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Augmented Reality Shows Promise, But Has a Long Way to Go

SmartReality.coSmart Reality, an augmented Reality App for the Constuction industry.

Augmented reality is cool, but what about the practicality of it for the construction industry? What are the benefits, and which ones could be realized first? What are the problems and challenges it is trying to solve?

These are some of the questions that need to be answered before augmented reality moves from novelty to acceptability in construction. Some of the answers currently don’t bode well for quick applicability, but experts contend the technology is rapidly moving in the right direction.

The construction industry, including design and facility management, needs to be shown practical benefits beyond coolness before it will embrace and implement augmented reality, virtual reality or a combination of both.  Virtual reality is fantasy; augmented reality works with things that actually exist; 3-D is a key component of both.

The most recognizable application of augmented reality currently is image recognition (i.e., being able to view 2-D drawings in 3-D). That’s great when it comes to helping people visualize what something will look like when built, but it is marginally effective when it comes to meeting the challenges of actually building it.

To illustrate what disasters 3-D image recognition can prevent, a common demonstration at trade shows is for someone to hold an iPad over a set of plans to be able to see in 3-D that pipes go through the wall in that flawed design, something that may not be immediately realized by looking at 2-D plans. By moving the iPad around, the augmented reality image of the structure changes perspective so that every angle of the structure is viewable. People are excited when they see that, but then they go back to their lives with nothing changed.

“The technology isn’t quite mature enough to provide huge value [for AEC] when it comes to 3-D,” says Damon Hernandez, director of the tech tools division of IDEAbuilder in San Francisco. “It’s very cost-prohibitive for what people can get now.”

With 3-D applications, there are hardware problems – battery life goes quickly and CPUs are severely taxed – and extensive pre-production efforts are required, not to mention getting someone to write the checks to fund development.

A huge obstacle is the difficulty of achieving pinpoint accuracy of 3-D data, which is essential for construction. Sensor fusion is the problem (i.e., combining data from disparate sources). Data integration has always been the greatest challenge. If the data doesn’t exactly match up, which is often the case, accuracy is shaky.

“You can’t have data floating ever so slightly or be off even millimeters,” says Hernandez. “It makes it difficult to develop solutions.”

One reason for the fuzziness is that currently most augmented reality in AEC goes from the image to data. The augmented reality image comes first and information about the object is added to it. It would not be such a problem if the image came from the data, but right now technology isn’t up to accomplishing that.

AR4-D: Adding time

Adding time to augmented reality can save contractors from making costly mistakes. “It’s cool to see and visualize what something is going to look like when it’s done, but it’s more relevant for the operator in the field to see what it’s going to look like on a certain day,” says James Benham, president and co-founder of JB Knowledge in Bryan, Texas. The company has developed the SmartReality augmented reality mobile app and, after adding more features and extensive beta testing, is now taking orders for it. “The biggest development, and the first of its kind, is we incorporated 4-D BIM into AR,” he says. “You can slide through time and see how the project changes.”

Mobile apps for virtual reality are essential, Benham says. “Not everybody is good at converting a 2-D plan to 3-D in their head. On the jobsite, rather than trying to visualize a Gant Chart, which is so 1995, [a mobile app] allows you to visualize a schedule on an iPad without being tethered to a computer.”

To illustrate what not being able to visualize projects along a timeline can lead to, Benham cites the case of a Las Vegas casino that was under construction. The general contractor didn’t look at how the schedule was going to impact the materials, he says. The contractor poured the slab for a huge swimming pool and built it before realizing they had cut off access to the materials. “The pool was in the way,” says Benham. Consequently, it cost the contractor $2 million to build and tear down a temporary bridge to move the materials to where they were needed on the jobsite.


Prominent tech companies such as Brother and Epson have had augmented reality glasses for several years. A relative newcomer is Google Glass, Google’s wearable Internet-connected device that allows people to roll their eyes upward and to the right to see projections on a tiny screen. It is able to record pictures and videos, stream as one is recording and respond to voice commands, among other things. Meta’s Spaceglasses are larger, shaped more like aviator glasses, but they are the most augmented reality-centric glasses of the bunch. Hernandez sees Google’s relatively recent entry into the field as significant. “It validates that there is a market when Google gets involved, and then new people get involved,” he explains. Meanwhile, the glasses keep getting smaller and more powerful with each version.

Benham and Hernandez are looking toward more apps for AEC that combine augmented reality and virtual reality. Rather than using a mouse or keyboard, users control real-world objects in a virtual environment by using their arms and hands. “It’s pretty powerful,” says Benham. The technology utilizes Microsoft’s Kinect, a movement-tracking device that can sense depth and track movement without using a camera lens.

The more practical and applicable to the field augmented reality apps and devices are, the better. Hernandez has some ideas of what else he would like to see:

  • Augmented reality that makes jobsites smarter. “The RFIs or orders for the day are geosprinkled around the jobsite. All of the info that pertains to what I or my subcontractors have to do appears around me. I know of some people that came out of the AEC Hackathon space that are working on that, and others are too. They’re coming from different angles, though they’re all specifically focused on that.”
  • Augmented reality that provides better tracking systems for the stages of how a building is supposed to be constructed, such as possibly blue for one level, green for what is on the schedule for next week, much like augmented reality 4-D.
  • Augmented reality that includes 3-D animation, tying in real-time data.
  • Augmented reality that connects onsite users with offsite users. “Offsite someone clicks on an image and someone onsite can look around, and can highlight the piece they are making an annotation on. Does it need to be viewed in the context of a jobsite or can it be taking the augmented reality part of it and mixing it with a digital recreation of that space or item?”

Hernandez adds: “The potentials are limitless, but the industry has to tell us what to build. Otherwise we’re going to build cool stuff and turn off the industry, and they’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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