Introducing Augmented Reality in Digital Construction

September 22, 2020

Developing a Digital Culture in Construction: How XR technologies are helping AEC professionals embrace and adopt digital solutions

Over the last 20 years, the Architecture Engineering & Construction (AEC) industry has undergone a digital change. It started with the adoption of CAD systems that revolutionized the design process by making it possible to create drawings and plans digitally. Fast forward to today, and the use of advanced tools like BIM are providing fully detailed 3D models of buildings, bridges, and civil infrastructure.

technology in construction augmented reality

A shift toward digital tools is happening at a rapid pace throughout the construction industry. This is no surprise, since the tools are bringing much-needed improvements to workflows and outcomes across the building lifecycle.

But with each new digital system or technology that’s introduced in construction, there are inevitably new hurdles to overcome. Even as more AEC companies implement advanced technologies, construction as a whole is still among the least digitized industries. While it can be challenging to introduce any new system or tool into existing processes and ensure successful adoption by employees and teams, it’s an even bigger obstacle for those in construction. The reasons include:

  • Many contractors and trades still rely to some degree on manual tools and methods, making successful adoption of technology seem even more unattainable.
  • The workforce is accustomed to performing work in the ways they’re comfortable with and have historically been resistant to new technologies.
  • Attracting the next generation of workers through a demonstrated investment in technology is important, but some worry it may be too risky or disruptive.

These reasons, while not invalid, actually illuminate the foundational issue: construction needs to make a cultural shift. Construction is in need of the benefits that technology can deliver. But for companies to realize these benefits, it’s imperative that they develop a digital culture. In a digital culture, technology isn’t something to be feared or avoided, but rather it begins to shape the way workers interact, think, and communicate.

Developing this digital culture doesn’t start with technology, it starts with people. Construction companies can begin to create this cultural shift by developing and nurturing a digital mindset among their workforce. This requires a willingness on behalf of leaders first and foremost to believe in the value of technology solutions. They can then lead employees to release any misgivings as they grasp how technology can help them perform their jobs faster, better, and more safely.

Workers aged 45-64 make up nearly 40% of the construction workforce. The average age of construction workers—now approaching 43—has risen at a faster pace in recent years.[1]

Extended reality (XR) technologies, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), are helping to do just that. These tools aren’t just the latest digital advancements to make waves in construction. Because they closely parallel devices and apps that workers of all ages are already familiar with or using in their everyday lives, XR technologies are also the gateway toward greater digital adoption. The opposite of being overly technical or complicated, XR is more intuitive and easier to use than many people may realize.

This paper explores XR technologies and how they can help construction companies encourage and foster a digital mindset, enabling them to address their biggest problems today, keep pace with evolving challenges, and maintain a competitive edge.

sitevision-construction-augmented-reality-jobsiteDemystifying XR Technologies

While XR technology may sound futuristic or advanced, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are already familiar to the vast majority of people. They may not even realize that they’re interacting with these technologies or that they’re already using the tools that make them possible. Here’s a closer look at each one.

Virtual Reality: Not Just the Gamer’s Domain

VR is well known in the gaming industry. It provides a fully immersive, uniquely detailed experience in which the user controls everything they see and do. Users wear VR goggles that project a virtual digital world while motion sensors in the goggles know when the user turns their head and then updates the digital images accordingly. Handheld controls allow users to point and interact with virtual objects.

Because VR technology has been continually fine-tuned over the years for the gaming industry, there tends to be a quick learning curve for most people. Younger workers who have some experience with VR through popular gaming platforms will feel comfortable with the technology. Yet even for those workers who’ve never had the experience of being totally immersed in a digital world, the use of VR can come easily. Because they’re able to use their own natural movements to direct their experience, and may have even done so by playing a game like Nintendo Wii with their kids, the technology is very intuitive.

Augmented Reality: A Fit for Any Smartphone User

AR has a natural home among smartphones and tablets. Using a smartphone’s camera to capture a live image of the user’s physical location, AR technology overlays 3D digital content onto that image, thus “augmenting”—or enhancing—the real world in context. Sensors know when the user moves or changes their point of view, and the digital content is updated relative to what the user is seeing.AR-for-smartphones-sitevision

AR technology may be the easiest to adopt because many people already use a smartphone every day. These devices have become so intuitive that there’s little to no training necessary to use them. People of all ages know how to take photos and videos, and they can teach themselves how to navigate common commands and use new apps or functionality. They’re also already accustomed to using their devices to view and share information, whether looking at family photos, sharing a news article, or watching a short video.

In the U.S., 92% of people ages 30-49 and
79% of people ages 50-64 own a smartphone.[2]

Mixed Reality: Bridging the Best of Both Worlds

Mixed-reality-Trimble-XR10MR combines VR and AR by providing both an immersive and an interactive experience without the user losing awareness of their actual physical surroundings. MR systems use a headset with a lens to project digital content onto the real world. Cameras and sensors determine where the user is located and project the digital content accordingly with accurate measurements and surface-to-surface alignment. Users can interact with their surroundings without having to hold a device or controls.

MR technology also tends to have a shorter learning curve because it combines the ease of both VR and AR. Like AR, the user is able to maintain visibility of their actual environment. And like VR, the user can rely on a range of familiar movements and hand gestures to control the experience that are similar when using a smartphone, such as touching a screen, double pressing, pinching, swiping up, or swiping down.

Digital Data Platform: Like the Facebook of XR Functionality

The backbone of any XR technology is a cloud-based collaboration platform, much like Facebook and Twitter for consumers or LinkedIn for professionals. It’s where digital content is stored and made accessible for use in VR, AR, and MR applications. The user can access data from any location with an internet connection via a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Established permissions control who can see and share information.

Over the last decade, young and old alike have become comfortable using collaboration-based or sharing platforms on a daily basis. Because these platforms are accessible from mobile devices and computers, they don’t require additional IT infrastructure to operate or manage. Most people are already familiar with the concept of sharing events, documents, images, and videos, which makes for an easy transition into using software that integrates with VR, AR, or MR.

Using XR to Create a Digital Mindset 

VR, AR, and MR have been used in mainstream consumer applications for some time now. Many industries have likewise seen the benefits and already implemented XR solutions. But the construction industry still has significant ground to make up. Here’s how construction companies can capitalize on XR to create a digital mindset and pave the way to a broader, more cohesive digital culture.

Attract Talent & Retain Staff

In a competitive job market, attracting the best talent is one of the foundations to building a reputable company that delivers quality assets and services. Young, high-calibre talent are already oriented toward using technology, and they’ll likely experience some of the newest construction technologies—including XR—during their industry-focused education. As they enter the workforce, they’ll be looking for companies that embrace and use these tools. The use of XR technology helps them remain current in their technical skills and enables them to perform their work better, while also instilling a sense of pride that the company they work for is operating at the forefront of the industry.

By 2025, millennials will comprise
75% of the global workforce.[3]

Being a progressive company that uses modern, proven technology also aids in staff retention. As evidenced by the widespread adoption of smartphones across the population, there is no age barrier to the use of technology if it delivers value in a simple-to-use, easy-to-understand way. Augmented reality (AR) in particular can enhance a construction project by allowing workers to see and understand critical details of a building or jobsite in context. When construction pros, especially those who have been in the industry for a while, realize how AR technology simplifies jobsite understanding and reduces rework, their job satisfaction and morale increase.

At the same time, when companies need to scale up for larger projects, they often have to hire relatively unskilled staff. Any tools that simplify the onboarding of new staff can accelerate the company’s mobilization at the start of a project. For example, 80% of 18 to 30-year-olds confess to not being able to read a map and can’t navigate without electronic guidance.[4] But when presented with an AR view of a project, it’s much easier for people of any age and experience level to recognize what’s being constructed and where.

“We’re seeing a massive shift into virtual and augmented reality, which offers the possibility to bring pretty much anyone from anywhere into a project ecosystem.”[5]

Improve Safety & Training

ENR3(Image showing an AR view of a complicated 2D plan of underground utilities)

It’s estimated that as many as 65% of people are visual learners and need visual techniques to retain information. This makes XR technologies ideal tools for training, especially when it comes to safety, which is a critical part of any construction company’s mission. While XR technologies on their own don’t improve safety, they do create the opportunity and ability to cultivate skills and reduce human error by delivering easy-to-understand digital data in real time and for specific situations.

As many as 65% of people are visual learners.[6]

One way VR technology is being adopted by the construction industry is for safety training. Before executing a complex, site-specific assembly on site, VR can be used to train workers on best practices in a controlled environment first. For example, an app released by the American Society of Safety Professionals uses VR to give construction workers an interactive way to learn fall safety.[7] The app, called ASSP VR Fall Protection Experience, meets the ANSI/ASSP Z359 Fall Protection and Fall Restraint standards. Instead of learning how to protect against falls on a potentially dangerous jobsite, workers can learn what to do in a simulated environment free from hazards—analogous to the way training simulations were used before sending astronauts to the moon.

AR technology is also being deployed for training. The Trimble Pulse Remote Expert application allows companies to leverage the knowledge base of their most experienced technical staff. These staff members can remotely provide task- and serviced-based on-the-job training to new employees in the field. AR is often the logical starting point for introducing a team to the benefits of XR technologies when used for training because staff members are already familiar with smartphones, which shortens the learning curve.

Mixed reality (MR) is arguably the best technology for delivering training content because it combines the benefits of VR and AR. Unlike VR systems, MR systems, such as the Trimble XR10 head-mounted device, allow users to see and interact with the real world while simultaneously viewing digital content. The ability to see their physical surroundings and the digital content together allows users to interact with other team members, trainers, and the work environment. Since an MR system is head-mounted, users can use both hands while working through any practical training exercise. To complete a series of steps in sequence, simple voice commands allow the user to move onto the next step while steps that have been completed are greyed out. In this way, workers can train on a task clearly and methodically and in a repeatable way.

“Tools like HoloLens…could help [the] $10 trillion [construction]
business increase efficiency so that fewer projects
run over budget and behind schedule.”[8] 

Facilitate Communication & Collaboration

Communication and collaboration in construction are notoriously difficult because of the dynamics of ever-changing projects, the number and diversity of people involved, and the historically siloed approach to managing workflows and information. XR technologies enable all project stakeholders to share the same vision of the finished project and, in doing so, facilitate a consistent and common understanding of many facets of the project, from  design intent to a potential system clash to a customer change order, allowing them to perform their jobs with more confidence and accuracy and reduce the risk of costly rework.augmented-reality-construction-communication

By making the sharing of both design intent and project data possible, XR technologies can help break down the typical silos in the construction industry. Teams working in the field can communicate with teams back in the office in real time, and vice versa, because they’re accessing the same up-to-date models and data and have a means of effectively communicating using visual information.

trimble-connect

Individual trades also gain an improved ability to communicate with each other—a challenge that’s been difficult to overcome given the unique processes and workflows that each is responsible for and the adversarial relationships that can develop as a result. This can be achieved by using a collaboration platform such as Trimble Connect in combination with XR technologies to facilitate a shared understanding of a project or data across the consultant, contractor, and subcontractor divides.

“Today, decisions made collaboratively and in the immersive context
will improve decision speed and accuracy by virtually
eliminating ‘decision by translation’—the cumbersome
process of visualizing 2D data in a 3D world.”[9]

AR also becomes a major contributor in accelerating project delivery and transforming client-facing engagement since users can share AR images and video via the collaboration platform to easily communicate and illustrate project progress, status, RFIs, and other issues. When workers, owners, and other stakeholders experience first hand the new avenues to information-sharing that XR technologies open up, they not only internalize the value of digital tools, they also become champions of them.

Take Digital to the Next Level with XR

There’s a “wow” factor that people experience when they’re first introduced to construction-focused XR technologies. But they soon realize how intuitive the tools are—and how they can be applied to many applications and workflows to drive meaningful and measurable improvements.

As the construction industry pushes for even greater digitization, a change in workforce mindset and company culture is needed to keep pace and compete. The use of XR technologies can help create and foster a digital mindset among the workforce by:

  • Giving workers of all ages the ability to use advanced digital tools to do their jobs better and develop new and relevant skills
  • Facilitating hands-on and realistic training in a safe and effective way
  • Improving communication and collaboration using technology and digital sharing concepts that workers already understand

By overcoming the visualization problem in construction and helping teams and stakeholders achieve a shared project understanding, XR technologies are an ideal entry point to additional advanced technologies that can further improve communication, productivity, safety, and profitability. When workers see the value and intuitive nature of digital tools like XR, a strong digital culture will naturally follow.

To learn more about how construction companies can use XR technologies, read the white paper >


[1] Parsons, Jim. “How Companies Are Adapting to the Needs of An Aging Workforce.” ENR. Aug. 28, 2019.

[2] Mobile Fact Sheet. Pew Research Center. June 12, 2019.

[3] Economy, Peter. “The (Millennial) Workplace of the Future Is Almost Here—These 3 Things Are about to Change Big Time.” Inc. Jan. 15, 2019.

[4] Ward, Alex. “Four out of five young drivers can’t read a map as we become more reliant on satnavs.” Daily Mail. Jan. 21, 2013.

[5] Cousins, Stephen. “Interview: Atkins’ Marc Durand—A paperless construction future.” BIM+. July 9, 2017.

[6] St. Louis, Moddly. “How to Spot Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic-Learning Executives.” Inc. Aug. 1, 2017.

[7] Hedmond, Shane. “New App Uses Virtual Reality to Teach Construction Workers about Fall Protection.” Construction Junkie. July 26, 2018.

[8] Woyke, Elizabeth. “Augmented Reality Could Speed Up Construction Projects.” MIT Technology Review. Aug. 10, 2016.

[9] Tyner, Dave. “Immersive Tech: Model Coordination in the XR.” Construction Executive. July 31, 2019.

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