Mixed reality brings new dimension to construction

Trimble's Director of Mixed Reality discusses how MR is bridging gaps in construction

Tags: Augmented realityConstructionMicrosoft CorporationMixed realityTrimbleVirtual reality
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Mixed reality brings new dimension to construction Trimble has created a HoloLens hard hat so that workers can access mixed reality on construction sites.
By  Mark Sutton Published  June 19, 2018

The construction sector has been among the early adopters of virtual reality (VR) solutions, with a number of companies testing out the technology, mainly in areas such as design visualisation. With improvements to the technology however, and new ideas coming out of the proof-of-concept projects, companies are looking to VR, or more specifically, mixed reality (MR), to improve processes in a huge range of scenarios.

One company that was quick to see the potential in MR is Trimble. The company conducted a few early projects using Microsoft HoloLens technology around three years ago, and from there the company has progressed to having its own solutions available for customers using MR technology, in areas from design and architecture, to training, quality control and production environments.

To note the difference between VR and MR - virtual reality presents entirely virtual environment, mixed reality is a combination of real and virtual, for example, a virtual object, presented in a real setting, with both physical and digital objects co-existing and interacting in real time.

Aviad Almagor, Director of the Mixed Reality Program at Trimble, explained that following a proof-of-concept project, the company launched pilot projects, working closely with customers to understand their requirements, before moving onto commercial products.

The main driver for Trimble to develop MR solutions, was that companies are already generating huge amounts of data from solutions such as BIM or digital models, but there is a need to be able to connect that data and digital world with the physical.

"What we learned, we can summarise in one word - 'gaps' - customers are suffering from gaps between the digital and physical, gaps between myself and a co-worker in a remote location, gaps between the mental model they have about the task that they need to perform, and the actual task," Almagor said.

"All those gaps create issues with efficiency, quality control, safety and so on; so with MR we realised can actually bridge those gaps in ways that we can merge the digital world with the physical environment."

By utilising an MR environment, which projects digital plans onto the real world, or which allows people to share 3D models in a three dimensional environment, it is much easier to understand a concept, or a scope of work, or to see discrepancies between what needs to be done and the situation on site.

Trimble has currently developed three solutions based on HoloLens, Connect for HoloLens, a construction management solution; SketchUp Viewer for HoloLens, design solution, and Connected Mine Visual Intelligence for the mining sector. In addition to the software solutions, the company has also integrated a Microsoft HoloLens rig into safety helmet, allowing for easy use of the equipment on site. The focus of Trimble's MR program is currently on building construction and mining, he said, but there is potential across all areas of its operations.

The solutions are already having an impact on customers. Concrete prefab manufacturer Consolis is exploring a solution which will allow workers assembling complex concrete constructions to be able to see the actual models and plans in 3D in front of them while they work, instead of having to move back and forth between 2D plans or onscreen models. French company GA Smart Building is using the hard hat HoloLens with Trimble solutions for quality control inspections on site.

Trimble also worked with architect Greg Lynn, for the redesign of the Packard Plant, Detroit, where the architect was able to develop complex designs and communicate them in a 3D world. The solution was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2016.

The ability to take the digital world and bring it into the real world is a huge development, Almagor said: "There is synergy between mixed reality and other trends - in construction is it all about BIM. Our customers invest a huge amount of effort in developing 3D models, but they consumer these models on 2D screens, with MR you can take those models out of the constraints of being in a 2D frame, and have much better interaction, the level of engagement for themselves and for their customers provides a huge benefit in terms of communication."

"One of the things we were really surprised about, was the power of real 3D visualisation, compared to 3D on screen. When I saw the customers interact with it, the level of engagement is totally different," he added.

Users being able to work together in a mixed reality environment, whether they are actually in the same space or connecting in from different locations, also has a big impact on the ability to collaborate and communicate.

"If the users are isolated in their holographic experience, it is good, but once you add more people to the session, you see the avatars of the other partners, you start communicating, you see what they are looking at, with Trimble Connect and SketchUp Viewer, this opened up a completely new level of interaction."

To support this adoption, Trimble has two professional services teams working in areas including integrating BIM into MR. At the customer level, Almagor said he is seeing demand both from innovation teams who are tasked with exploring new technology, but also from the project teams who are getting an understanding of how the technology can help them to deliver better against

In future, Almagor said that he expects the MR technology to move beyond visualisation into object creation and editing in MR, and to include more support for Internet of Things objects, and more support from artificial intelligence. The initial solutions from Trimble are already in use with thousands of users, he added, and the technology is brining tangible benefits to the bottom line.

"HoloLens is not mainstream yet, but looking at the process in the last three years, we have gone from people who have the vision to gain first mover advantage, to more conservative companies who really understand this is not just  a trend - there is real value behind it," he said.

"Part of the success is to identify the right set of use cases that the technology can support, - quality control, training, improving safety, production control, communication, - if you focus on those use cases you can improve productivity and efficiency."

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