More than meets the eye

Atkins | 18 Nov 2014 | Comments

The spread of mobile devices and increased connectivity have led to a new wave of innovation and apps that fuse the physical space and the digital. How is this technology transforming the construction sector and how can it be used to drive improvement, efficiency, engagement and sustainability?

Anyone who has spent time in front of a games console will know what it’s like to be drawn in by technology. The games industry has spent decades pioneering software that lets users enter and explore virtual environments and scenarios.

The same technology has been used by other sectors where companies have seen the benefits of not just promoting their products or services but letting potential customers interact with them. While its use hasn’t been widespread, that’s now changing. Augmented reality – or AR as it is known – has now become accessible.

People can look at an object or place through the camera on their smartphone or tablet – or, in future, via wearable tech (Atkins is already experimenting with the use of virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift to make the experience real and allow engineers the chance to step inside the designs) – and their live view will be supplemented by computer-generated content such as information, video or images. Shoppers can download a store’s app to see what a particular item of furniture will look like in their living room before they buy or explore the latest features of a new car without visiting the showroom. It’s being implemented by museums and manufacturers – and by the engineering world.

A closer look

According to Gareth Tissington, technical lead of mobile development creative design at Atkins, AR will be a game changer for the building sector. It’s portable across devices and is easy to use, which allows those working in construction to present solutions in a way that hugely enhances how architects, engineers and planners share their ideas and designs.

“Overlaying information such as 3D images or GPS coordinates on a view of the physical world opens up incredible possibilities,” he says. “You can see a structure in context before it’s built. We’re already working with clients that have welcomed this technology because they want to stand on site and see where their planned infrastructure will sit in relation to what’s already there.”

Incorporating 3D images allows users to assess information from a number of different angles and even peel back layers to see what’s underneath.

Tissington adds that, by adopting a 3D-first approach early on, the models can be used for everything from designing infrastructure, buildings and masterplans to visualising them for the public during the planning application and consultation phase, and for anyone who will be working on the project.

“By having the model in a gaming environment, we can place people into it and help them become familiar with its intricacies before they even step on site,” he says.

“If you created a model of your asset and put it on the desk in front of you, you would feel comfortable picking it up and turning it around, or bringing it closer to you so you can see the detail,” explains Barry Nay, a technical leader in Atkins’ wastewater networks team, who is using AR to engage with clients. “You might even take a step back so you can look at it from a distance to check the aspect ratio is correct. Now you can do the same thing with augmented reality.”

Nay points out that, unlike physical models, AR allows teams to troubleshoot in real time and explore places that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to go.

“For example, it’s difficult to understand potential health and safety implications when you only have 2D drawings,” he says. “Even in 3D, it can be difficult to appreciate them at the design stage given the scale of some of the projects – you just don’t feel the problems. But with AR you can examine all the individual areas and think about how you enter them, how you clean them and maintain them. You can also identify what changes could be made early on to eliminate the risk altogether.”

Better connections

Work is being done to take this technology forward and apply it to large-scale infrastructure projects. It builds on the momentum created by the introduction of building information modelling (BIM) in the UK and supports information sharing throughout the lifecycle of a project. According to Nay, AR complements BIM in that it also has the potential to drive more effective and efficient ways of working, not least because it allows issues to be addressed before a project leaves the feasibility or design stage. And the joined-up approach that BIM promotes, when used in collaboration with emerging technology, has the potential to deliver significant benefits.

“Imagine arriving at a pump station with a work order to take out a pump. You put on your Google Glasses or other wearable tech and the system immediately alerts you to the maintenance and health and safety issues that you need to be aware of,” says Nay.“The benefits for the industry in capturing this sort of information and making it available to people – regardless of what company they work for or region they work in – really are enormous.”

AR in the future

Analysts are predicting massive growth in AR over the next few years and there is already evidence of its expansion into a wide range of sectors: “The way we go about design is going to change,” says Guy Ledger, a director in Atkins’ water and environment business.

“The feedback we get by improving our conversations with clients will allow us to deliver results more quickly, engage the whole of the supply chain earlier in the project and, ultimately, produce better solutions. We’re also going to learn by working in collaboration with our partners and that will create opportunities for innovation.”

Ultimately, Ledger sees it as a chance to attract and inspire the engineers and designers of the future: “Innovations like augmented reality give us the chance to change young people’s perceptions of our industry and show them what an amazing career it can offer.”

Take a look at some real life examples of how Augmented Reality is being used:


Download PDF