Virtual reality may help BIM reach full potential

Dubai is placing much faith in the power of Building Information Modelling (BIM) to help it deliver the cities of the future, but could virtual reality be the technology that will enable BIM to deliver on it potential?

Alexander Le Bell is managing director of Tridify Middle East.
Alexander Le Bell is managing director of Tridify Middle East.

A recent roundtable hosted by Middle East Architect concluded that everyone would benefit as the use of [BIM] became more wide-spread in the region, provided that the industry adopts an attitude of openness and inclusivity.

While I strongly believe that this will happen, the industry needs the tools to help it realise the full potential that BIM has to offer. The key promise of BIM is cost savings on modelling buildings and the ability to save money across the lifecycle of projects. Much of this promise hasn’t really materialised yet, as there is still a challenge in how to visualise plans in a way that is accessible by anyone other than engineers.

Dubai is currently at the forefront of the push to exploit the power of BIM in the Middle East, and has been expanding the requirement for the use of BIM. This means that the majority of construction companies and developers in the region will have to come to terms with creating BIM files for their projects. The reality is that most developers probably wouldn’t look into BIM if it wasn’t mandatory, so being able to provide value on top of BIM is critical. If it’s seen as a source of value and not a cost centre it will make a huge difference to its acceptance and impact.

One technology that can help unlock the true potential of BIM is virtual reality (VR). Until now VR has not been seen as something connected to BIM. However, one of the key things that VR brings is the ability to better visualise and display exactly what buildings and environments will look like. Yes, we’ve had this before with 3D modelling, but by combining VR with BIM the visualisations become immersive and 100% accurate. This allows the industry to move away from traditional modelling, creating something that is more user-friendly and more accessible.

VR models allow you to explore entire environments and buildings in much greater detail and with much more flexibility. They allow you to move into a space that doesn’t yet exist and to interact with that space in ways that no other modelling technique will let you do. Indeed how you interact with a VR space is where the major advances in technology will occur in the next few years.

Many of the VR tools used at the moment are built on current platforms – and the technology behind them is changing fast. For a start, the VR companies currently creating building models are doing so on a project basis and this can be very labour intensive. They’re also building environments on huge VR computers and they have to be viewed on those computers with VR headsets, so the whole end user experience becomes very static and limited.

By combining cloud-based technology with VR and BIM, the creation of those models can be automated. This same technology also allows these models to be modified and adapted easily, from structural issues such as increasing corridor width or moving access points to cosmetic issue such as adding furniture, moving lighting, colouring walls and changing flooring. But probably more importantly, these VR experiences can be viewed on any platform and in particular mobile devices such as Smartphones and tablets. This puts VR models in the hands of everyone across the industry value chain; right the way from the architects and developers through to the end user and facilities management. It gives each one a new way to experience and visualise projects.

This is where we begin to see the power of VR to drive benefits and grow the value chain. Firstly, a move away from project-based VR creations to a SaaS-based approach will produce big savings both in time and money. And in a sector where projects need to be completed as quickly as possible to ensure return on investment, these factors can prove critical.

Furthermore, the accuracy of the modelling (thanks to BIM) can be a game changer for space planning and flow management as you can move around the VR environments freely and understand in detail how they fit together and how a building really works even though it will not be built for two years. This means issues can be ironed out early on in the process, which removes the need for expensive reworking and redesigning.

Combining VR with BIM in this way also allows developers to start the sales and marketing process as early as possible. On top of this, it opens new areas of the value chain in facilities management, smart retail solutions, simulations, health and safety and, right at the consumer
end, 3D ecommerce. VR can provide the platform for sales and marketing to collaborate with planning and facilities management and can take the process right the way through to end-users buying furniture for apartments or offices.

BIM and VR are in their infancy in the region. The rest of the GCC region will be watching Dubai carefully to see how the BIM initiative works out, but it’s technologies like VR that stand to open up the market.

Alexander Le Bell is managing director of Tridify Middle East

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