Smartphones. Driverless cars. Artificial intelligence. Streaming television. All part of our daily 21st Century lives. But no technology will change things quite as dramatically as augmented reality (AR), which overlays images, video and games on the real world. Apple’s Tim Cook has likened AR’s game-changing potential to that of the smartphone. At some point, he said last year, we will all “have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you.”
If it seems a little far-fetched consider this: Ford is using HoloLens to let designers quickly model out changes to cars, trucks, and SUVs. This allows designers to see the changes on top of an existing physical vehicle, instead of the traditional clay model approach to car design.
Ground handlers at Singapore’s Changi airport can now “see” and scan a virtual QR code displayed on cargo or baggage containers, and through the glasses instantly view the details of its weight, loading sequence and allocated position within the aircraft.
And, specific to building and construction, there’s the DAQRI Smart Helmet, a wearable AR system that allows builders, engineers, and designers to take their BIM model to the construction site, wear it on their heads, and experience it as an immersive, full-scale 3D environment. Builders will literally have the ability to see through walls.
According to researcher Global Market Insights, the global market for AR products will surge 80 percent to $165 billion by 2024. That’s just a little over six years away. So, ready or not, augmented reality is here.
What’s the Difference Between VR and AR?
Virtual Reality (VR) is already being widely used by developers to review real 3D environments of architectural designs. Using a combination of Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology and immersive VR headsets, architects, engineers, builders, and contractors can identify design flaws and better plan out their approach to building it. This technology has immense potential to help developers avoid extremely expensive change orders ($15.8 billion is wasted through the poor use of data by the construction industry each year) by pinpointing potential issues early on, but it’s limited to the planning stages of the building process.
AR, on the other hand, projects virtual images into the user’s line of sight and therefore has the potential to be used on-site as a tool for creating the structure exactly as the design intended. This could greatly speed up construction projects and minimize the number of errors made during the actual building process, but the technology is still in its development stages. However, that doesn’t mean that industry leaders aren’t already working with AR tools.
Stumbling Blocks to Growth
If AR is so good, why is it not widespread in the construction industry yet? According to Engineering.com, there are three main reasons: price, accuracy, and the fact that it relies on a static environment:
Yes, AR is more accessible than it ever has been, but big construction companies still dominate AR implementation because many augmented reality firms charge big up-front fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars for an enterprise solution. That high price tag will inevitably decrease as AR technology improves and more competition enters the market, but that process tends to be slow.
A second major problem is that augmented reality often provides inaccurate information. For example, if an AR system allows you to “see” a pipe underground, and the location of that pipe isn’t 100% accurate, contractors might hit the pipe when they start digging.
A third significant hurdle is the dynamic nature of construction sites. A construction zone is a place of constant movement: structures are being built, heavy objects are being moved around, and plans constantly change on the fly. Augmented reality, on the other hand, works in a static environment where everything remains the same. Improvements in technology will certainly fix this down the road, but currently, most AR tech just isn’t agile enough to keep up with a busy work site.
Augmented Reality on the Job Site
None of the above necessarily means AR is a bad fit or won’t work, but there are hurdles a smaller construction business or builder is likely to encounter. That said, the technology is already being used worldwide. In the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand. The University of Canterbury released CityViewAR, which enabled city planners and engineers to visualize buildings that were destroyed in the earthquake. It gave planners a great reference to what used to be there while also letting them gauge the devastation the quake left behind. Since then, it’s been used as a tool throughout Australia for construction and earthquake investigation.
Engineers at Disney Research China produced complex structures for the rockwork at Disney China by using AR to optimize structure, while minimizing material use.
And Seattle’s BNBuilders began using AR to show clients proposed designs in the context of existing conditions using iPads and other mobile devices on a construction site.
Clearly, embracing AR technologies in any of its current forms — app, software, enterprise solution — will only make adaptation easier and empower future growth faster.
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