19 November 2020 Rosemary Kay

The benefits of using AR in construction:

How can AR be useful in the Construction Industry?

Walls have Ears. But what if walls could talk…

Geolocated AR stories can enhance any space, in a variety of ways.

A year ago, we collaborated with Centre for Architecture and Visual Arts, http://www.cava-research.org/   on a museum experience for St George’s Hall, in Liverpool, called If These Walls Could Talk, in which 3D characters came out of the walls and spoke to the visitors.talking walls

But we’re now exploring another way to make walls talk. In the Construction Industry.

AR stories on building sites might seem like a bit of a leap but bear with me – actually there’s a really good fit! Our research into geospatial augmented reality (AR), enhancing space, means that we can help construction companies to design, construct and maintain buildings.

For a start there’s the planning stage. Blueprints used to be turned into cardboard models, to allow people to visualise the buildings at planning stage. Now we can turn those design ideas into 3D interactive models, which can be viewed in real-time, and in the real place they will eventually be built.

3D interactive models

And the 3D models we can create can be interactive, so design ideas can be tried out. You can experience a fly-through of a site, go inside rooms or try out different ideas, adding walls, doors, windows, mezzanines….

The great thing about AR, as opposed to VR (where you put on a headset and are completely immersed in an imaginary world,) is that it combines digital and real-life physical views. We create animated 3D graphics which can display real-time information, images or audio, overlaid over the real world. You can still see the real world, but we overlay the imaginary, invented or forecast images and information upon your perception of the real.

We have done some work extending the application of AR headsets (the CAVA project worked with Microsoft on their Hololens) but we are now concentrating on providing AR content on personal devices. Handsets (your phone, or ipad) are so much more accessible, everyone has a smart phone in their pocket. So you can just hold up your phone, see the building site through your camera lens, and then with the AR overlay, hey presto – there is the new building you are thinking of building. It’s a digital twin, in situ, and it can be an interactive experience, recording the changes you want to make, which can then be integrated into the construction process – allowing the construction team to make decisions on site.

We’re doing R&D with the European Space Agency, into the integration of AR with GPS signals, earth observation and street view. So we can present real-time data geospatially, updating and displaying the necessary information as the user moves throughout the building space.

european space agency

But it isn’t just in the planning stage that our AR can be used. AR can help the workflow processes and the training of construction workers; it can enhance collaboration, connecting site-staff to workers back at the design base. It can improve safety and help detect errors before they become costly.

AR can bring your blueprint to life, not only in terms of creating the outward digital twin of the building, but also inside the building. And I’m not just talking about all the rooms, stairs cases, alcoves, but what is hidden behind the walls. Or even inside the walls.

Information including the locations of pipes, outlets, switches, and ventilation can be visulatised directly on site. Just hold up your phone, and toggle between the layers, and you can see what’s hiding behind the panels, ceilings, floors: the innards of the building are suddenly there for you to see and interact with.

construction pipes

This is obviously useful for the construction phase, but this information can be accessed at any time in the building’s future. So any maintenance can take advantage of this detailed knowledge. I remember once we had a rookie plumber who accidently hammered a nail into a critical pipe. Cue lots of rude words and gushing water, spraying all over our son’s cot! That’s just a little problem. Imagine if you are part of a massive construction project, how valuable would it be if you are digging a tunnel under London, and you have a database of all the internal infrastructure hiding behind those walls?

There are so many applications in construction for AR. That’s why we’re collaborating with IOT Horizon.

IoT horizon logo

They’ve invented a sensor which can provide information about the material into which it is embedded. So, for instance, if you want to know the age of a cladding panel, and whether it is still fit for purpose, or who installed it, or whether it complies with fire regulations, all you have to do is point your phone at the cladding panel, and the panel will speak back to you. The wall will literally start to talk to you, come to life and tell you the information we have embedded in it. Bricks will be able to tell their stories.

That’s worth something to construction companies. And it’s really valuable to anyone who lives and works in buildings. Remember Grenfell Tower? Suppose fire inspectors could point their phones at the cladding on a building and immediately get the information they need to assess fire safety. It’s a game changer.

In the future, we could be speaking to our buildings in a different way. And they can start speaking to us. They can provide important stories about safety, about what lies hidden behind the bricks. There are commercial applications, but also social ones, like how to keep buildings safe.

And there are even cultural applications – imagine if you could go round a tourist location and the buildings start spilling their secrets, their past, their future…. This is the building Shakespeare frequented…what it those walls could talk….?