Site-based AR – connectivity still a challenge

Soluis logoSoluis was the official technology partner at the recent Digital Construction Week in London, and has been pioneering approaches to virtual and augmented reality. I asked Martin McDonnell, Soluis’ chairman about how these technologies could enhance collaboration, particularly on-site.

“Immersive ways of conveying information”

Martin McDonnellInnovation within the construction industry is creating a broad range of opportunities to plan, execute and record projects more accurately, efficiently and cost effectively.

Some of these innovations in visualisation which include virtual and augmented reality are benefiting from an increased willingness by those within the industry to embrace and apply them and this is presenting new immersive ways of conveying information to both internal and external stakeholders.

The direct commercial benefits are relatively obvious. Projects managers now have access to tools that allow them to walk clients through unbuilt environments virtually heightening levels of collaboration and understanding and mitigating a large part of the financial risk attached to changes and alterations once a project is built. Companies themselves can also use these new technologies to elevate their sales and marketing activities to clearly articulate yet-to-be-built environments to sell/lease floor space.

The benefits internally are slightly less obvious, but present huge opportunities which have the potential to transform the way a construction site looks and works.

With a shift towards data-driven construction now already very much under way, there is an opportunity for mass adoption of innovative visualisation technologies throughout the workforce to make the workplace safer, easier to navigate, more connected and more efficient.

A world where experts can clearly and effectively communicate with colleagues on a construction site instantly and virtually is now quickly becoming the reality. A world where the vast majority of training can be provided off site, avoiding the risk and cost attached to operating in volatile environments is becoming possible with a shift towards a digitally-enabled construction industry.

My view: “Need for connectivity …”

Immersive VR environments – whether in ‘caves’ or ‘domes’, by use of high-tech headsets such as Oculus Rift or combinations of smartphones and Google Cardboard (Visual-Wise, for example) – into which a client or project worker can step and visualise his or her project surroundings virtually can certainly be powerful when it comes to planning design, construction and future operation and maintenance activities. But when it comes to work on the actual project site itself, mobile augmented reality, AR, perhaps offers the most potential.

Workers cannot risk being distracted or disconnected from their surroundings, but if their view (and perhaps other sensory perceptions – sound, touch) can be enhanced by additional information, completion of routine tasks might be accelerated and completed more seamlessly with fewer steps. At present, this tends to involve conventional tablets or smartphones, which can use the device’s camera and then superimpose additional information over the camera image (contractor Costain used this in planning its upgrade of London Bridge station more than two years ago, and looking even further back, Woobius Eye was a potentially ground-breaking collaborative tool).

Yet wearable technologies eliminate the need even to hold a device, and might be incorporated into existing site-wear – for example, safety spectacles might incorporate smartglass technology that can be gesture controlled (like Bridgit’s Close-out).

However, the opportunity for site-based personnel to access and even update information in real-time remains constrained by one critical factor: connectivity. Current 2G/3G/4G and wifi communications technologies are rarely 100% reliable on a live construction site, and 5G remains something that may be rolled out sometime in the 2020s, helping to deliver the potential of the ‘Internet of Things’ or even the ‘Internet of Everything’ if we are lucky. In the meantime, we may perhaps have to continue relying on mobile tools that capture interractions with our surroundings and then synchronise these once a reliable data connection is established.

(Such challenges will no doubt be discussed at the forthcoming COMIT/Fiatech conference in London on 10-11 November 2015.)

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