AEC Companies Embrace Virtual Reality
May 3, 2023
By: Andrew G. Roe
AEC Solutions: Gaming technology finds practical use in construction projects.
Virtual reality (VR) and other reality immersion tools are proving to be more than just novelty items on AEC projects as design and construction companies find value in developing technology . A growing number of building designers are using virtual reality and related techniques to develop and refine their designs. Construction contractors are finding technology increasingly useful in planning and organizing jobs. Additionally, designers and builders use the tools to interact with owners and other project participants.
Early adopters faced challenges implementing the technology, with large datasets clogging computing resources and bulky, connected VR headsets limiting mobility. But as the technology has matured, VR systems have become easier to use and more palatable to companies debating investments in technology.
Although definitions vary by camp, virtual reality in the AEC world can be described as simulating reality with digital data in an immersive way, such as with mobile devices, VR headsets, hand controllers, and other tools. Augmented Reality (AR) augments digital data with physical data and images from cameras, laser scanners and other sources, essentially bringing virtual objects into the real world. Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term for an array of immersive and interactive technologies that includes Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality (MR), which is the continuum between the virtual and physical worlds.
Entrepreneur Kane Group, with offices in Northern Ireland and the UK, encountered some of the early challenges of VR adoption and also had spectacular success on a complex project. When Kane was hired to install myriad mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems five stories underground as part of a hotel expansion project, the company recognized the need for an innovative approach. . The Claridge’s Hotel project in London extended downward, adding floors below ground instead of the top of the historic building due to an existing MEP plant at roof level. Kane had to design, prefabricate and install over 10,000 meters of piping and numerous MEP components in a tight underground workspace with limited access.
The expansion of Claridge’s Hotel in London required the installation of complex MEP systems five levels below ground. Image source: Kane Group.
“We realized that to deliver on this project, we had to be on top of the tech world,” said Gary Cowan, head of digital construction at Kane. The team obtained a point cloud study of the workspace, developed a 3D Revit model of the constructed basement, then exported the model to Navisworks for colorization before accessing the project via VR. The team used Prospect by IrisVR to develop and navigate a 1:1 representation of the design, Cowan said. “It allowed us to review models from the inside, rather than using traditional methods of viewing things on a screen,” he noted.
Kane’s VR implementation ran into some challenges, first convincing company management that the technology was worth it, and not just for gaming, Cowan said. After gaining management approval, the company purchased high-end PCs, VR headsets and other equipment, then conducted intense training, involving a wide range of employees, some with IT experience. limited. Kane built a dedicated virtual reality room at the company’s London offices, as well as a second room at Claridge’s project site.
Once operational, the VR technology was widely accepted by the project team, according to Cowan. Senior executives marveled at how they could interactively view a design and annotate it. Production staff at multiple sites found new ways to design collaboratively. “It changed our whole workflow,” Cowan said.
The Kane Group used VR/XR technology to facilitate the design, fabrication and installation of MEP systems in a confined workspace. Image source: Kane Group.
Based on the success of the Claridge’s project, completed in 2019, Kane has implemented virtual reality as standard practice on all projects, according to Cowan. With the company focusing on high-end housing work, the benefits quickly become apparent to project participants, as issues such as piping conflicts and design errors are digitally identified before they reach the ground. “It’s a totally different experience than looking at cartoons,” Cowan noted. “You see the light bulbs going on over people’s heads.”
Building designers also find value in VR/XR technology, often in the early stages of projects. At LEO A DALY, an American planning, architecture, engineering and interior design firm, VR technology gained traction during the pandemic, when staff were working remotely and looking for ways to collaborate more easily. .
“We started collaborating digitally,” said Ryan D. Martin, vice president and chief design officer at LEO A DALY. “Instead of pinning the work to our studio, we did it virtually.” Martin and his colleagues used The Wild platform to organize VR design charettes with clients and have “jam sessions”. “Being able to grab everyone’s attention was a game-changer,” he said.
Leo A Daly designers hold VR “jam sessions” to collaborate on designs. Image source: LEO A DALY.
LAD’s early experiences with virtual reality were mixed, but the company saw enough benefits to continue down the path. On the Hotel del Coronado project in Coronado, California, the company used virtual reality to design a series of renovations and new buildings throughout the property and share information with company management and customers in an immersive way. While the hardware was “a bit clunky”, early virtual reality was effective at communicating designs, according to Martin. “We got people to see the project inside and out and show off multiple iterations of designs.”
On a more recent Renaissance Hotel project in Washington, DC, the company worked with contractor HITT to use virtual reality for interactive design reviews before construction. The team developed a virtual model room where project stakeholders could see what the rooms would look like after construction and provide feedback at key milestones. Martin believes the process has reduced post-build feedback by 10-15%, compared to traditional design processes.
Using virtual reality can also save time, energy and costs in several ways, Martin added. People can review designs remotely, reducing errors and rework. Travel costs can be significantly reduced. An internal study estimated that for an eight-month project, travel costs and lost productivity could exceed $100,000 without the use of virtual reality.
According to technology developers, the growth of VR/XR in the AEC field is closely linked to the constant quests for efficiency by designers and manufacturers. “We believe the construction industry has the best alignment of value on the effort it takes to adopt XR,” said Gabe Paez, product manager for Autodesk’s XR offerings and former CEO of The Wild. He sees XR solving some of the age-old problems with design reviews, collaboration, and communication that often challenge AEC professionals in the early stages of projects.
Autodesk’s presence in VR/XR was largely propelled by its acquisition of The Wild in 2022. The Wild previously acquired IrisVR in 2021. For now, The Wild and Prospect are maintained as separate products, with The Wild being more designer-oriented and Prospect more focused on coordinating workflows.
As a specific example of XR application, Paez cites the interior design of retail facilities. With traditional workflows often relying heavily on physically prototyping spaces prior to construction, he sees significant opportunities to save time and money by conducting design reviews with XR. “[Owners and AEC professionals] seek speed of iteration to evaluate ideas and test them,” he noted.
The energy sector also has high potential to reap profits with expensive and complex projects, sometimes in dangerous working environments, according to Paez. Coordinating items such as piping and electrical work in congested areas can be difficult to do on site, and XR can provide another approach. “You can have multiple people working together in a way that’s not even possible in the physical world,” he said.
While AEC has at times lagged manufacturing and other industries in adopting technologies such as XR, that could change, said Eric DeRosche, director of industry infrastructure and strategy. commercial from Autodesk. “If you look at the amount of research and technology investment dollars spent in the construction industry, it’s been a laggard,” he said. “But it catches up quickly. You are now beginning to see this transformation within the AEC accelerating tremendously.
The digital transformation of AEC has already impacted workflows, for example by shifting development from paper plans to more digital methods, based on 3D models. If VR/XR continues to provide benefits to AEC companies, the design and construction processes may still evolve in the years to come. Instead of relying on paper or CAD drawings, project participants can increasingly wear helmets and other gear to interactively experiment and shape designs.