Image: Wikimedia Commons, Manus VR
Graduate Member, Arthur Coates, is a structural engineer at Price & Myers and is currently working with BAM Construction Ltd on the Coal Drops Yard project in Kings Cross, London. Here he gives the contractor’s view of the future of Virtual Reality.
Construction innovation is largely driven by contractors; technology can improve efficiency on site and bring big rewards. So what are contractors doing with virtual reality and what does the future hold?
The greatest potential of Virtual Reality is as a learning tool. Technologies like Microsoft HoloLens, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift allow us to move around an astonishing, high quality projection of the building, learning about the structure at a rate far exceeding traditional on-screen views.
Virtual Reality is also playing a key part in the digitisation of construction sites, used by contractors in the coordination of design teams, pre-construction planning of site activities via 4D software (such as Synchro) and recording the progress of works via hardware such as Matterport - which allows the rapid collection of spatial data and is easily viewed through a Virtual Reality headset.
Health and Safety
These are important steps forward, but the use of Virtual Reality by contractors is in its infancy and tends to be limited to showcase projects. It has real potential to improve health and safety on site: Headsets could be used to provide site inductions, pre-start and toolbox talks to familiarise workers with the tasks involved and aid their understanding of current and future risks – without the need to step on site.
Another big advantage is that virtual models are non-linguistic, so for sites with workers from numerous nations and of various literacy skills, a headset tour could offer a significant gain from a safety perspective.
Augmented Reality offers another interesting direction for virtual technology, superimposing virtual objects onto our view of the real world. A form of this technology is currently used by workers on assembly lines at companies like Boeing and BAE Systems. One start-up is even producing a ‘Smart Helmet’ for workers with Augmented Reality capabilities – making it conceivable that future site workers could construct using real-time data issued to their headset via Cloud technology.
One step further into the future sees the introduction of Mixed Reality - spurred on by the ultra-secretive start-up, Magic Leap. Although the technology is still in development, in Mixed Reality virtual objects are responsive and reactive to the real world. The impact on construction could be vast: in theory, Mixed Reality headsets could guide workers through a task, detect errors during construction, and notify the worker immediately.
Of course, all these technologies present challenges: there are real safety concerns about workers becoming distracted by virtual content. Moreover, poor data connections on site and the current cost of the technology currently prohibits its widespread use.
However, Virtual Reality should not be treated as a novelty technology. Its potential is unprecedented, and the current level of investment in Virtual Reality across the world should forge an exciting future for the construction industry.
Read about the use of virtual reality in design in The Structural Engineer.