Today you can shop, bank, or play video games on the little rectangular device you keep in your pocket. You can also walk through apparently three-dimensional castles and fight three-dimensional dragons (or beasts that are “perched” on the garage of your suburban house).

For a while, though, computers and construction didn’t mesh. Construction softwares were clunky and cumbersome and didn’t sync with each other, so they added time (and stress) to your process.

Then Building Information Modeling (BIM) picked up in popularity and has been a boon to construction, despite its limitations—one of which is that BIM models can’t be automatically updated to reflect what is actually being built after a job gets going.

Still, we’re entering an era when 3D designs in the form of CAD and BIM are commonplace, and virtual reality—along with its close cousins, mixed reality and augmented reality—is on the verge of fusing technology and construction in some fundamental new ways that could change the way we measure, design, collaborate and even build.

What are VR/AR/MR?

For those who’ve had their head in the sand about virtual reality in construction, waiting for a major shift, here’s a little groundwork.

Virtual reality (VR) means you’re looking into “glasses” (which are part of a pretty hefty headset) and seeing a virtual world. Mixed reality (MR) means you’re looking through similar glasses and seeing something virtual overlaid onto the real world. (Augmented reality, or AR, technically means holding up a device such as a smartphone or tablet to view the real world through its camera lens, with a virtual overlay—so the experience is less immersive.)

What has VR done for construction lately?

It’s not just fantasy: augmented reality for construction projects is becoming possible. McCarthy Building Companies Inc., the award-winning St. Louis-based contractor that ranked twentieth in the ENR Top 400 last year, has been actively looking toward virtual technologies to aid in construction efficiency and quality for the past few years.

Virtual reality—along with its close cousins, mixed reality and augmented reality—is on the verge of fusing technology and construction in some fundamental new ways that could change the way we measure, design, collaborate and even build.

In 2012, McCarthy built a BIM Cave in their Sacramento office where owners and others on their design-build teams could review a 3D BIM design prior to construction. They used this technology during the design phase of the Martin Luther King Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles, allowing doctors and nurses to provide feedback that helped optimize room designs—as opposed to McCarthy receiving change orders down the line, when adjustments would have been more difficult and costlier.

Virtual Design and Construction Manager Jordan Moffett says McCarthy has been exploring the use of virtual reality with several software and hardware developers since, and helping to develop software that will facilitate the application of VR on construction projects.

“VR allows for the flexibility of making changes in a model environment rather than in physical construction,” notes Moffett. He says McCarthy is currently utilizing applications like HoloLive (an MR software that’s compatible with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset), Umbra, and Fuzor “to analyze design options on renovation projects, validate installations versus coordinated models, and confirm design decisions once wall framing is complete.”

Moffett says McCarthy expects to see further advances to these technologies that will bring even more benefits to their customers.

“We’ll be able to use these relatively inexpensive hardware-software combinations, rather than laser scanning or laborious field measurements, to deliver an accurate as-built model for each of our clients,” predicts Moffett. “We can validate that installations match their intended location in real time, and at five percent or less of the traditional cost.”

Moffett says the upcoming release of the wireless HTC Vive—as well as the promise of sub-$400, all-in-one VR headsets from several developers that would allow for unlimited range—are reason to be optimistic about the easier adoption of virtual reality in construction in the near future.

Mixing realities as you build

The position held by Travis Voss at Mechanical Inc.—the Freeport, Illinois-based titan of ductwork, plumbing and general construction—may be a sign of things to come.

“Mechanical saw that there was a lot going on with technology in construction. They knew that without someone dedicated to following up and bringing new things in to try, they would fall behind,” says Voss, who took the job as Mechanical’s first technical manager two years ago.

VR allows for the flexibility of making changes in a model environment rather than in physical construction.

Voss is using the position to focus on several potential areas for mixed reality in construction. “It could be anything from computer hardware to a device like HoloLens to wearable safety devices or exoskeletons,” he said. “Anything that we [at Mechanical] think can bring benefit, by either making our job safer or making us more profitable, is fair game.”

According to Voss, mixed reality construction even in the build phase may be in the near future given what is already possible. “We’ve been using CAD and BIM in the construction industry for quite a while now. Those 3D drawings with BIM objects can all be exported into this mixed reality environment.”

Day-to-day applications

Voss paints a compelling if still-hypothetical picture of a worker wearing a HoloLens of Magic Leap headset to view holograms of a BIM model uploaded into MR software, and projected onto a building site—and then using what they see to guide their work as they go.

“Using an Autodesk or Trimble [Virtual Design and Construction] product, you route out your pipe or duct and you load this into your mixed reality environment. Then you match where the wall really starts,” says Voss. “As long as it matches the hologram, you’ve installed it properly. Ideally the software would flag it as done and take you onto the next step.”

This method would save workers and supervisors from constantly referring back and forth to paper plans and measurements off of reference points, Voss points out, and would reduce mistakes. “This would make that paper and tape measure go away.”

The main drawback right now, according to Voss, is that VR devices still aren’t accurate enough. “Pretty close in construction isn’t good enough. VR needs to be accurate within that fraction of an inch before we can install with it.”

Still, he said Mechanical has had some initial successes with augmented reality construction. “We’ve taken a project that we proposed to build and taken a HoloLens and put it on team members in the field, and they’ve been able to spot issues that avoided rework and additional cost for us and the customer.”