Augmented reality systems aren’t accurate enough to serve as layout tools. Not yet.
Mark L. Johnson / November 2018
Nobody is seeing construction workers wearing augmented reality headsets while they work on active drywall job sites. But that scene will happen some day. AR, also known as mixed reality, is in its infancy, and it’s quickly advancing.
Last year, AWCI’S Construction Dimensions published the article, “Building with Holograms” (August 2017). It showcased AR research and development taking place among a few AWCI member contractors. “Building with Holograms” might have been the first in-depth report on AR in drywall construction. Others have written about virtual reality, the immersive but closed world experience of visualizing building information models on goggles. VR is helpful for architects, owners and developers, but it’s not considered to be practical for constructors and fabricators. What construction will use is AR, which mixes project models with real-world job sites.
One day—a day likely not too far away, your crews will see renderings of walls and ceilings on their AR headsets while they install cold-formed steel framing, gypsum board, suspension grid and lay-in ceiling tile. They’ll walk a job site sporting high-tech gear similar to that worn by Tony Stark, the Marvel Comics character known as Iron Man.
“We can use augmented reality right now to compare the design to the work in progress,” says Bardia Jahangiri, VDC specialist at BakerTriangle Prefab. “But the reliability of this technology isn’t there just yet.”
Degree of Distortion
What’s the holdup?
Jahangiri and other industry insiders, including Travis Vap, president of South Valley Drywall, Ashish Peters, BIM director at Raymond Group, and Pete Braun, president of Wall-Tech Companies, all of whom were contacted for this article, say that AR’s layout accuracy falls outside of acceptable construction tolerances. Nobody, they say, has produced an AR headset that can render layouts to within one-eighth of an inch.
“Augmented reality has stalled for us a bit as we focus on other stuff and we wait for the technology to catch up,” Vap says. “We need the technology to be accurate for layout purposes. We can’t have plus or minus an eighth of an inch right now. We need it to be accurate like a robotic total station.”
In fact, some of AR’s layout positioning can be off plan by as much as a foot. The BIMs are accurate. But the models usually render slightly askew on AR visors, as all visors project holographic images with a degree of distortion known as “drag.” Jahangiri says the drag gets worse the farther an AR visor is situated from job site materials like studs, plumbing runs and HVAC ductwork. For this reason, robotic total station systems and laser scanners offer greater precision than AR technology.
There is also a concern over safety in using AR devices.
“The tools are a bit cumbersome,” Peters says. “You have to put on these goggles, and then you walk around wearing them with a rather limited field of view.”
“I don’t like it that the goggles encase your peripheral vision,” Braun says. “I think that is dangerous in manufacturing and construction.”
Even so, these industry executives still get a gleam in their eyes when they talk about AR’s possibilities to improve workflows and construction quality.
Braun, for example, wanted to use AR technology at Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks’ new NBA arena. Braun saw the potential for AR in fabricating the arena’s panels and in identifying construction conflicts on the job.
“We saw how augmented reality could tie in. We brought on an intern who played around with it,” Braun says. “We fabricated wall panels, curved soffits, the huge barrel exterior and a cold-formed steel sky-bridge. We had a lot of components coming together.”
Due to this complexity, Wall-Tech set up two Autodesk Revit teams. One modeled the exterior walls of the arena, the other modeled its interior assemblies. Braun hoped AR could layer in some improved quality control and efficiencies, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I wanted our field guys to see the finished product as they built it,” Braun says. “But we couldn’t get the augmented reality going. The job moved too fast for that to happen.”
Real Time with Revit
So, AR may be too pie in the sky for many wall and ceiling contractors to take seriously. But that’s not the case at BakerTriangle Prefab in Dallas, which achieved significant AR milestones in 2018.
In March 2018, at AWCI’s Convention & Intex Expo in Florida, BakerTriangle’s Jahangiri and fellow VDC specialist David Keane, presented the seminar, “Augmented Reality Is the New Reality: Practical Applications for Real World Problems.” During the seminar, Jahangiri and Keane unveiled BakerTriangle’s new, real time, interconnectivity between the HoloLens headset and Revit modeling software. The ability to connect AR to Revit and then manipulate a model live and in real time was a first in drywall construction.
“I have not seen anything else that creates bidirectional communication between Revit and HoloLens in real time,” Jahangiri says.
Software plugins can export three-dimensional models from Revit to AR headsets, but such exports involve only one-way data transfers. They don’t facilitate constant data streaming.
But in Florida, Jahangiri pioneered something new. Wearing a HoloLens connected to Wi-Fi, he walked the seminar room and tweaked a Revit model before the eyes of all. As he altered the model in the HoloLens, the changes instantly populated his Revit model. Jahangiri’s ability to translate the input/output relationships between the AR headset and the modeling program proved to be remarkable, and it holds much promise for future AR applications on live factory floors and job sites. Once completed, BakerTriangle Prefab will have a true “design-with-a-view” platform.
The practical field applications of this technology will be nothing short of extraordinary. Suppose a plumber runs a pipe 6 inches off plan. A BakerTriangle foreman wearing a HoloLens would know it, could correct for the error, automatically change the BIM, automatically update the BIMs at the GC and MEP trades, and do it all from the job site in one fell swoop. Such drywall foremen will channel new alter egos, much like Tony Stark becomes Iron Man.
How close are we to having this technology? It’s just around the corner.
“I could do it now,” Jahangiri says. “It’s a matter of training. We have not started training anyone to use the HoloLens, but we have the basic version ready for the job site.”
Occupational Intelligence Workflows
Jahangiri and Keane also demonstrated AR for object recognition at AWCI’s Convention earlier this year. Object recognition technology is part of an area of artificial intelligence known as occupational intelligence workflows.
Think of shopping for a sofa. Today, you can go to a store and snap an image of a sofa on your phone. At home, you “see” a 3D rendering of the sofa on your phone while you stand in your living room. Then, you “position” the sofa where you want it. You see if it will work with your decor and your space. Importantly, the phone recognizes the sofa as a sofa, and it can present more sofa design options for you.
Now imagine this process happening on a job site. Your phone, or your AR headset, recognizes various cold-formed steel studs. It can differentiate the studs with wide flanges from the other studs. It can distinguish Wall Panel No. 1 from Wall Panel No. 15. It can find the very panel laying on the floor, or on the delivery truck, that needs to be erected next in sequence. The possibilities for AR object recognition go on.
BakerTriangle Prefab has started writing its own object recognition software programs. But instead of simply performing 2D object recognition, the company is performing 3D analysis. Using a HoloLens, its applications can generate a 3D scan of a building object and compare the scan with what’s loaded in a 3D project model. This is more extensive than 2D image processing. But, it doesn’t require an object-image library to make the object comparisons. Instead, the 3D analysis uses artificial intelligence to differentiate and identify objects. In theory, the kind and the number of objects AR could recognize would be limitless.
AR and the Future
Industry sources say that GCs are spending a lot of money on AR to improve quality control on protects and to document work in progress. Not many drywall companies have delved into the AR space as of yet, but that is likely to change. Big things are about to happen.
“I see the time when we’ll build a model and have guys on the shop floor projecting out their workflows. Augmented reality will tell them where to cut their parts and how to get the panels out to the job site in the right order,” Braun says. “We’ll have panels coordinated for the erector. The erector will be able to ‘see’ how those panels should come off the truck and position in place. I like this idea of making things more visual. The eye can connect the dots in three seconds, instead of studying a plan [on paper] for 10 minutes.”
For now, the industry seems content to wait and let AR technology become more useful. For now, layouts with robotic total stations and laser scanners are more accurate than layouts with AR systems.
However, the technology behind AR headsets is advancing, and tech companies will continue to release new and updated versions of their AR products. Imagine the day when an AR headset houses a miniature laser scanner. Someone on your crew dons a headset and, resembling a Borg drone from the Star Trek franchise, shoots a laser beam from the headset into the workspace, receives back scans and confirms the assembly’s measurements.
Is it too much to ask? No. It would be the ultimate mobile layout/scanning device for the job site. Tech companies are likely working on it right now, which is why wall and ceiling companies must remain vigilant over the many exciting possibilities to come in AR.
“Augmented reality is not a limited-term research and development project. It’s an ongoing technology,” Jahangiri says. “You need to keep up with the technology, because I am sure all these tech companies are trying to add wonderful new features.”
Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.