders who aren’t on site. 

Enabling these capabilities will require hardware such as smart helmets or smart glasses that can be worn in the field. Every construction worker needs to wear a helmet. The next logical step is to apply AR glass technology to the equipment. And unlike the consumer market, there’s no need to consider the fashion element for this application, which eliminates additional development hurdles; the primary goal is safety and functionality.

While VR can be used as a simulation process to inform the building process, AR can be used in the actual construction stage—both horizontal and vertical. Its capabilities have the potential to guide workers on the jobsite with structural information, tool and process analysis and more. Because of these applications, AR will be used much more intensively than VR during the overall timeline of a construction project, which can last months. However, implementing AR into construction is no easy task.

Because AR requires complex software functionality and compatible hardware, it’s not quite ready to fit the needs of construction companies yet. There are current limitations that must be overcome, such as solving the interoperability challenge, optimizing 3-D modeling for high-end AR applications, and addressing skill-set limitations—programs don’t train people for the same type of gaming tech used for recreating virtual environments.

Still, although AR hardware development is further behind than VR in construction, the Groundbreak panelists generally agreed that AR will be much more valuable down the road. One reason is because AR is more applicable for getting data to the field, such as overlaying building information modeling (BIM) representations and embedding data in real time over maps and other areas of the jobsite. Enabling companies to see what their workers see in the field is a fascinating concept with numerous benefits.

Consider some of the many advantages AR can enable in this context:

  • Advanced training methods to test and prepare workers for different jobsite conditions;
  • On-demand equipment inspection and insights into building materials;
  • Real-time safety and quality assurance in the field;
  • Faster action time from project managers when contractors run into problems; and
  • Advanced data accuracy of all project phases for cost and time savings.

In an industry as traditional as construction that is already wary of adopting technology, introducing AR/VR when the tech isn’t fully ready could potentially set adoption back even further. However, the potential gains are evident, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that construction companies that don’t adapt to the times may risk falling behind the competition.

Dr. Eunseok Park is the U.S. general manager of uSens. Previously, he was the U.S. regional director for Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, where he managed research and development in emerging technologies. A collaborator on nearly 200 world patents, Dr. Park is the author of many articles published for IEEE symposiums. He received his master’s degree and PhD in electrical engineering from Syracuse University, and an MBA from Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. 

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