In a Virtual Future…

In recent years, we at BIM Equity have been deeply involved in Virtual Reality and similar technologies. Based on user involvement, testing, analysis and commissioning we develop Cloud-based software that supports Virtual Reality and real-time collaborations. It has become possible to design buildings with a finger on a touch screen. Buildings that immediately can be tested in Virtual reality. The user of tomorrow can immerse themselves in the 3D model while they are creating! The future has arrived...


However, we often experience that VR technology can be difficult to understand for non-professionals. Occasionally, they take everything with the word Virtual Reality for good from a "It must be where the future is”-perspective. This lack of understanding holds a danger that companies invest in state of the art technology which does not add any real value to their work processes nor projects. This blogpost tries to explain the differences between some of the new technologies and tendencies that are widely spoken by focusing on where real value is created and where the hype is mostly, well just hype. 


Virtual prototypes

Most products, such as Cars, phones, shoes etc. are designed using 100s of prototypes, that enables you to test the products in full scale (1: 1). This can be done with the aid of a 3D print or a cardboard model - or even a full scale physical test model. But in the AEC industry, you can’t just build two or three full-scale prototypes, which is why you sometimes build "mock-ups" of a small sample of a facade or full-size room with the real. However, mock ups are quite expensive and only shows a fragment of how the actual building will be like.  


With BIM (Building Information Models), the building is designed simultaneously in 2D drawings and 3D models. This results in a much better understanding of the project for professional advisors, developers and the future users that often can’t understand architectural drawings. Instead they gain a much greater understanding if they take a walk around the project in a 3D model on an iPad.


With BIM, drawings and models are created with 3D objects that are broken down to the building parts they represent such as walls, tires, roofs, windows, doors, stairs etc. This provides a sort of intelligence, where the software understands the building as a building and therefore is able to simulate energy consumption, light incident, shadow charts, turbulence and much more. You can also use BIM to quality assurance before the construction starts by collision control check, finding projection errors, ensuring compliance with the building program and much more. Here, BIM is an artificial (virtual) prototype, which ensures that the client and users get the project they want. The quality assured BIM-project can be built in real life without need for further corrections 


When using 3D models to provide an experience of actually being inside the model, it is called Virtual Reality - an artificial reality. If you use the 3D model as virtual prototype, it not only makes sense just to experience the model on a computer screen or an iPad, but also to immerse yourself in the project, so the experience of the model excludes the real environment.


Virtual Reality is often experienced through 3D spectacles that separate the image for each eye in order tot create a depth effect that is known 3D movies. This can be done with simple and inexpensive solutions where you put a smartphone in a spectacle, as the phone's motion sensors and big screen provide the necessary techniques. In this case, the spectacle only adds a distance between the eyes and the phone, as well as a pair of lenses that enhance the experience. Moving your head around automatically controls the image so that you experience the presence of the model. The cheapest solutions for this is Google Cardboard, which costs the same as an ice cream. More expensive solutions can be attached to one's head so that your hands can control our way through the model with a remote control.


If you use BIM as a design method, you already have a 3D model available. With software such as BIMx, you can easily transfer the model to a smartphone that can be connected to Google Cardboard with a single click. It's easy, almost free and brings great value to non-professional builders, especially on smaller projects.


There is a huge difference in the experience with different VR spectacles all depending on whether it is a Google Cardboard or a more expensive eyewear for smartphones. But the difference is even greater if you use VR spectacles that are connected directly to a powerful computer. Systems such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive have received great attention especially within the computer game industry. These spectalces result in a much nicer experience, with a smaller delay which makes the experience of "reality" more lively. This has a large impact than you might think. At the same time, the computer can also be connected to motion sensors, which can detect what you are doing and adjust the perspective accordingly to your body position, your height whether you are in a wheel chair – all this makes sense when testing a building project. The latter systems cost around 1.500 euros and then you have to add the price of the computer comes in. The disadvantage of VR spectacles is that you are alone in the experience. It is possible to connect multiple users at the same time as in the 3D model represented by an "avatar", an artificial person, that also looks quite artificial. Hence the experience easily feels more artificial than real, even though the technology is highly advanced. It's just hard to reproduce people naturally in 3D.



In order for more people to share a VR experience together, a VR Studio which reproduces the 3D model on the interior surfaces of the room is an obvious option. This type of cinema is called a CAVE. In a CAVE you use 3D spectacles like in the cinema and a motion sensor adjusts the perspective according to the front user’s location. This gives front person an optimal experience, but also allows everyone else in the room to have an almost equally good experience. At BIM Equity, we are experienced in facilitating VR Studio visits, and also develop VR software and hardware. We regard VR Studios as the optimal use of Virtual Reality for co-creation, user involvement, wayfinding, commissioning and many other forms assurance proceedings of construction projects at a phase where it is possible to adapt, align and correct the project without major financial consequences.


The full value of virtual prototypes in AEC comes when the project team is able to work together on a given project and all professions and stakeholders are involved – this is exactly what a VR Studio allows. The value creation in the process is greatest in the initial stages of the project, where communication between developers, consultants, authorities, operations and users is a focus point. The early phases determine the following and therefore it is important for everyone to have the same understanding of the solutions that are being prepared. A CAVE is the VR tool that creates the greatest value.


The most important factor for a successful project is that everyone – regardless of education, experience or geographical location at the time of the meeting - are able to participate and benefit from the process facilitated by 1:1 virtual prototypes. With a VR Cloud it is possible to participate in the project work from HMD, Mobil VR or VR Studio - all in real-time. As opposed to people who get a VR eyepiece in their hand and test VR. In the latter cases the experience is often more a test of VR than a test of the project and an experience of the building since the technology often shadows the essence.



Where Virtual Reality is proven technology that creates value every day in building projects worldwide, Augmented Reality is still in its initial stages. AR incorporates a digital model in addition to the real surroundings. It is a mix of reality and 3D model. A good example is the Pokémon game that became hugely successful and allowed youngsters and elders with the aid their cell phone cameras to see small animals in the real world that were to be caught as part of the gameplay. 


Today there are many examples of solutions for the construction industry, where you can use the camera on your phone or tablet, for example. You can get a miniature model of an apartment to stand on your Sunday news paper and turn the newspaper, while turning the 3D model at the same time. This is a good example of using advanced technology without creating added value - besides delivering a "gimmick". If you want to show interested buyers the 3D model of an apartment, a common 3D viewer for the smartphone and tablet is much easier to navigate in and gives a better representation of the model, since you are not distracted by the dining table nor the newspaper around the model.


You can also view the future building as a 3D model, but inserted on the building site, through the camera on a phone. That is, you can walk around your building site and see the future construction through the screen on your phone. This sounds smart, but since many buildings are built on grounds that might have trees or other types of landscapes it is hard to ignore these in the AR provided. Our experience is that Augmented Reality is not suitable to experience future constructions - Virtual Reality is the best tool for this! 


But where does AR make sense for the construction industry? An obvious option is for operation and maintenance, where you have a well-detailed 3D model. Here AR will be able to display hidden installations or colour coded tubes. But this not only requires a highly detailed model but also an indoor positioning system, which is much more accurate than a GPS that also only functions outdoors.


There are examples of AR as a design tool you can use prototypes with the aid of special spectacles (e.g. Microsoft Hololens) can design buildings as if the 3D model is on your desk in scale 1:100. But this is by no means smarter than using mouse, keyboard and monitor on a normal computer today. However, there are examples from Trimble that allow you to weld concrete reinforcements using the 3D model seen through an AR-eyeglass, and hereby making traditional drawings redundant. In the case precision is not of uttermost importance, so this actually a good example. This, along with an example from NCC, where they supervise the construction site with an AR spectacle and can see the BIM project in 3D. This allows them to detect errors such as when installations are placed incorrectly in relation to the design models. But it should be mentioned that it is not technology available today, but it will probably be in the near future. Google were out early with AR spectacles, but they were launched before users were ready to accept the technology. Google quickly retracted the product.



To sum up on the above, there is unbelievably great value in designing buildings using BIM to create a virtual prototype. It is probably also why the Danish Government demands BIM for public and non-profit construction projects. If the VR-model becomes available for users via a phone or tablet this accessibility definitely will create greater value. 


Virtual Reality is used to test construction projects from the early sketch phases through the design phases and the joint understanding this generates between advisors, entrepreneurs, builders and users increases the value of the virtual prototypes. It can be done easily and cheaply, but investing in professional solutions diminishes the focus on technology in favour of a greater focus on the project, which in turn creates value. VR spectacles provide a very good experience, but VR Cinemas allows the project team and users to use VR without it becoming too artificial and technology becoming the centre of attention. 


Augmented Reality has its strength in production, supervision and operation and not in the early stages of sketching and design. At the same time, it is a technology that will have a major impact on our everyday lives - but it is clearly a more distant future. Right now, Augmented Reality is best for capturing Pokémon animals with their children.


With a good understanding of the technology and the basis for using it, consultants, builders and users are able to focus on the solutions that support their needs. Professional will be able to invest in the methods that solve their daily challenges, and not only are fun ideas that signal "we are in the new technology". Even the most advanced technology does not replace old-fashioned common sense.