Are You Ready for Virtual Reality?

Mark L. Johnson / June 2016

Virtual reality’s big debut is finally here. VR platforms and gear, which have been teased and demo’d for years, are now in the consumer domain. Oculus Rift, a gaming system owned by Facebook, ships in August for $599. VR gear from PlayStation and HTC are also on their way..
    
“This is just the start,” said Mark Zuckerberg about Oculus Rift.
    
It may not be apparent, but VR will solve a lot of your problems. Since “virtual reality is currently climbing the hype cycle,” as the National Association of Broadcasters notes, here’s what you need to know.

Experience a Building Before It’s Built
Imagine taking virtual field-trips to London to “tour” the British Museum, Paris to “tour” the Louvre and Denver to “tour” the lobby of a hospital you’re about to build. VR technology is here, and so is the expectation to use it.
    
ARC Document Solutions surveyed 147 architecture, engineering and construction management professionals; 65.3 percent of them predicted that VR applications and 3D computerized modeling will be used more frequently “to experience a building’s design before it is built.” The benefits?
•    Visualize projects more easily (51.9 percent)
•    Complete projects faster (48.3 percent)
•    Use fewer workers (42.2 percent)
•    Use less material (40.8 percent)
    
Autodesk says VR is one of several “disruptions” reshaping “how the world is designed and made.” Carl Bass, Autodesk president and CEO, said, “Technologies like the Internet of Things, augmented and virtual reality and robotics will change the way engineers and designers work.”
    
Construction Dive reported on a construction company in Phoenix that plans to use the Oculus Rift to give owners “the previously unknown variable of what the space is going to feel like when it’s complete.”
    
The technology will help wall and ceiling contractors to see potential design flaws in buildings, enable foremen to visualize where to stage their materials and instruct apprentices on how to cut board, trowel plaster and work safely.
    
On-the-job training is about to take on a whole new meaning. Several Australian universities, including UNSW Australia, University of Adelaide, University of South Australia and Western Sydney University, are working on “The Situation Engine,” a VR platform that creates moving, photo-realistic scenes in 3D. Users are “teleported” to construction sites complete with virtual porta-potties. They walk the site, work on assigned tasks and develop the “practice-ready skills they need to play an immediate and effective role in the workplace,” a UNSW Australia Web page says.

VR Changes Behaviors
Virtual reality is at a tipping point. The arrival of 3-D modeling software with advanced rendering capabilities, a Hollywood film industry rebooting for the VR experience, massive computing power and the appearance of new display hardware, such as the Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens and Daqri Smart Helmet, will make powerful tools available to contractors.
    
Can our bodies and minds cope with VR? Motion sickness might be a problem. At CES 2016, a BBC reporter “climbed” to the top of Mount Everest but later had to tear off her VR headset when she “walked” in a spaceship and felt nauseous.
    
Still, some of VR’s effects may come in handy. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University studies the impact of putting people in alternate realities. Researchers have found that even a single virtual experience can change one’s behavior. Test subjects who had just cut down a virtual tree, for example, thereafter “used fewer paper towels when cleaning up a spill,” says The Wall Street Journal.
    
In other words, VR training may improve job site safety. To this end, a construction company in Hong Kong reportedly places trainees on a virtual construction site loaded with hazards and unsafe practices. There, they witness “electrocutions” and “falls” from heights. It sounds all too real. But the company swears by the simulations, convinced that the act of “seeing” accidents sticks with people and changes their unsafe behaviors.
    
VR is going to be very interesting. Are you ready for it?

Mark L. Johnson, an industry writer, tweets at @markjohnsoncomm, connects at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications and bookmarks construction tech articles at scoop.it/t/construction-tech-by-markmadness#. He’d love to test-drive the Oculus Rift.