When Real and Virtual Worlds Collide
Augmented reality is coming to a construction site near you.
Augmented reality (AR) made global headlines in 2016 when the game Pokemon Go launched, but more than showing pikachus on the neighbour’s yard, augmented reality has many practical applications, including on construction sites.
“Augmented reality puts holographic information within your field of view,” says Jas Johnston, the manager of the University of Melbourne’s FabLab, a practical experimentation laboratory located in the Melbourne School of Design. “Unlike virtual reality, where you are completely immersed in a new reality, with AR the virtual and real world are interwoven”
AR software complements building information modelling and 3D designing tools by combining a render with information points in a field of view. In a mobile gaming environment, this would use the camera and GPS tracking of a smartphone or tablet but more practical AR uses head-mounted displays such as goggles or helmets. The easiest to use software has bi-directional integration between designing software and AR software, meaning AR-assisted changes to the design are tracked on the render in real time.
“An example of AR is on a construction site, instead of the builders having to use drawn plans, they put on these goggles and see where to place the bricks,” says Johnston. By offering a more realistic visualisation of a project, AR reduces the likelihood of errors in construction or changes to the plans. “Plans are often very rudimentary ways to describing a building, especially complex buildings,” says Johnston.
The software has great potential to assist in the construction of complex buildings, a prime example being Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “The UTS Business School required a new technology to be invented in order to fabricate and construct these incredibly complex brick forms,” says Gwyllim Jahn, founder of AR start-up Fologram. “They had 380,000 bricks and 380,000 jigs and drawings. And the bricklaying was done slowly. But a holographic model would have shown all the bricks at once in the finished design. The bricklayer could have then taken a physical brick and replace its holographic representation in the physical model.” Construction times would likely have been much faster.
Unlike comparable emerging technologies, AR is relatively easy to implement. “You’re not required to use large hardware or complex robots on site,” says Johnston, as you would for CNC milling or robotic fabrication. “You can snap a hologram to a very precise location and then use every-day tools of making to complete a task.”
AR is also a useful tool in the identification of design flaws. Physical construction can be easily compared against virtual specifications. Some AR software can measure the width of a door frame by looking from one point to another and check it against the plan. The software can identify and document a problem.
While the enthusiasm for augmented reality is high among architects, industrial designers and fabricators, there are still some barriers to using the software in engineering contexts. On the ground, there needs upskilling. “We’ve been talking to TAFEs about gradually introducing augmented reality technology into trades curriculum,” says Jahn. “But there’s barriers to having that practically happen because the devices are quite fragile.” Even the cleanest construction site is not always a predictable environment. Plus, with only one product on the market, augmented reality technology is less financially accessible to a wide range of people. “There’s no other competitors at the moment but I think that will change over the next 12 months. That will gradually lower the price of the device.”
“There’s so much industry demand for using AR headsets in practical ways on construction sites or similar, I can see the devices becoming lighter, stronger and more robust. And once that starts happening then it just makes so much sense to work from augmented reality models rather than drawings because they reduce the risk of fabricating something – whether it’s complex or a fairly traditional building.”
All photos provided by Fologram.