Building a Virtual Future

Virtual reality (VR) technology has advanced rapidly in the past few years and is a potentially powerful tool for the AEC industry. VR, in which a user is completely immersed in a virtual environment and is able to move about in and interact with virtual features and objects, has its roots in the 1980s but has become increasingly relevant.

Prior to the late 1990s, the use of computer-aided design was limited by two-dimensional monitors and paper printouts. The adoption of 3D modeling and the ability to print architectural plans in three dimensions enabled architects to more accurately depict their designs. Later, building information modeling allowed for the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics. More recently, the availability of affordable virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have provided, according to AEC Magazine (February 16, 2017), “the power to change the way architects design and communicate buildings before they are built. The wearer is instantly immersed in a true three-dimensional environment that gives an incredible sense of scale, depth, and spatial awareness that simply cannot be matched by traditional renders, animations, or physical scale models.”

“Virtual reality is here to stay, and it allows those of us who have spatial awareness challenges to visit the environment being created before expending the money,” says HAKS President Alberto Villaman. “This is much more efficient than moving forward with a project and then realizing midway through construction that the layout is not truly what you wanted—at which point you have two choices: pay the additional money to change the layout; or, very reluctantly, accept it and move on.”

Phone and Headset

Does VR technology offer the power to change the way architects design and communicate buildings before they are built?

One approach to VR utilizes drones to create 3D models to allow virtual walk-throughs. According to Builder, a Florida general contractor is testing the use of drones to take daily or hourly aerial surveys of construction sites to provide constantly updated as-built conditions information. Combining this information with 3D modeling applications to create virtual renderings of as-built conditions will allow contractors and workers to make allowances for hazardous conditions and other contingencies before physically setting foot on a site. The firm plans to deploy an even more ambitious virtual reality application in which designers and contractors will be able to view 3D models of potential designs, fixtures, and finishes; review real-time situations; and make changes before construction begins.

VR is also applicable to environmental and occupational health and safety. It can be used to model structures and procedures during the design phase and identify hazardous conditions or actions, and can be used to safely test hazardous materials or the efficacy and safety of processes without the risk of physical damage or injury. Again, this will allow contractors and workers to make allowances for unsafe conditions and modify their approach to maximize safety before actually entering a physical site.

To what extent will this technology be adopted in the architectural and engineering fields? Augmented reality tools such as the Daqri Smart Helmet, which features 360-degree navigation cameras and a 4D display, enable the wearer to view work instructions in the context of the job site, and use augmented reality to display work instructions through 4D software. Such innovations improve productivity and accuracy. Will innovations such as this, including VR, be widely embraced in the industry? We certainly hope so.

How about you? Have you tried or worked with VR technology? Tell us about it in the comments section below or reach out on Facebook and Twitter!

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