New study: virtual reality may unlock savings in complex infrastructure and construction

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is creating significant savings in the infrastructure and building construction industry. Virtual reality is likely to accelerate those savings even further. An ongoing study is looking into the potential gains for the client.

The following article is written by one of COWI's leading specialists

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For decades, the construction industry has struggled with cost and time overruns on large projects. One of the main reasons for these is the complexity of projects. Characterised by collaboration between multidisciplinary parties and iterative processes, construction projects are highly dependent on the quality of communication between the different participants.

According to a McKinsey report from 2016, large construction projects typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled, and are up to 80 percent over budget. In some markets, construction productivity has actually declined since 1990.

Savings with VR?

The question is whether new technologies and digital tools can smoothen the processes and unlock savings.

In the case of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the answer is yes. The same McKinsey report actually forecast that wider adoption of BIM would unlock 15-25% savings in the global infrastructure market. Earlier studies have shown comparable potential in the building industry.

BIM paves the way for virtual reality on projects

In recent years, the construction industry has experienced increased demands for BIM deliveries, either through governmental BIM mandates or, increasingly, by clients and contractors. This has led to a large rise in the number of projects executed in 3D and BIM.

The fact that most new construction projects are designed in BIM today enables us to add another digital tool when communicating projects: Virtual Reality (VR) and related tools like Augmented and Mixed Reality.

In September 2016, COWI initiated a new study to evaluate the potential gains to the construction industry and clients of adding VR to the BIM design process.

From wow factor to value adding tool

VR was born in the 1950s, with Morton Hellig’s Sensorama. After having its breakthrough in the late 1980s, it has matured significantly and has started offering possibilities for finding solutions to complex problems.

This has become visible within the construction industry, amongst others, with solutions like VR Caves from BIM Equity (allowing multiple users in the same model), ARUP Soundlab (simulation of sounds in the built environment) and Oculus (affordable VR goggles including hand tracking abilities).

Optimised user experience

The results of our study so far show that VR actually does have significant potential to increase the quality of projects, and unlock further benefits for the client, because it provides a real sense of scale, functionality and user experience.

For example, when designing Copenhagen Airport’s new Pier E, VR was used for mapping people flow. The model of Pier E was designed in 3D, and with the help of VR, the client was able to test whether the planned signs make sense and can be seen properly from different angles on location.VR technology for staff training

We also used VR on a new water basin at a water utility in Denmark. Here the operating staff had the opportunity to enter the virtual model to test the planned functionalities. It was so valuable that the water utility subsequently chose to invest in VR technology for staff training.

VR has also proved valuable in the presentation of urban development projects in Norway, where private and public builders, architects, advisers and citizens have had the opportunity to experience how buildings, urban spaces and infrastructure will be linked and what atmosphere they will create.

“Virtual Reality provides a real sense of scale, functionality and user experience”, says Jørgen Storm Emborg, Technical Director, COWI

Next step – augmented reality

The VR scenarios are various: from simple representation of time and scale, to more complex types of virtual representations, to Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality.

Whereas VR replaces the real world with a computer-generated world, AR overlays the existing conditions with a digital layer. MR encompasses the continuum consisting of VR and AR combinations.

In addition to computer images, auditory (sound) and haptic (touch) displays, as well as leap motion and controls can be added to contribute to the realism of the illusion.

VR only takes a few clicks

Currently, we see great interest in the most common form of VR, because the technology is relatively cheap and easy to operate. It literally only takes a few clicks to get the 3D model or 360-degree photos into VR, and make a simple visualisation on a smartphone and small VR glasses.

In contrast, a co-creation scenario, in which different participants can meet and work together within the model, requires multi-user hardware and set-up, as well as input from all parties that deliver to the model.

Visual experience of impact on surroundings

As part of our VR study, we are also testing different usage scenarios for AR (Augmented Reality). This will allow us to view model-based data in the field, which is the main focus within the study’s infrastructure component.

While the complexity of a building project is centred around the internal project coordination, with an infrastructure project it is centered around the coordination with external stakeholders.

With the right technology we can bring the virtual 3D model into the field by using the GPS location, and thus, for example, give a visual experience of how the projects will affect the surroundings and the access to the new infrastructure.

More accurate ar systems are needed

In Denmark, we have tested AR on the Herning – Holstebro highway. Together with Aalborg University, we have looked into different systems for viewing design data in the field.

This has shown us that the current software solutions do not have the desired accuracy nor functionality, but new and exciting technologies and solutions emerging, like Apple’s ARKit, are improving the value of AR in the field.

Based on open-source software we have therefore developed our own app as a pilot. The result is better accuracy and functionality.

To make this a robust solution we will need to automate some of the processes in the data conversion and link the functionality with our BIM workflows.

“With the right technology we can bring the virtual 3D model into the field by using the GPS location”, tells Marius, Sekse, Landscape Architecht, COWI.

Keeping costs down with VR

In 2018, we will continue to develop AR solutions on the E18 Rugtvedt – Dørdal in Norway and we will do so in close cooperation with the contractor to make the link between the design data and the construction site as strong as possible.

So far, our research tells us that the use of Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality in complex projects can indeed make an important contribution to saving time, increasing productivity and keeping costs down, to the benefit of our clients.

Facts about the study

The project Virtual Reality in Design, Construction and Operation has been developed by COWI in collaboration with Aalborg University’s department of Civil Engineering (Keld Svidt, Rasmus Lund Jensen and Erik Kjems) and the technology company BIM Equity VR.

Sources: 

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