Among the various disruptive technology trends affecting the construction sector, one that has quite recently made the transition from theoretical to practical use is augmented reality (AR).
While virtual reality (VR) involves the creation of a totally artificial environment, AR superimposes information on top of an existing environment. In construction, an example application would typically be a platform enabling engineers to visualise a project directly within a real-world space.
New way of seeing
Some contractors prefer to speak of extended reality (XR), a catch-all term for all AR, fully immersive VR environments and assisted reality, which can provide additional guidance to workers on site by means of in-view text or audio feed through smart-glasses or headsets.
AR’s potential in construction lies in the ability to overlay data onto real-world environments and allow users to see what is not yet built, or what is hidden.
Despite this potential, AR adoption has yet to truly take off. A 2018 survey by UK data analytics firm GlobalData examining new technology in construction found that only 29 per cent of respondents had made investments in AR. Slightly more – 32 per cent – said they had yet to invest, but plan to do so in the next two years.
One reason for the relative lack of investor interest in AR is the series of challenges that inhibit its adoption in comparison to other technologies. One of these is the ongoing integration gap between AR devices and building information modelling (BIM) systems, which are currently used extensively across the construction industry. In order for AR technology to be utilised more widely, this integration gap needs to be better targeted by AR developers.
However, it would equally be a mistake to consider AR as a purely theoretical technology. It has been used on London’s Crossrail project, where the US’ Bechtel deployed it to give live access to the BIM information in the field, driven by a desire to improve the efficiency and safety of field personnel. The ability of AR to visualise BIM data can be a highly effective way to create a safer site, for example by revealing utilities beneath the ground to mitigate the risk of cable strikes and similar incidents.
Bechtel also trialled an AR application developed by its infrastructure division to track the progress of the installation of pre-fabricated super-structure components. After the trial, however, it was concluded that some of today’s AR solutions remain too expensive for widespread practical use.
The business logic is also a challenge. In order for AR to be used to solve a problem, vendors need to provide AR solutions with business logic that adheres to common minimum standards, for example to retrieve the correct product data sheet for a piece of equipment that needs to be maintained.
Another concern is the perception that AR technology is complex, coupled with a general lack of understanding of how AR tracking results can be used to make more informed business decisions.
How ‘real’ AR content needs to be for construction is also yet to be answered, as well as the lack of strong Internet and data connections at construction sites. AR solutions used in gaming typically require photo-realism and high refresh rates to persuade users that the augmented content is real, but this could be unnecessary where AR is intended as a purely indicative guide.
Bechtel found it was better to deliver a very simple block AR model over a highly rendered version, and that this also offered the advantage of reducing the data volumes and overheads of data transfer.
From a broader XR perspective, VR and assisted reality can be used to supplement training activities or safety procedures. VR can prove highly effective as a training tool for machine operators, by providing a low-cost but still immersive virtual experience through the use of videogame-like controls.
Bechtel is implementing such a system for crane operators and expects it to improve the screening and selection process for operators, and ultimately lower the risk, protect the equipment and save money.
With assisted reality, technicians undertaking an inspection of equipment could receive overlaid details of a machine’s maintenance history, danger warnings or in-view annotations from remote experts.
At the same time, construction sites are rugged environments and since AR or XR solutions typically rely on relatively fragile wearables, such as glasses or mobile devices, to deliver information to the user, the risk associated with damage to augmented equipment could make adoption difficult.
Safety is a further difficulty, and there is an ongoing health and safety concern that the use of AR technology on site necessarily diminishes an individual’s awareness of immediate surroundings.
Yet despite these issues, AR’s usage is likely to become increasingly common.
GlobalData has identified the likely AR winners as Google, Apple and Microsoft, with its HoloLens headset. The VR leaders will be Google, Facebook, HTC, Nvidia, Samsung and Sony.
About the author
David Bicknell is principal analyst, thematic research, at GlobalData