Will Augmented Reality Revolutionize Construction?

Augmented reality can literally change the way we see the world. Will it be able to break into the change-resistant construction industry?

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Augmented reality in construction

In a survey released by PwC in 2017, construction companies said that they planned on investing in AR (Augmented Reality) technology in three years. Well, that 2020 deadline is now right around the corner. It's time to take a look at the AR tech that has been developed, is being developed, or could be developed soon with applications that span across the construction industry.

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What’s the difference between AR and VR?

To the casual person, augmented reality and virtual reality might seem like the same thing, or at the very least two sides of the same coin. But these two technologies are very different and can be used for different purposes.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of an environment, usually experienced visually and audibly through a headset and headphones. Virtual reality has fascinated nerdier types for a few decades now, but it’s only in the last few years that VR has begun to show potential as a practical real-world application. Currently, VR is most commonly used for creating immersive experiences in gaming and other forms of entertainment.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, does not create an entirely new virtual environment. Instead, AR works by layering computer-generated visuals on top of an existing environment, usually viewed through the camera of a mobile device. To date, the most recognizable utilization of AR is probably Pokémon GO, the massively popular mobile game that allows users to view the world around them as part of the game itself. While a video game on a smart phone might seem trivial, the technology behind it could be a game-changer and has been developed into platforms that provide solutions to many industries, including the construction industry.

Here are some examples of ways that augmented reality technology can (or could) be used in the construction industry.

Check out more cool technology for construction pros in this episode of Stuff We Love.

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Real-time project simulation and planning

Want to see how certain cabinets will look in a remodeled kitchen? AR setups like Microsoft’s HoloLens could make that possible. The HoloLens looks similar to traditional VR gear, with a large, goggle-esque headset that lets users experience “mixed reality” (which is what Microsoft calls AR).

A company called Trimble is producing a Hard Hat version of the HoloLens. The hard hat combines AR hardware with software that allows users to view and interact with 1:1 scale models on the job site, connect and consult with subject matter experts, and view project data in real time. While the high costs of devices like the HoloLens currently limits them to commercial construction, the tech behind them already has the potential to change the way construction works in both residential and commercial sectors.

Viewing a construction project through AR

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Measuring in AR

Smart phone measuring apps are now incorporating AR tech to provide accurate and consistent measurements with just a phone and its camera, no tape measure required. Every Apple device running iOS 12 comes preloaded with a free app called “Measure” that calculates the lengths and dimensions of objects just by viewing them through the device’s camera. While the accuracy and dependability of these measurements may not be perfect, that the technology exists at all is pretty exciting. Being able to scan a room with a phone camera and instantly know all of its measurements would be a major efficiency boost for many construction pros.

Next, see how technology is making the construction industry even safer.

Shutterstock

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Training

According to a study by the SSRN, 65% of people are visual learners. Augmented reality visual learning tools could lower the costs of onboarding and training new employees, especially in a hands-on field like construction. AR could also positively impact the relatively dangerous construction industry through safety training programs that combine virtual safety drills and demonstrations with the real world.

For more on how technology is impacting jobsite safety, click here.

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Design

The design implications of AR tech in construction are far and wide. Apps like magicplan, which lets users scan rooms and create floor plans in 30 seconds, and AR Sketchwalk in Morpholio Trace, which lets users superimpose project plans onto an existing space, turn traditional blueprints into interactive real-world models. Being able to see project plans visualized in front of them gives designers a better idea of how their concepts will look and allows them to troubleshoot potential problems.

Courtesy of Sakrete
Estimating bagged concrete through the Sakrete AR app

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Trade-specific applications

While AR technology is still limited by its relative newness, there are already a few applications that show how AR can be used to provide specific solutions for various trades. For example, Sakrete has developed an app that can estimate how many bags of concrete will be needed for a project through “spatial computing”. Basically, the app uses a smartphone camera to scan a project site and pull in the necessary information to calculate an accurate material estimate. It’s easy to see how this same concept could be applied to apps for trades other than masonry. As time passes, more and more AR applications will be developed, providing specialized solutions for problems that are unique to different trades within the construction industry.