At the SPAR3D 2017 conference in Houston, I had the distinct feeling that we are on the cusp of an important inflection point where technology has evolved to the point that it is going to transform the world's construction sector. Handheld scanners and mixed reality are two of the technologies that are set to revolutionize construction. According to Gartner mixed reality is poised to attain what Gartner calls the plateau of productivity where a new technology is applied to real-world problems on a global scale.
In many countries with advanced economies the construction sector, which contributes about $ 10 trillion annually to the world's GDP, has not experienced improvement in productivity for 50 years. During this same period productivity in the non-farm general industrial sector has more than doubled. That means that the value produced by an hour of a construction worker's time is the same now as it was 50 years ago, whereas an automobile worker produces more than twice as much value as 50 years ago. If infrastructure is going to attract the private investment from pension funds, insurance companies, and sovereign wealth funds that is required to maintain and build out the infrastructure we need over the next couple of decades, construction productivity has to improve. The goal of improving productivity will drive investment in technology. According to McKinsey the construction industry is poised for rapid digitization. Examples of the technology that is set to digitize and transform the construction industry were demonstrated at SPAR3D this year.
At this year's SPAR3D three companies in the construction sector, Gensler (a collaborative design firm), McCarthy (a commercial construction firm), and Martin Brothers Construction (a heavy civil construction firm), demonstrated how they were using mixed reality on real-world projects. The tools they used include Enscape, Revizto, Revit, Sketchup Pro, Unity, 3dsMax, Umbra, Hololens, Sketchup Viewer on Hololens, Oculus and HTC Vive. The application that wasn't shown this year, but I hope will be next year at SPAR3D, is Fuzor.
Cody Nowak of Martin Brothers demonstrated building a bathroom pod with Hololens. The bathroom pod was designed using a standard design application sush as Revit or Sketchup, then projected onto the reality of a shop floor were it was constructed using the full-scale virtual reality projection of the design into the shop.
Gensler described collaborative design where two or more designers and stake holders can share a mixed reality space where they work collaboratively on a design.
McCarthy demonstrated how easy it was to work in a virtual reality space with a headset and handheld controllers. They asked a member of the audience with no mixed reality experience to don the headset and controllers. Within a few minutes she was able to move around in the virtual reality - we could see what she saw on a separate screen. Using the handheld controllers she was also able to move things around in the virtual space. She moved furniture and furnishings on the wall. She even threw a stool across the virtual room.
Many of these mixed reality visualizations can be used on handhelds. Workers in the field or during operations and maintenance can use these applications to inspect and query facilities to access inspection and maintenance reports for equipment they point at in a mixed reality environment.
The next step, which was not demonstrated at SPAR3D this year but I expect will be next year, is bidirectional communication link between the mixed reality environment and the authoring design tool, whether Revit or Sketchup. This will make it possible for changes made in the mixed reality environment to be visible in Revit or Sketchup where they can be incorporated in the design. The reverse of this is where design changes in Revit or Sketchup are visible in real-time in the mixed reality environment.
The key elements of mixed reality as it applies to the construction industry are
- bidirectional link between the mixed reality environment and the design tool enabling users to design in their authoring software and view the changes to their design in real time as well as create design changes directly in the mixed reality environment and send those changes back into their authoring software.
- mobile applications of mixed reality for people in the field or in an operating environment
- real-time collaboration in a mixed reality environment independently or simultaneously from anywhere on the globe from a computer or mobile device
We want to be able to don our VR gear and visualize the model we are working on. If there are design changes, we want to be able to make and update them in real time and then jump right back into the mixed reality environment. We also want guests to be able to view the our design changes in the mixed reality environment as we make them. Stakeholders need to be able to explore, review and modify projects independently or simultaneously from anywhere on the globe from their computer or mobile device. We need real-time collaboration to actively review a design with stakeholders, or let collaborators review and make changes to the model in real-time. This is not pie-in-the-sky dreams, people are doing these things already with the software tools I mentioned above. I don't think the question is if, it is how rapidly these tools will proliferate in the construction industry. BIM and digital scanning of different types have already proliferated over the globe and I expect with this digital foundation, these newer tools will spread even faster.