Virtual reality is quickly becoming a popular tool for everyone from architects to clients to explore spaces before they are built. Photo: DIRTT Environmental Solutions

Virtual reality changing how construction industry looks at buildings

I’m sitting in a fully furnished condo unit, facing a large window. The city stretches out far below me; the majestic Rockies can be seen in the distance. Suddenly I’m moving quickly toward the window, and my stomach lurches at the thought that I am going to go flying through it. The movement stops as suddenly as it started and there’s laughter.

“Sorry,” a disembodied voice says. “It’s not perfect yet.”

In reality, I’m not in the condo unit, because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s in a virtual world being created by Ice Edge Business Solutions, a subsidiary of DIRTT Environmental Solutions, to give architects, engineers, contractors and building owners an incredible new way of experiencing spaces before they are created in the material world. It’s powerful, and it’s on the verge of becoming an industry norm because it speeds up decision making and allows for changes to be made earlier, keeping costs down.

VR on ICE

DIRTT developed its virtual reality (VR) technology using an early prototype of Oculus’s VR goggles about three years ago. Since then, it’s brought people into its lab in Calgary to run more than 2,000 tours.

“It makes a difference for people,” says Barrie Loberg, vice-president, software development and co-founder of DIRTT. “One of the first stories I thought was really profound was with a client who was building a new space and wasn’t sure about a column placement. Some people on the team thought it wasn’t a problem, some people thought it was, and some weren’t sure. We put them in the headset so they actually felt like they were in the space. After that, the group was unanimous that the column was a problem and they needed to go back to the engineer.”

DIRTT’s ICEvr technology allows users to walk around the space and see rooms pop into existence, finishings change and the outside view transform to indicate the floor they are on. James Mulawyshyn, a member of the ICEvr team, explains how movement is tracked.

“We use magnetics to track the participant’s movement in the ICEvr lab. This motion tracking is translated into ICE, so as you walk around the physical space you are seamlessly navigating the virtual space,” he says. “You are totally transported to a new reality.”

But the technology isn’t perfect, so ICEvr is moving to optical motion capture rather than magnetic motion capture. Optical tracking is very accurate, allowing for a more realistic experience for the user.

The ability to walk through the space only became possible recently thanks to rapid advancements in technology. VR requires a high-powered computer, which used to mean you had to be connected to a very large computer. But today’s high-powered laptops can be carried in a backpack. With the backpack and goggle-style headset, users are free to roam at will. It can take some getting used to, but Mulawyshyn says clients quickly become comfortable with it.

“We’re using VR in business every day,” he says. “We put real client ICE files into VR so the DIRTT sales rep can tour them through their space even while still in the design phase.”

Cost factor

Andy Beall, chief executive officer and co-founder of WorldViz, has been involved in VR since the early 1990s, when he helped develop technologies that could be used to conduct research in human perception and behaviour. Today, WorldViz delivers VR solutions to businesses in a variety of industries, including the construction industry.

“For a decade or more, the AEC [architecture, engineering and construction] field has embraced digital design tools. They already have their key assets in a digital format so they can pop them into a real-time visualization system and experience that design. The final result for the end-user, the stakeholder, not just the designer, is to cut away the abstraction of blueprints and rendered stills. They can get down on hands and knees and look under any object if they wish,” Beall says.

He believes that projection VR, in which the images are projected onto multiple screens, and goggle-based VR, which allows users to experience being in the space, are popular options for construction companies. While goggle-based VR allows for a more compelling and immersive experience, projecting the space onto large screens allows multiple team members to see the same thing, assisting in collaborative design or reviews. It also allows team members to see each other’s expressions—an element that is currently missing in a goggle-based experience.

The biggest hurdle for companies in the AEC field interested in onboarding VR technology is converting existing digital assets into a format that will work in a real-time rendering engine that is much like a videogame engine.

“That’s a different art in the sense of what designers need and the methods used to optimize and make sure things run at a frame rate that’s acceptable so you don’t make people motion sick,” Beall says. “You don’t need to be a computer scientist or a programmer to experience your designs in one-to-one scale in VR, but you may need to hire someone with a background in real-time game graphics.”

But what about the cost? DIRTT’s Loberg explains that VR is rapidly becoming affordable.

“Ten years ago, 3-D technology existed, but you had to spend $100,000 to get it. As the computer game industry broke out 10 or 15 years ago, that technology was reduced from $100,000-plus to less than $1,000. The same thing happened with VR, and now you can get an Oculus headset for $600,” he says. “That dramatic price drop only happened in the last year.”

Mixed reality

And VR continues to evolve. This year, DIRTT announced its new mixed-reality technology, which superimposes VR over the real world. Users can stand in an empty space and see features such as dividing walls being constructed or office furniture being placed right before their eyes. Viewing is done through a headset or simply on your smartphone or tablet. Unlike VR technologies, mixed-reality technology requires the space to actually exist.

The benefits of mixed reality include the ability to customize elements in VR in real time while still seeing the real world. It allows users to actually interact with the virtual world, making changes and creating the elements in their imagination, rather than simply viewing it as they move through it.

Typically, the pace of hardware development holds back software developers like Ice Edge from making their technologies available. Mixed reality, however, brings new challenges to software development.

“When you walk through that space, a real space with a real use, and you want to be able to see what you’re going to construct internally, there are all kinds of different challenges in aligning the two worlds,” Loberg says. “You have to take the real world and the virtual and make them lock into each other so they make sense with each other to
get the right experience.”

With technology evolving so rapidly, the use of VR technologies is becoming mandatory. WorldViz deals with many global construction firms and Beall reports that many feel it necessary for the bidding proposal stage.

“Their customer base is becoming educated to the point where they know about this and expect it in the early design and later construction phases,” he says. “I think we’re right on the precipice of this becoming a must-have.”


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