Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality in Construction: The Future Is Now

VR, MR and AR all mean time savings, collaboration, remote training and assistance, and productivity. Together they are called XR and can result in cost savings that cover the cost of the technology.
By Aviad Almagor
November 16, 2019

Virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality have the potential to transform the construction industry, but when it comes to these three types of technology, the future is now. For many contractors, however, the value of investing in products that some still consider to be “emerging” technology is unclear.

Make no mistake, while companies are expected to pour resources into the research and development virtual, augmented and mixed reality well into the future, all three categories of technology are alive, well and delivering valuable returns to contractors on jobsites today.

Defining the Difference

First, it’s important to understand the difference between VR, MR and AR—and the category commonly referred to as XR. The following definitions are important to any conversation around these types of technology, where the various acronyms are sometimes misunderstood:

  • VR is a fully immersive technology, secluding the user to visualize and interact with purely digital content with sight, sound and gestures. Using a screen-enabled headset, VR creates a completely artificial environment that removes the physical context around the user.
  • AR combines the physical and virtual words together by overlaying digital information into the user’s environment, typically through the two-dimensional display of a tablet or mobile phone. AR is like a digital “window” that displays digital content overlaid on the physical surrounding the user occupies.
  • Like AR, MR recognizes its surroundings and allows the digital content to interact with the real world in a three-dimensional display. MR also relies on a headset device, but in this case, the user is immersed in the digital content while still aware of his or her physical surroundings and able to interact with both physical and digital objects at the same time.
  • Extended Reality—or XR—is a catch-all phrase commonly used to refer to all of these reality-bending technologies.

Real World Examples

All three types of immersive technologies described above are helping stakeholders in the construction industry to visualize complex data and improve decision-making. In fact, according to IDC, worldwide spending on augmented and virtual reality is expected to surpass $20 billion this year.

Virtual reality is commonly used at the conceptual phase, before anything is built, to explore how various permutations of design can impact use and flow. This technology is frequently employed in architecture, where decisions based on printed renderings or 3D visualizations delivered via 2D screens can have long-lasting repercussions on space utilization, lighting and more. With VR, architects and owners can experience first-hand what it will be like to enter the space, move around the space and put the space to work.

Often used outdoors, augmented reality technology is a powerful visualization tool for a wide range of stakeholders within the construction sector. For example, city planners can visualize a new building design in the exact spot it is to be erected, a work crew could identify the exact position of underground cables or pipes before digging, an electric utility can confirm boundary lines and the placement lines with customers and crews, or a construction supervisor could assess the progress of heavy equipment by visualizing actual work performed against the site plan.

Like augmented reality, mixed reality is transforming the way construction companies consume and interact with information on the worksite. A wearable technology, MR enables workers and supervisors onsite to access precise, holographic information while keeping hands free for work and safety. Units that can be fitted on a safety-compliant hard hat allow for use in areas where PPE is required. This allows workers to see building models overlaid in the physical environment, which enables precise visualization of building data overlaid on the physical environment on a 1:1 scale.

This allows workers to collaborate with others—both collocated and remote—while immersed in the design and physical environment concurrently. Today, the technology is used on worksites for things like clash detection and renovation. With more powerful devices, MR can be used to deliver sequencing information to the user, provide step-by-step instructions to the worker, or deliver complex fabrication or installation procedures on the job.

Augmented and mixed reality solutions are also providing contractors with “remote expert” capabilities, for example by connecting field service technicians or field workers with offsite subject matter experts via video, audio and spatial annotations in real-time. This helps eliminate trips between the field and office and provides immediate assistance to field workers faces with complex or unfamiliar situations.

Visualizing the Value

In addition to seeing data in new ways, contractors are also seeing real gains from XR technology in construction - today. Identifying one costly clash in a building project or avoiding digging into an underground utility line on a civil job can cover the cost of the technology alone.

Add to that the time savings, increased collaboration, remote training and assistance, reduction in rework and shortened project schedules, and it’s clear that VR, MR and AR technology is allowing construction companies to see much that they otherwise wouldn’t see—including value.

by Aviad Almagor
Aviad Almagor is senior director of mixed reality and BCI at Trimble and has been recognized as one of the most influential people in augmented reality technology. 

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