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Augmented reality and what it could mean for the construction industry

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown speaks with Gaia Dempsey, co-founder & VP DAQRI, about the emergence of  augmented reality and its application to the construction industry.

Gaia Dempsey is a creative strategist and pioneer in the field of augmented reality, driving the adoption of DAQRI’s augmented reality and holographic technologies worldwide.


How would you describe augmented reality to the uninitiated?

Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that overlays 3D digital content seamlessly onto the real world, using specialized hardware and software. For example, you could use AR to overlay digital building information modeling (BIM) data directly on a construction site to help spatially orient architects, construction workers, and clients. AR BIM data can provide both a preview of what the completed project will look like as well as operational guidance along the way.

DAQRI’s rugged wearable AR products – Smart Glasses – do exactly this in the construction industry. Beyond construction, our AR products increase productivity, enhance training, and improve safety for enterprise businesses in fields such as aerospace, energy, manufacturing, medicine, and more. AR software applications that run on DAQRI hardware give workers on diverse job sites powerful new capabilities. For example, AR Work Instructions reduce errors, decrease cognitive load, and improve workers’ learning curves when engaging in manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, inspection and repair tasks. Our Remote Expert application delivers the ability to share one’s point of view and receive live assistance from anyone, anywhere in the world, and Thermographer enables the wearer to build a 3D model of an environment, with the heat signature encoded into the spatial information.


What is your vision for the role augmented reality can play in the construction industry?

We believe that ARis one of the key innovations that will help to more tightly couple the design and build phases of construction, reducing excess back-and-forth and improving communication, quality and efficiency across all the stakeholders involved in making a new building a reality.

At the beginning of the cycle, architects and designers can use AR to visualise their work in a life-size format, and keep track of new model versions and changes. Beyond a simple display, AR can display information in the right spatial and task context, including all of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, as well as architectural details such as walls, colours, and textures, and even furniture. This means visualising the design onsite in its correct scale and orientation, showing its relationship to the landscape and any existing infrastructural features. This makes it possible to catch design issues early on, and make any necessary changes before construction begins.

AR can also be used to show customers and investors various options in an intuitive, spatially interactive format. Clients can get involved during the design phase with an option to request changes in case the original design does not meet their expectations. Additionally, clients can see the project progress by visually comparing design versus as-built, provide them better visibility into the project progress. MEP contractors would get enhanced guidance during their work by visualizing the building services information as they route services.

After construction, many AEC firms are now taking on contracts to maintain the buildings they create. AR will serve as an essential link connecting design, construction and facility management, having captured all critical design decisions along the way, and providing a way to easily visualize all the information needed to inspect, repair, and upgrade infrastructure.


Is it fair to say that the introduction of augmented reality could be revolutionary in its applications across industry?

AR will be revolutionary in the workplace because it will set a new bar for “normal,” just like the internet and mobile devices have done in both our work and personal lives. Three decades of research in areas such as manufacturing, aerospace, and surgery have shown that AR training and task guidance significantly reduces errors, speeds up learning, and accelerates task completion time – literally making mental and physical tasks easier. AR has held this promise for a long time, but up until now, the missing link has been cost-effective and comfortable wearable hardware that is up to the task in terms of form factor, processing power, and robust tracking. DAQRI’s wearable devices are the first to deliver such a unified, commercial off-the-shelf solution that can work in industrial conditions, with the processing power needed to perform complex rendering, and the tracking capabilities needed to operate outdoors in all lighting conditions. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the AR space

Is the next generation of workers the key to advancement with their expectancy to work digitally – eg children playing Minecraft?

The user interfaces that we have designed work equally well for kids (all of our employees have put the Smart Helmet on their kids’ heads) and senior, experienced manufacturing engineers from a range of cultures. While we find that kids usually get it without any explanation, people of all ages experience a sense of wonder when using AR for the first time.

Augmented reality and what it could mean for the construction industry1

Is the visualisation of information the key to making people’s jobs easier?

Research shows that AR helps to accelerate mental processes like spatial transformations and information retrieval. Those capabilities translate to the job site, where AR makes coordination and communication between mechanical, electrical and plumbing vendors easier. AR provides a visual tool that simplifies de-conflicting, and improves quality control. With a visual tool that ensures everyone is on the same page, it’s more likely that projects can get completed on time and on budget.


What role can augmented reality play in training?

AR can be used in training applications in much the same way that it is used in operations, and that’s exactly the benefit. AR makes higher training fidelity easy and cost-effective, ensuring that trainees experience life-size construction site models as they work their way through interactive content in an AR interface.


Are there any limits to augmented reality technology that is preventing it being fully embraced by the construction industry?

The biggest challenge any new technology faces is the need to prove that it can pay itself in the first few weeks or months of deployment. For DAQRI’s wearable AR products, this usually means creating ROI through shorter project schedules, higher quality, fewer errors, and greater safety. The cost savings realised through these improvements are making the case for faster AR tech adoption.

The DAQRI Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses are built on a 64-bit architecture, meaning that they can handle large, complex 3D models. Our tracking solution, which maps the world around the device and keeps track of the device’s position in space, is based on a technology called visual inertial odometry, which works in bright daylight conditions, unlike any other AR wearable on the market.

So the technology itself is not the limiting factor. Rather, it’s usually the need for a specific application. That’s why we’re so excited about our partnership with Autodesk and the BIM 360 product suite as well as our work with Trimble, because they provide an instant toolchain that covers the needs of most construction industry projects.

Is it the case that technology needs to be tailored to specifically to the construction industry rather than trying to utilise devices designed for the consumer market?

When it comes to using technology in work operations, both the hardware and the software need to be designed to fit into the environment. From privacy on the software side to ruggedization on the hardware side, most consumer devices simply don’t work in the demanding environment of a construction site. If the solution is tailored to fit the exact environment where it will be solving problems, it’s much more likely to succeed. That’s why the DAQRI Smart Helmet and Smart Glasses are designed from the ground up to work in places with lots of dirt, dust, and grime. They are meant to be handled like standard industrial equipment.

How different would you envisage the job of an average construction worker changing over the next 20 years in terms of technology? What innovations are we likely to see?

Twenty years is a long time! A lot sooner than that – in the next 5-10 years – I expect a lot of innovation to come online in the 3D sensing space that will change the construction industry from the inside out. There are already a lot of efforts to build a 3D map of the construction site, and merge that map with digital BIM designs.

In the future, 3D sensing capabilities will improve to the point that they’ll be able to deliver a sub-millimetre-accurate map of the world around us. Computing infrastructural improvements in areas like data compression, battery technology, and connectivity beyond the current push to 5G will allow that super intelligent map to be accessible to everyone, including the average construction worker, through their AR wearables.

When you can easily and cheaply 3D capture any object in your environment, lots of people will probably be pointing at cats and adding special effects to create the AR version of the Nyan Cat. The lines between the digital and the physical will start to get very blurry. Futuristic cat videos aside, once this tool is a normal feature of life, it will become trivial to gather data and insights about the work site. You’ll be able to have perfect knowledge of all the tools and materials inventory, and create new insights based on that information. You’ll also be able to augment the map with information about its past and future states. For example, you could stand in the middle of a skyscraper and experience its 3D reconstruction in AR showing the full build process from zero to 100%. You could do this at any point in the building’s life cycle – before construction starts, in the middle of the project, or a year after it’s been completed – and it would serve different purposes, be useful to different stakeholders, and provide different practical and cultural effects.
Robotics and 3D printing will evolve a lot in this timeframe as well, resulting in construction workers jobs looking a lot different. Robots are already starting to build architectural structures today, and improvements in robot versatility will increase this trend. On the 3D printing side, it’s going to get faster, bigger, and capable of using more materials in a single print. For our part, we just announced an exciting development from our R&D lab: an instant 3D printer that utilises a single infusion of laser light, passed through a holographic modulator, to form 3D objects. We’ve proved the concept at a small scale, and it will just keep getting better. With these types of capabilities in place, construction workers will be more focused on programming and directing the activity of their new, quirky teammates.

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