VR in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction
We recently discussed how both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have disappeared from Gartner’s Hype Cycle, yet wide-scale enterprise implementations seem to be lacking. Sure, we’re seeing some interesting use cases pop up like data visualization or drug discovery. But VR needs more than nifty use cases, it needs some real traction. There’s always a certain wow factor the first time you step into virtual reality, but once that goes away, you need to show some real value-add. You don’t want to impose virtual reality onto your team because it’s the latest and greatest technology and therefore they ought to be using it.
One industry that seems ripe for some VR disruption is Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC). What better way to show someone how a space will look without the space actually being built? VR is especially useful if any rework to the space costs a lot of money and dozens of stakeholders – scattered across the globe – have differing opinions about how it should all come together. The AEC industry sounds like a perfect use case for VR, so we traveled to Riga, Latvia to meet with the founder of Vividly, Gunita Kuļikovska. With a background in architecture, urbanism and urban strategies, Gunita has been helping AEC companies across the globe apply technology.
Architecture and Technology
Architecture is an interesting craft once you hear how the sausage gets made, but there are some obvious inefficiencies. For example, people who have dedicated their entire careers to learning how to create blueprints, and visualizing what they will look like, then need to explain to people with no architectural background what they’re proposing. In the world of software, you might equate this to having your developers speak directly to the end user with no business analyst to run interference. What you often get are lots of misunderstandings and even more big egos that get upset when things unexpectedly change. If you think through all the stakeholders in a construction project, you get a long list – architects, engineers, contractors, investors – and in the case of urban planning, the government. Designing an entire city block presents problems that are ripe for a technology solution that supports virtual collaboration.
When shown an image of someone wearing a VR headset, 70% of people associate the image with innovation. It’s no surprise that plenty of companies out there read about how disruptive virtual reality could be, and feel that they need to be using it. Never mind the how and why, they just want to be seen as “early adopters.” These are the sort of people who can be a nightmare to deal with if you don’t get them walking down the right path. That is, you first need to establish what problems they have, and which technology solutions – if any – might be effective.
We’ve talked before about “digital twins,” and the architectural equivalent is Building Information Modeling (BIM), “a dynamic process of creating information-rich models for the entire lifecycle of a construction project.” For project managers, it sounds like a godsend. Imagine having a clickable Gantt Chart which is linked to a 3D model of the project. Suddenly, you have a digital model of the project in real-time. Think of how many pesky questions can be avoided when the entire project is rendered in 3D. Now, think about showing this model with different “layers” based on who the stakeholder is. For example, here’s the wiring layer an electrician might be interested in viewing:
Then, imagine being able to zoom into the above model at any coordinate, and looking around the space using virtual reality. For Vividly, this value proposition is their bread and butter.
Vividly and Urban Planning
Founded in 2016, Riga, Latvia startup Vividly has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop a platform that supports the use of virtual reality in various aspects of urban planning with past clients including Affordable Housing Competition (Bee Breeders), European Railway lines (Rail Baltic), London Boroughs, and municipalities in the Baltic Sea region – places like Helsinki, Tallinn, and of course, Riga. The Baltics and Nordics seem to be a hotbed for virtual reality innovation, something that Gunita suspects could result from the strong presence of gaming and multimedia innovation in the region. It’s where her startup is focused on implementing technology to improve urban planning.
Gunita talked about three primary areas where urban planning can benefit from using virtual reality to render 3D models:
- Option analysis – Being able to rearrange spaces and configurations in real-time is a clear advantage for urban planning projects that have all kinds of stakeholders along with rules and regulations that need to be within compliance. Virtual reality makes this process location agnostic.
- Procurement and Competitions – Oftentimes, urban planning projects are offered up for the public to bid on, or closed competitions are put on where a jury picks the winning design. In these cases, it makes sense to render 3D models in virtual reality so that all contestants are evaluated in a similar fashion using ground truth.
- Participation – There is an increasing need for designers to consider a broad spectrum of opinions when designing broad spaces. (As mayor, you don’t want a small subset of the population waving picket signs in front of your office because they found the phallic-shaped water fountain offensive.)
As you can see in the above use cases, the process of using virtual reality is more important than the hardware or software. It’s easy to pick the latest VR headsets and software platforms, but much harder to create what Gunita calls the “extended reality experience,” or “XR,” which is about changing the way we learn. Before founding Vividly, she conducted experiments that showed people with no architectural background could understand blueprints much easier after just spending 15 minutes viewing them VR. That’s no surprise considering that studies show how our brains behave differently when we’re immersed in VR. Increasing spatial awareness is an obvious benefit of virtual reality, but doing it in a manner that helps people communicate more efficiently is what organizations need to solve for. One company with some interesting use cases around VR in AEC is IrisVR.
Use Cases from IrisVR
We first came across IrisVR several years back in our piece on 11 VR Startups Tackling Enterprise Applications. Since that article, IrisVR has taken in fresh money bringing their total disclosed funding to $13.7 million. The company has been bringing VR to more than 60,000 construction managers, engineers, and architects in 105+ countries across the globe—all from their office in New Yawk City. The platform they’ve built, Prospect, helps companies upgrade their design review workflow and save money. In order to understand how diverse the use cases can be, and how many efficiencies can be realized, let’s look at a use case from a public utility company that used Prospect to save money.
Anglian Water’s @One Alliance were looking to improve their early stages of visualization and efficiency in designing and delivering new water projects. Previously, models were sent to programmers who created VR experiences using Unity or Unreal gaming engines, a process that would take 2-3 weeks and could cost up to $6,500. Now, they can create a more dynamic VR experience with Prospect in one click, with updates and changes immediately reflected throughout the design process.
Not only did Prospect eliminate spending on external consultants, it also helped the company avoid costly rework. During a pre-construction review it was noticed that a concrete slab wasn’t serving a function, so it was removed. This resulted in a reduction of $2,595 worth of concrete, and – for all you ESG types – all that bad embedded carbon. In another review, a plant operator approached a chemical injection cabinet and looked inside, instinctively ducking as if to avoid hitting their head. Turns out the cabinet needed to be taller in order to pacify the OSHA types, and replacing it after the fact would have cost $19,475 – money in the bank now for a water utility trying to operate under very tight margins. These are just a few examples of how incorporating VR into the design and review process can benefit AEC companies.
A few years ago we looked at Matterport, a company that was building 3D images of building interiors and targeting real estate initially. Since then, they’ve raised more money and now have over 2 million spaces captured to date, what they believe is the largest index of built spaces in the world. That database of images can be rendered in any way, smartphone, VR headset, desktop, AR headset, it doesn’t matter.
The same goes for rendering spaces that haven’t been built. Anyone can use any medium to view real-time 3D imagery while enjoying the same collaborative benefits. The real value for any business that uses VR doesn’t lie in the novelty factor, it lies in the efficiencies that are created. As Gunita quipped, “the biggest value lies in the process.”