By Hallie Busta
Walking clients through a project can be tedious, particularly if the work is still ongoing. Architects have long relied on paper, physical models, field visits, and, more recently, digital tools to convey progress on a project. Earlier this year, Autodesk announced plans to make 3D models created in a selection of its software programs compatible with Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality (AR) technology. The company is not alone. Software developers in the AEC space are evolving digital modeling with the development of AR and virtual reality (VR) platforms that allow project teams to use mobile phones, tablets, and headsets to immerse themselves and their clients in their forthcoming buildings.
The new technology is promising for AEC—AR adds computer-generated objects and textures to real-world environments while VR immerses users in a digital simulation of a real (or soon to be real) environment—but it comes with its challenges.
“One of the hardest things [in encouraging adoption] is education,” says Lindsay Boyajian, marketing manager at Augment, an Orlando, Fla., and Paris–based startup whose iOS and Android app of the same name lets users overlay building plans, marketing materials, and other 2D collateral on a 3D BIM model. “A lot of people aren’t even aware of AR. They think it’s hard to use. We want to change the narrative around AR technology. It’s not this futuristic, far-off technology. It’s for now, and it’s adding great business value for architects.”
AR and VR technologies are less likely to replace than to supplement CAD, BIM, and the standby paper plans, says James Benham, CEO at Bryan, Texas–based AEC software developer JBKnowledge, which makes the iOS and Android app SmartReality. “People aren’t that good at visualizing things [like completed projects],” Benham says, “so when we were able to produce an app that you can point at a plan file and immediately overlay the BIM model, it helps the owners and constructors and architects communicate their vision for the building … in a way that was never really possible before.”
SmartReality was designed for the AEC sector and works with many 3D software programs, including Revit, the company says. It allows users to turn 2D plans into interactive 3D models on a tablet or through a VR headset like the Oculus Rift VR and Epson’s Moverio BT-200 smart glasses. Users file their models with JBKnowledge, which converts them for use with the app. Once converted, project team members can use SmartReality to scan their paper plans with the device’s camera, syncing it with the correct 3D model.
The company has also developed a version of the app compatible with tablets that run Google’s Project Tangoscanning software and allows users to walk through a floor plan while the virtual model appears around them. Future developments include integrating Leap Motion software for the Oculus Rift VR, allowing gesture-driven commands that let individuals wearing the headset visualize a design over a period of time in a single sitting. “You can walk into a building and make a circle with your hands. It’ll then step forward through the schedule so you can watch the building be built around you,” Benham says.