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Building with Holograms

Augmented reality is finding a home among technologically advanced drywall companies.

Bardia Jahangiri, VDC specialist at BakerTriangle Prehab, shows how to make finger gestures to manipulate holograms of various wall assemblies.


 


The line between reality and illusion, a line often blurred, disappeared in wall construction last year.

    

In August, StrXur by Bluebeam posted a YouTube video of a Martin Bros. framer assembling walls using a Microsoft HoloLens as his sole layout tool. No tape measure. No robotic total station. Just the augmented reality headset.

    

Working like Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” the framer built a bathroom pod piece by piece without consulting traditional plans. Instead of plans, he saw holograms—3-D models of the framing components—and responded to guidelines on where to place each real 2 1/2-inch track and stud.

    

“We realized that there was opportunity with augmented reality quite a few years ago,” Cody Nowak, VDC and BIM manager at Martin Bros., told StrXur. “But the hardware and the software were not there yet.”

    

The HoloLens was “the missing piece,” Nowak said, to prove that augmented reality could work in drywall construction.


Augmented Reality’s Multiple Benefits

Augmented reality is being researched by a handful of wall and ceiling firms. Martin Bros., the Gardena, Calif., subcontractor, appears to be the first drywall firm to use the technology to build walls. It’s bathroom pod project was a breakthrough: The framer erected a structure completely on the fly. True, he worked under controlled conditions—no crews, equipment or piles of material got in his way. Nevertheless, he saw what he was supposed to build while he built it. A first.

    

Since then, other drywall firms have invested in augmented reality research and development.

    

In March, at AWCI’s Convention in Las Vegas, Paul Godwin of Marek presented “Mixed Reality in Action,” which featured the company’s work in augmented reality. Godwin told convention attendees that augmented reality will enable Marek to stay on the cutting edge of technology and be a trend-setter rather than follower.

    

In Littleton, Colo., South Valley Drywall, Inc. has purchased a Microsoft HoloLens and hired three summer interns to work on developing applications for it.

    

In Dallas, BakerTriangle Prefab is writing software for the HoloLens. The company is keying in on quality assurance/quality control applications.

    

F.L. Crane & Sons of Fulton, Miss., plans to invest in augmented reality technology later this year. “We must test the waters,” says Justin Robbins, F.L. Crane’s BIM department manager. “We may get all kinds of unexpected benefits.”

    

Benefits like what? What exactly can augmented reality do? Here are a few augmented-reality promises that wall and ceiling companies expect to see in time:

    

Safety. Augmented reality headsets could flag potential trip hazards as framers and finishers walk to their work areas. It could provide real-time access to the positioning of other tradespeople on a job site. Some headsets, such as the DAQRI Smart Helmet, have built-in thermal cameras that can identify heat sources. Such detection could warn tapers and finishers where to avoid welders working on site or where machinery is running at high temperatures. Real-time video feeds from the helmets could give safety superintendents a glimpse of the job without having to make a trip to the site.   


Training. Wall companies say that augmented reality could aid new hires and union apprentices to learn the business quickly. Drywall firms could feed lessons directly to workers’ headsets so as to teach them step by step for both simple and complex assemblies.

    

“If you break down the framing and make it easy to see each step, you take away a huge learning curve,” says Travis Vap, president of South Valley Drywall.

    

Quality Assurance/Quality Control. Augmented reality could help wall foremen and fabrication plant managers to double-check their work quality. Even management at headquarters could see job sites live and assess the progress of the work remotely. Workers wearing augmented reality headsets could stream the real-time video anywhere through video services such as Skype.

    

Layout. Currently, the optics and robotics of total stations streamline workflows and improve precision. However, augmented reality is expected to offer the same functionalities completely through wearables. “We project that in five years augmented reality will be able to lay out the work for an entire floor,” says Vap.


Writing Algorithms

Sources contacted for this article say that augmented reality is not yet ready for deployment to active construction zones. However, they also say its development is progressing quickly. Wall and ceiling executives see great potential in augmented reality’s improving operations.

    

“Augmented reality will be one of the biggest game-changers in construction ever,” says Vap.

    

No wonder wall and ceiling firms have begun developing and configuring the technology for their own use.

    

South Valley Drywall, for example, has hired three interns this summer to study augmented reality’s potential for wall and ceiling applications. One intern has a construction background and schooling in Autodesk Revit, the popular modeling program. Another is an architecture graduate student. The third is studying construction management. Both of the latter two interns have programming experience.

    

“We’re trying to figure out what we can make the HoloLens do,” says Megan Washnieski, manager of design and engineering at South Valley Drywall. “We’re barely out of the box with it.”

    

BakerTriangle has its own augmented reality software development program underway. Bardia Jahangiri, VDC specialist, came to Baker Triangle Prefab with an architecture, construction and coding skill set. He’s writing code for the HoloLens, and integrating it with the company’s library of Revit models. Using the Unity gaming engine, Jahangiri is making some powerful augmented reality applications available to BakerTriangle’s prefab shop.

    

One of Jahangiri’s applications can locate support carriers within a finished panel. Jahangiri wrote the application for a 30-story hotel, which needed panels to support a series of exterior signs. The augmented reality identified the location of the carriers within the panels—but how?

    

Wearing a HoloLens, a fabricator overlays a hologram panel on top of a real panel lying on a jig. He manipulates the hologram through finger gestures and the headset’s digital pointer. The fabricator makes the hologram bigger or smaller, rotates it and nests it on top of the real panel. With the template in place, the fabricator marks where to drill the holes into the carriers, which are hidden beneath the exterior metal cladding.

    

“The ways to manipulate the HoloLens came from Microsoft,” says Jahangiri. “We designed our own interface from scratch.”

    

Jahangiri is also working on object recognition. He’s writing a program to recognize finished panels based on their dimensions, a future quality assurance/quality control tool. The HoloLens will connect to shop cameras and the shop’s database of 3-D models of every panel. It will compare what has been built with the models. Amazingly, the HoloLens will be able to distinguish panels that have only slight variations in their dimensions and may even look nearly identical to the naked eye.

    

But why do this? Why not just label every panel with a bar code?

    

“We already have that,” says Jahangiri. “We’re trying to get to actual object recognition.”

    

Object recognition will give BakerTriangle state-of-the-art quality assurance/quality control. A panel could get labeled with the wrong bar code. But augmented reality could distinguish the various panels and, in theory, never mislabel them.

    

“My algorithm will give us this ability,” Jahangiri says.


Augmented Reality versus Virtual Reality

You’ve heard of virtual reality, or VR, and might wonder about the difference between it and augmented reality systems.

    

Augmented reality has an advantage in construction. It offers openness to the world. In fact, augmented reality is the real world, just enhanced with information.

    

“Augmented reality is like using Google Maps or Waze,” says Vap. “You see other things, like where to go and what to do.”

    

With augmented reality, crews can remain immersed in their work but see renderings that could improve their output. In contrast, virtual reality is a closed world. It’s suitable for show and tell, for impressive marketing presentations, but not so much for building live structures. And in many ways, augmented reality takes the cake for coolness. But, is augmented reality a justifiable equipment expense for building walls and ceilings?

    

“These are $3,000 headsets, and framers have been building off paper for years,” says Robbins. “I have to ask whether the field needs 3-D holograms.”

    

But for Robbins and others, the answer is yes. Augmented reality is justified for R&D because it has the potential to give workers an enhanced sense of spacial awareness. Sure, many workers look to tablets to see 3-D models and images. They could sketch out designs with a pencil. But nothing is quite as engaging as seeing full-scale 3-D integrated with a job site. Augmented reality helps field workers to visualize projects in a way that has never before been possible.

    

In some ways, augmented reality will tip the balance of power toward construction subcontractors.

    

“The days of information being centralized with the general contractor are long gone,” says Vap. “Some GCs will try to hold onto the information, but work today is about speed. The more information we have [such as through augmented reality], the less we spend, the better we do our jobs, the more we pay our workforce, and the lower we can bid projects.”

    

Will all workers one day be wearing augmented reality headsets to work? Is it time to discard some of the items on the tool belt once and for all?

    

“Not all workers will walk around projecting holograms,” says David Keane, virtual design and construction specialist at Baker Drywall Prefab. “But in the not too distance future, augmented reality could be common in the construction environment.”

    

Others agree: The future of augmented reality is just getting started.

    

“We’re in a fact-finding mission right now,” says Washnieski. “[Augmented reality] has a ton of potential in a ‘close enough, good enough’ sort of way, but it’s not quite there for the exactness necessary in construction.”

    

An upcoming South Valley Drywall project calls for brick ties to be placed in prefabricated panels. The brick ties, Washnieski says, won’t need to be on perfect lines. Being within an eighth of an inch will be “close enough,” she says. It’s one of many augmented reality projects she sees coming down the pike.

    

Augmented reality is science-fiction like technology. It’s not easy to understand it until you wear a headset or watch a video showing what it can do. But more than that, augmented reality calls for a whole new way of thinking.

    

“Our trade is drywall and plaster,” says Keane. “You don’t find the trade packed with programmers and coders, but to tap into this thing, you have to invest in people who have programming backgrounds. For many firms, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re drywall companies. Why would they need to write code?”

    

They will soon.


Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about construction technology. Reach out to him on Twitter, @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.


 

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