Mixed reality is the next big thing for construction technologists

Mixed-reality is the latest addition to the arsenal of tech tools available for future-focused construction firms, Mark Sutton reports

MR is helping to bridge operational gaps in the construction sector.
MR is helping to bridge operational gaps in the construction sector.

The construction sector has been among the prominent adopters of virtual reality (VR) systems, with a number of companies testing out the technology, mainly in areas such as design visualisation.

With improvements to the technology, and new ideas coming out of the proof-of-concept projects, even more companies are looking to VR – and more specifically, mixed reality (MR) – to improve processes in a wide range of scenarios.

One company that was quick to see the potential in MR is Trimble. The firm conducted a few early projects using Microsoft HoloLens technology around three years ago, and from there, has progressed to making its own systems available to customers using MR technology, for functions covering design and architecture, as well as training, quality control, and production environments.

It is important to note the difference between VR and MR – the former presents an entirely virtual environment, while MR is a combination of real and virtual. Put simply, MR is exemplified as a virtual object presented in a real setting, with both the physical and digital objects co-existing and interacting in real time.

Aviad Almagor, director of the MR programme at Trimble, explains that following the completion of a proof-of-concept project, the company launched pilot schemes by working closely with customers to understand their requirements, before moving onto commercial products.

The main driver for Trimble to develop MR platforms is that companies are already generating huge amounts of data from systems such as building information modelling (BIM) or digital models, but there is a need to be able to connect that data and the digital world with the physical.

“We can summarise what we learned [through market interaction] in one word: ‘gaps’,” Almagor tells Construction Week.

“Customers are suffering from gaps between the digital and physical, gaps between themselves and a co-worker in a remote location, and gaps between the mental model they have about the task that they need to perform, and the actual task. All those gaps create issues with efficiency, quality control, safety, and so on; MR, we realised, can actually bridge those gaps in ways that can merge the digital world with the physical environment.”

By utilising an MR environment, which projects digital plans onto the real world and allows users to share models in a three-dimensional environment, it is much easier to understand a concept or a scope of work, and even to see discrepancies between what needs to be done and the situation on site.

Trimble has developed three systems that incorporate MR using HoloLens. This includes Connect for HoloLens, a construction management software; SketchUp Viewer for HoloLens, a design framework; and Connected Mine Visual Intelligence, created for the mining sector. In addition to the software systems, the company has also integrated a Microsoft HoloLens rig into a safety helmet, allowing for easy use of the equipment on site. The focus of Trimble’s MR programme is currently on construction and mining, Almagor says, but there is potential across all areas of its operations.

The systems are already having an impact on customers. Concrete prefab manufacturer, Consolis, is exploring a system that will allow workers assembling complex concrete elements to see the 3D models and plans in front of them while they work, instead of having to move back and forth between 2D plans or onscreen models. French company GA Smart Building is using the hard hat HoloLens with Trimble systems for quality control inspections on site.

Trimble has also worked with architect Greg Lynn for the redesign of the Packard Plant in Detroit, US, where the architect was able to develop complex designs and communicate them in 3D. This was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2016.

The ability to take the digital world and bring it into the real world is a huge development, Almagor says: “There is a synergy between MR and other trends – in construction, it is all about BIM. Our customers invest a huge amount of effort in developing 3D models, but they consume these models on 2D screens.

“With MR, you can take those models out of the constraints of being in a 2D frame, and have much better interaction. The level of engagement for themselves and for their customers provides a huge benefit in terms of communication. One of the things we were really surprised about was the power of real 3D visualisation, compared to 3D on screen. When I saw the customers interact with it, the level of engagement is totally different,” he adds.

Users being able to work together in a MR environment, whether they are actually in the same space or connecting in from different locations, also has a big impact on the ability to collaborate and communicate, Almagor explains: “It is good if the users are isolated in their holographic experience, but once you add more people to the session and see the avatars of the other partners, you start communicating, you see what they are looking at. With Trimble Connect and SketchUp Viewer, this has opened up a completely new level of interaction.”

To support this adoption, Trimble has two professional services teams working in various, areas including integrating BIM into MR. At the customer level, Almagor says he is seeing demand both from innovation teams that are tasked with exploring new technology, and from the project teams that are getting an understanding of how the technology can help them to deliver better. Almagor says he expects MR technology to move beyond visualisation into object creation and editing in the future, and to include more support for Internet of Things objects, as well as artificial intelligence. The initial systems from Trimble are already in use with thousands of users, he says, and the technology is bringing tangible benefits to the bottom line.

“HoloLens is not mainstream yet, but looking at the process in the last three years, we have gone from [customers that] have the vision to gain first-mover advantage, to more conservative companies that really understand this is not just  a trend, and that there is real value behind it,” he says.

“Part of the success is to identify the right set of cases that the technology can support – quality control, training, improving safety, production control, communication, and so on. If you focus on those uses, then you can improve productivity and efficiency.”

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