The best opportunity

Could new technology that simplifies the transfer of BIM models to AR push AEC firms to go all in on extended reality?

David Malone / November 01, 2018
BIM models to AR

Extended reality (XR) is in a unique phase of its life cycle.

The technology is readily available for anyone and everyone who thinks they can do something with it. And for better or worse, it is anyone and everyone who thinks they can do something with it.

New applications for both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are more ubiquitous than superhero movies, and unfortunately they are oftentimes just as vapid. The trick with XR is to shift it from novelty to necessity, and the AEC industry has proven it can offer the best opportunity to do exactly that.

Be it VR or AR, the AEC industry has already done a good job at helping XR claw its way out of the novelty category, and recent developments like Umbra’s new BIM to AR technology are a big reason why. This innovation uses Umbra’s cloud-based technology to take 3-D data of any size and optimize it so it can be delivered and rendered on mobile VR and AR devices.

The technology, dubbed Umbra Composit, can be used with common design tools such as Revit, Navisworks, and ArchiCAD to upload 3-D BIM models directly to a company’s cloud platform. From there, Umbra automates the entire process of optimization and prepares the BIM model to be shared with anyone on XR platforms. “With a single button click, Umbra does all the heavy lifting, so designers can share huge, complex models with anyone, anywhere,” said Shawn Adamek, Umbra’s Chief Strategy Officer. “Never before have people had access to view complete, full-resolution BIM models in AR on untethered mobile devices.”

Once the model has been optimized in the cloud, users can log into their web-based account to view the model in the browser, send it to their mobile device, or share it with others. A big part of what makes this technology so helpful to end-users is the fact that it is compatible with mobile devices, such as iPads. AR-specific devices, such as the Microsoft HoloLens, are still relatively rare among even the largest architecture and construction firms. Increasing the point of entry by making smartphones and tablets compatible with the technology increases the number of users who can benefit from BIM to AR while also increasing the rate at which the technology evolves and improves.

Using a tablet to view a BIM model on-site before construction

Umbra employee Elina Nygård uses a tablet to view a BIM model on-site before construction has begun. While this could be done in VR, using AR allows for the model to be explored in the actual environment the completed building will exist within to give architects and clients the most realistic walkthrough of an unbuilt structure possible. Image courtesy of Umbra.

BIM to AR in the field

Consigli Construction recently began to dabble with BIM to AR technology on a few of its projects. When building the Woburn Public Library, in Woburn, Mass., Consigli exported the BIM model to iPads, which it then used to overlay proposal changes on the existing building to show potential donors the finished product. An existing wall was overlaid with an opening leading to an addition with a circulation desk, a steel frame was overlaid with the finished model, and in-wall conditions, such as piping and conduit, were captured prior to being concealed.

Sellen Construction also sees the potential BIM to AR provides. “It was clear construction field teams needed live scale experiences to communicate the feeling of scale and to be able to use virtual content in real-world situations,” said Salla Palos, Emerging Technology and Innovation Director, Sellen Construction.

The construction firm’s earliest use-cases were small-scale, virtual mock-ups. The first successful pilot came in 2017. Palos took a group of iron workers who were going to install heavy structural steel in a confined elevator shaft to the jobsite and used Microsoft’s HoloLens to project the BIM model into the actual location.

It only took 15 minutes before the crew was ready and had a safe plan for how to execute the job. “BIM based extended reality technologies minimize the need for re-work, because fit, assemblies, scale and finishes can be verified and communicated between all stakeholders in real-time on the actual jobsite,” said Palos. “The second rule of BIM—‘what is modeled is built, what is not modeled is not built’—can be directly applied to BIM-based XR.”

BIM model overlaid onto table

A BIM model overlaid onto a table. This is before the model has been scaled up to 1:1 on-site in the location it will be built. Image courtesy of Umbra.

Where does the technology go from here, and what’s holding it back?

As with any new technology, there are many aspects that need to be smoothed over before it can begin to accelerate at an exponential rate. “AR on-site will benefit from more accurate sensors in the hardware of the viewing devices,” said Adamek. “These are improving with each new product version, but can still have a tough time tracking a user’s exact position as they move around within a virtual model.” If a user is moving around, especially throughout a larger model, they may experience model drift, meaning the AR model will not overlay as precisely onto the real world as it should. More accurate sensors will allow the AR device to rectify this on the fly, stay properly overlaid, and provide a better and more accurate overall experience.

Another hurdle BIM to AR faces is not so much about the technology itself, but the user. The AEC industry typically lags behind other industries in adopting the most recent technology. Smaller firms often do not have the means or the desire to upset the status quo. But in order for this technology to advance, AEC firms need to push all their chips to the center of the table. Fortunately, Palos sees a simple solution to this problem.

“The best tip to integrate BIM to AR into a project as seamlessly as possible is to let people use the tools themselves and become inspired by how easy it is,” Palos said. Just like with the iron workers with which Palos initially used the technology, it didn’t take long before they saw the benefits it provided and were made into believers.

If and when these issues are dealt with, what is the true potential of BIM to AR? Well, Umbra certainly has ambitious hopes. “The vision of the AR Cloud will come to fruition in the next five to seven years,” Adamek said. “A virtual copy of everything on earth (including buildings) will be scanned and converted into 3-D. All of this 3-D will make up an entire, new virtual world that will be available for billions of users to step into via their persistent mobile connections.”

This would give the AEC industry a digital AR view of the world and all of its 3-D data in the future. It would allow BIM to manifest itself in the format of a database and provide the end-user access to the latest information, so they can comprehend and perform their jobs safely and efficiently.

When it comes to its hopes for a BIM to AR future, Sellen isn’t lacking in the ambition department either. Palos has the ultimate dream to see XR tools combine to support a simulated reality, one that is indistinguishable from “true” reality. But as this would require quantum computing, carbon chips, artificial intelligence, and a plethora of other technologies, Palos also mentioned a more feasible future to focus on in the short-term: BIM to AR technology will support the development of future cities.

But in order for this to happen, BIM-based project delivery needs to be fully accepted by the AEC industry. “XR solutions are completely new tools and enable completely new platform economy business models,” Palos said. “The biggest benefits of the technology are yet to come, as the industry matures towards BIM-based project delivery.”

About the Author

Malone is associate editor of Building, Design & Construction magazine.

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