As the media coverage and consumer demand for devices like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift skyrocket, one thing has become clear. The virtual reality revolution is here. The technology has the potential to affect every aspect of our lives. From the construction of a home to how its residents entertain themselves, VR is becoming firmly entrenched in the digital landscape.
It might be surprising to hear that VR is having an effect on the construction industry, but in fact the sector is one of the areas where the technology is making the biggest changes. Along with its cousins augmented reality and mixed reality, VR is set to become an integral part of the construction process from the architect’s office to the jobsite.
Here are some of the most interesting ways VR will be used in construction as the technology matures. A few of them are obvious, others incredibly creative, but they all make one thing clear: The future is now.
Construction is a dangerous line of work, and for the men and women working at jobsites, safety is paramount. According to OSHA, 6.5 million people work on construction sites each day, and the fatal accident rate is higher for the construction industry than any other.
Therefore, safe, effective training is of critical importance. The more practice workers can get in a controlled environment, the better off they will be in the field. At the same time, though, it is difficult to create an effective simulation in the physical world.
Workers can practice mounting and dismounting ladders, handling tools, and other potentially dangerous exercises, but things can happen quickly and unexpectedly on a real construction site. There is only so much that can be done with mockups and rehearsals to prepare a worker for an actual emergency.
With virtual reality, though, anything is possible. Advanced computer simulations can create amazingly convincing environments, and with controllers like the Leap Touch, workers can have the feeling of operating real power tools and other equipment. What’s more, the simulation can present the kinds of split-second decisions and unexpected situations that were previously difficult or impossible to recreate, such as what to do if a ladder or scaffolding collapses.
Constructing a building is a lengthy and expensive proposition, and it pays to consider all the variables before laying the first stone. Changing tacks midway through a build is difficult for financial, administrative, and logistical reasons. Blueprints may need to be resubmitted and reapproved by the city or other government authorities. Materials needs may change, and even a small design alteration may have unforeseen effects on other parts of the construction.
At the same time, sometimes needs change, and sometimes tracking every variable simply isn’t possible. Once a building begins to take shape, problems and deficiencies in the design may become apparent that were not visible on the blueprint. It is a difficult problem to solve, and one that has been a thorn in the side of both builders and clients for years.
Virtual reality technology offers a creative and elegant solution to this. With VR, blueprints can be brought to life before a single worker sets foot on the job site. Clients and architects can view the completed building from any angle, life-size, and can even roam the halls to spot hidden problems or flaws. The technology is already in use by McCarthy Building Companies, one of the largest construction firms in the United States. Clients of McCarthy are given the use of an Oculus Rift head-mounted display to virtually tour buildings that exist only on paper and in the digital realm. Clients can make changes to the design quickly and easily, without incurring the expense and logistical unfeasibility of altering physical construction.
The best aspect of virtual reality, at least from the standpoint of workplace productivity, is its geographical agnosticism. Everything that makes it effective for employee training purposes works just as well for collaboration. Team members located around the world could meet in a virtual conference room, pointing and gesturing and using natural body language to communicate.
Of course, there’s no reason the conference room has to be a conference room. The team could just as easily meet on top of Mount Everest, in the Oval Office, or in outer space. The virtual environment can serve to focus employees, set the mood, or just provide a welcome change of scenery.
It’s true for individual workers, as well. Collaboration is a way of life in today’s workforce, but everyone sometimes feels the need to concentrate on their work without the noise and distractions of their co-workers. Virtual reality can provide this, letting workers slip away into their own world and their own to-do list. In the future, it might not be uncommon to see a physically open office where some of the more solitary employees have entered their own virtual cubicles.
McCarthy has found another use for virtual reality, as well. In building a new hospital, the firm and their client were able to leverage the knowledge of doctors and nurses in designing everything from hallways to patient rooms. The medical personnel were able to use their specialized training to advise on the placement of power and data outlets, doors, and heavy equipment, ensuring that the finished hospital will have the optimal configuration for treating patients efficiently.
This is a wonderful example of the accessibility VR can bring to any field. Not being trained architects or construction workers, the doctors and nurses likely would not have been able to offer as much useful advice if shown a blueprint. Using virtual reality, the medical professionals could maneuver themselves around equipment and other fixtures, gaining an intuitive sense for how they would operate in the real world. On paper, this sense of place is much more difficult to achieve.
In today’s globalized economy, the people financially responsible for a building under construction may be located hundreds of miles away, or on the other side of the world. They may only be able to visit the building once or twice during the job, if at all.
At the same time, it is critically important both for builders and clients that the clients maintain a clear understanding of the state of construction. The old tradition of the job site walk is still a requirement in most areas, but it is too often relegated to local client representatives who may not clearly relay the issues and progress to their superiors.
Virtual reality, with its geographical agnosticism, solves this problem perfectly. Using VR to stream from a 3D camera, executives and other responsible parties can receive a convincing and accurate tour of a jobsite, regardless of where they are physically located. In this way, VR can prevent miscommunications, keep plans on track, and prevent wasted time and work.
One of the most exciting applications of the new VR technologies in construction is the possibilities for augmented reality technology. Unlike virtual reality, AR allows the user to maintain full awareness of the real world, but superimposes additional information onto the user’s surroundings.
As the hardware becomes more economically viable for mass deployment and the user interfaces become more and more accessible, AR could transform the way structures are built. Workers could wear headsets like the DAQRI Smart Helmet as they work, maintaining a steady view of the building plans as they bring them to life. Materials and fixtures could be quickly and easily put into precise alignment, without the need to consult paper documents.
Even more importantly, workers could be given a situational awareness of the locations of other workers and pieces of heavy equipment. Fast-moving problems like unstable platforms or slipping equipment could be instantly sent directly to nearby workers’ headsets, allowing them to correct the issue before they become safety hazards.
These are the types of practical, real-world applications that make virtual reality so exciting. Give VR a little thought, and the applications for literally any industry will come to mind. The technology is able to not only bring us into the virtual world, but also make life out here in the real world safer and better.