When you think of virtual reality (VR), what do you imagine? Perhaps you imagine games like Pokemon GO, or the PS VR. Perhaps you picture high-tech laboratories like those you see in the Avengers movies, where geniuses design new technology with a wave of the hand. Seems pretty far fetched, right?
The true power of VR right now lies somewhere between those two scenarios. We don’t yet have fully virtual laboratories – but VR is far more than an elaborate toy. Even in the construction industry, renowned for its cautious approach to new technology, architects are already helping clients step inside their designs using the power of VR.
But does VR have any other applications in construction? In this article we’ll outline some of the benefits that the AEC industry – and its clients – could realise by combining the power of VR and BIM.
Who Benefits from using VR in Construction?
Generally speaking, there are two parties who stand to gain most from the use of virtual-reality tools:
- Clients can use VR to see designs and progress in real time
- Service providers can use VR to work more efficiently and effectively
It’s also worth highlighting that VR can be used to show two broad sets of information. We’ve already mentioned that VR can be used to showcase 3D environments created by architects and designers, but VR can also be used to create as-built BIM models. Using reality capture solutions including LiDAR scanning, point cloud mapping software and CAD software, 3D models of real spaces can be generated and explored in a VR environment – the applications for which are very exciting.
So what benefits will we see from the successful marriage of BIM and VR software? Let’s look at it through the different stages of the construction lifecycle:
- Architects can be more adventurous
Though using VR to conjure fantastic new technology out of thin air is still the stuff of movies, VR does allow creatives to work in new and exciting ways. Rather than having to dream up designs on paper or in a tool like Revit if they’re working in 3D, architects and designers can create new objects and buildings around themselves, seeing them grow almost in real time.
By literally immersing themselves in their work, new opportunities for creativity may be unlocked, and ultimately the design team’s ability to deliver – or exceed – a brief is increased. As we’ll see, VR also makes it easier for the client to understand the designs your team has created – and buy in to the more adventurous ideas that VR has enabled the team to visualize.
- You can work with as-built conditions much more effectievely.
Many construction projects involve adding to, or altering, an existing structure – so the better you can understand that structure, the better your project designs can be. By combining reality capture software with virtual reality, designers and architects can step into the existing space and make their designs based on highly accurate as-built data. This will reduce the chances of surprises when the building work actually starts.
- Clients can experience designs and understand them
Even with the advent of computer-aided and 3D designs, clients often find it hard to understand a design – and certain design decisions that they may not like at first.
VR enables a client to experience a design first-hand. They can look around the space and observe it as they would a finished building – and importantly, you can demonstrate the rationale for your decisions much more effectively. Not only does the client get that all-important wow factor; they can participate in the design process, asking questions and making suggestions that can be explored in ways they can understand. With this collaborative approach, solving challenges and overcoming roadblocks down the road could be much smoother.
- Clients can experience progress on the building
As we’ve discussed, VR can be used not only to showcase designs – it can be combined with reality capture tools to generate immersive as-built BIM models. As your building project progresses, you can scan the works and use those to generate VR-compatible models of your progress. This approach will be ideal for clients who are based overseas and who can’t readily visit the site, or for firms trying to manage the flow of people on site to remain Covid-secure.
As with your designs, showing the client progress in this way helps them become a constructive partner in the project. You can show them where you may have had to deviate from your designs, and explain why, and involve them in the decision-making process. You can even demonstrate fulfilment of contractual obligations through your scans, ensuring that everyone is happy with the project and that it’s signed off on time.
- Project teams work better, providing greater value
In the same way that you and the client can collaborate more effectively in a VR environment, construction project teams can also collaborate more effectively in VR. If the environment of as-built conditions has been created using the right point cloud mapping software, then different parties can see all the elements of the building, from structural members to floor space and windows, and can visualize things like clash detection much more effectively.
Better collaboration will relalize a number of benefits for your organization:
- Fewer errors will reduce the cost and delays of rework on projects
- Faster working will mean that you can speed up projects, or handle more projects at one time
- Better collaboration between different design teams will make it more likely that the final building matches the initial design
How to Get Started using VR and BIM in your Projects
To bring these exciting possibilities to life in your organization, there are a few factors to consider:
- Skills: you’ll need to make sure that you have the skills in-house to drive the technologies needed for VR. That includes running the VR software itself, but also designing the objects – and if you are planning to capture as-built conditions, the skills to operate scanners and to drive the software that generates segregated mesh data from those scans.
- Buy-in from stakeholders: this technology will require investment, and that means you will need senior stakeholders to support the project. Building a solid business case of what benefits you expect this investment to bring your organization, and how soon, is essential.
- The right software: to make VR solutions work for your organization it’s important that you choose the right software. A VR application that allows you to collaborate with others in real time is essential, as opposed to one that simply lets you view a static object. Perhaps most importantly, the software that you use to import as-built data from scanners into your VR environment needs to be easy to use, and needs to be able to classify all the different components of the building so that you and your project teams can usefully inspect the building and collaborate.
The Future is Now
This article shows that the era of VR in construction isn’t some far-off dream – it’s something that organizations can make happen today. And in fact, it could well be a necessary investment to survive the coming years. As construction organizations continue to optimize and streamline their processes, investing in VR solutions that reduce rework, speed up projects and create novel client experiences may be essential if your firm is to remain competitive.