Immersive technologies – those which blur the boundaries between the physical world and digital representations – promise to transform the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.
I heard the most striking argument for the value of immersive technologies at a recent conference, where one delegate said: “For decades, screen technologies have only given us a window into a world of possibilities. Virtual reality lets us take a step into that world.”
And while virtual reality (VR) has been around as a concept for decades, it has taken the combination of recent advances in display technology and computing power to open up the possibility of truly immersive experiences to the consumer market. Now VR, together with associated technologies such as augmented reality (AR) are finally making an impact in sectors as diverse as medicine, manufacturing and education.
In asset design we conceptualise, model and review three dimensional assets via two dimensional interfaces, such as a computer screen or a sheet of paper, and occasionally through 3D printed models. Immersive technologies enable us to experience and interact with design in a truly 3D environment.
This unique capability of immersive technologies will support the industry in two key ways, by:
• Improving what we do by optimising the way we interact with the virtual;
• Providing entirely new ways of seeing things which can only be done through immersion.
This ability to experience, rather than infer, allows us to experience our assets from other people’s points of view, bringing a number of benefits to the design process:
Optimise the construction process: Immersive technologies enable designers to experience the construction process from the perspective of a site operative, or from the cab of a crane operator. This can be used to streamline the construction process, cutting time and costs.
Improve construction safety: Through immersion we can also highlight risks and on site difficulties long before site work begins, enabling these to be avoided or mitigated.
Bring stakeholders onboard: VR can help other stakeholders understand the implications of a new asset and plan for them. Users, the local community, public consultees, environmental agencies, security services, and fire and rescue could all benefit from the ability to virtually experience an asset long before it is built.
Meet the needs of users: By simulating the experience of life with a visual impairment, a physical disability, or a child’s point of view, immersive technologies can help designers better empathise with end users, creating better assets for people with vastly different needs.
Enhance inspection and maintenance: By providing a safe environment to interact with digital assets, both as-built and captured during the inspection process, immersive training can build geographical and procedural memory for operators, and allows for detailed asset inspection from remote experts.
Our industry is accustomed to talking about meeting the needs of our clients and their customers. Truly embracing immersive technologies will lead to better assets and ultimately a better built environment for all.