AR technology can be a game-changer for construction, but barriers need to be overcome to push up adoption.
When a construction firm is carrying out essential excavation work on a building site, a junior operator may be tasked with manning heavy equipment. However, their lack of experience may cause apprehension.
To avoid any mistakes being made, which would result in the project being delayed and increased costs, a senior operator accesses the junior’s real-time view of the site remotely and interacts with them, assisting them through the process. This is a glimpse into the potential of augmented reality (AR) for the construction industry.
To date, AR has been used by construction firms – that usually work off paper blueprints and from digital Building Information Modelling (BIM) models on computer screens – predominantly to view designs for a piece of infrastructure in its proposed real-world location.
Take Danish company Dalux’s AR smartphone app, Dalux Field, which is reported to have been used by more than 40,000 workers across more than a dozen countries. Compatible with both iOS and Android, a BIM model can be uploaded to the app, which can then use the device’s camera to scan a construction site, creating a 3D map of the surroundings, so it knows exactly where to align and anchor the BIM model in the physical world.
The ability to create immersive, walk-through experiences has clear advantages over viewing 3D models in the confines of an office.
One, it allows for closer inspection and collaboration and cooperation between construction managers and on-site workers, meaning there aren’t delays if problems need to be reported.
“Having access to relevant and real-time information in the context of the real world environment helps to speed up a project – or ensure it keeps to schedule at the very least,” says Dominic Thasarathar, a construction strategist at Autodesk – the software company provides 3D visualisation tools, including Revit.
Two, if issues do arise, it enables time- and cost-saving decisions to be made. For example, being able to check whether certain parts, such as steel frames, that have been ordered are the right length. If they’re not, then the supplier can be contacted and the order rectified before the frames are put in place.
“Knowing that AR has the capacity to deliver savings and minimise the risk of chokepoints can help to lessen any investor caution,” Thasarathar adds.
Possibly the most important advantage is that construction firms can use the technology to give clients a more accurate representation of the finished build – clients can see their vision for the project come to life.
“Being able to visualise a project can help a client to understand how that asset is going to connect with its surroundings, such as what the view from the thirteenth floor will be like, making it a more attractive prospect,” says Thasarathar.
Usability issues and teething problems
According to the McKinsey Global Institute Industry Digitisation index, construction is the second least digitised of all major industries, above only agriculture.
A key part of encouraging the industry to embrace AR technology is user experience (UX). While smartphones and tablets allow for an adequate UX, it remains to be seen whether they will be the driver of future adoption.
“Having to hold up a device in front of a physical area of interest for extended periods of time is going to lead to tiredness, which isn’t ideal, says Sam Watts, director of immersive technologies at Make Real. The Brighton-based company is currently working on a couple of innovative construction AR projects that can’t be discussed publicly.
The mobile UX is also less sophisticated than the experiences offered by headsets, such as the HoloLens, but then the latter are expensive and might not be worth the investment, particularly if the wearables are going to be only used occasionally, Watts adds.
Price point is one the reasons the AR company Daqri shifted its hardware offering in 2017 from its smart helmet, which sold for around $15,000 per unit, to smart glasses that sell for just under a third of the price. Another reason the Los Angeles-based firm changed its focus was usability – the glasses are not as heavy as the helmet and are considered a far more comfortable wear.
Daqri’s technology has previously been used by Minneapolis construction company Mortenson to carry out mechanical, electrical and plumbing work for a new medical centre.
In order for AR wearable technology’s capabilities to be fully realised though, there are teething problems that need to be addressed.
“The issue of weight [and comfort] is just one of the reasons much of the technology can be considered early-stage,” argues Watts. “There are also UX challenges with users having to learn and master hand- and finger-based gestures that are reliable and accurate each time and don’t prolong interactions or increase response times.”
Construction sites pose a number of health and safety risks, with exposed wiring and with concrete and other heavy materials being lifted and put into place. Workers on site need to be aware of what’s going on around them to prevent injuries. Technology that isn’t 100% reliable is likely to lead to gesture input errors and users becoming distracted, increasing the likelihood of accidents occurring.
“Such errors can be commonplace and end up causing more frustration than they do positive results,” says Watts, adding that, given the current state of the technology, most users in a construction setting will probably need guided interaction from a skilled mediator, who has prior training and knowledge.
Once the technology has matured, however, AR has the capacity to provide immersive teaching environments that could result in industry-wide improvements.
Be it a junior operator who needs support in operating heavy equipment or a pipelayer who needs assistance in laying down pipes for sewage disposal and water drainage, AR could enable workers to to learn to do things in a safer and more efficient manner.
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