Virtual and Augmented Reality Trends Changing AEC

You roll up the ramp to the elevated entrance of the headquarters building. You’re in a hurry; now that you’re running late, you’re eyeing every possible shortcut. The button for the accessible automatic door is located opposite the ramp, past three revolving doors churning out dozens of people each minute. Your pathway is blocked. You sigh. What the devil inspired them to place the accessible doorway so far away from the ramp? Do they not know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair? 


You navigate a dozen more obstacles and get to your meeting 15 minutes late. Your colleagues are all waiting around the conference table. You find there’s no accessible spot at the table and sit far back. Now everyone removes their virtual reality (VR) headset to debrief. Around the room are a dozen designers, architects, and engineers who have just finished a VR training simulation. Everyone was given a different scenario or disability designed to help able-bodied people understand what it’s like to navigate the day-to-day obstacles that a person with disabilities faces.


There is both despair and elation in the room. Despair as people realize how the smallest unintentional design decisions can affect someone’s experience. Elation because they see the power of VR to help them make better design decisions in the future and are excited to learn more.


Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) are making waves in the Architecture Engineering Construction (AEC) industry and will radically change how business is done within the next decade. There are many potential applications, with the empathy training scenario described above one example of the  creative ideas for implementing trends in VR and AR. Trends in VR/AR for AEC worth keeping an eye on include: 




While some people have a knack for spatial visualization, they are in the minority. Being able to “walk through” a virtual space enables an experience that stimulates both the emotional and logical brain centers. Being enclosed within a space and even interacting with others in that space elicits feelings and emotions that are difficult to come by with drawings and models. But it also makes it easier to notice details and even understand what different people’s experiences might be like within the space, like in the example above.



At a minimum, visualization of 3D design through VR will quickly replace building time-consuming models. But its real power lies in its ability to bring the power of feeling what it’s like to walk inside, navigate, and interact with a fully rendered space.


This kind of visualization serves two enticing functions: it can drive revenue growth and lower project costs. Architects and designers who can lead their clients through a VR experience as part of their pitch will gain an edge over competitors using outdated methods. Project costs should be lower, as teams find glitches and make design changes earlier in the process. 




Experiencing a design concept through VR or AR can yield deeper collaboration and productivity with multidisciplinary teams across geographies, and with clients. 


First, teams comprised of people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets find that it is much easier to come to an understanding about a project when they are visually immersed in it. Moreover, the relative ease of making changes or alternate designs allows more ideas to come up to the surface—as the effort for visualizing what a change may look like decreases, the barriers for throwing new ideas up for discussion diminish. Most ideas won’t make the final cut, but those that do will have run quite the gauntlet. 



Second, teams working across geographies—whether in different cities or because of remote work environments—can more easily and quickly experience the design in real time and without travel. An ancillary application will be holding meetings in the VR space, where video conferencing is replaced by VR conferencing. This could improve meeting productivity as participants can refrain from multitasking and be more present in the meeting. 


Finally, giving a client the gift of a full visualization of a project allows them to provide quality input into a project. Being immersed in a VR rendition of a home’s kitchen can make it easier for the client to understand what kind of cabinets, lighting, and layout will work best for them. IKEA, for example, has employed Augmented Reality (AR) for select furniture with great success to help customers better visualize potential updates to their designed space. 




Early adopters of VR and AR in AEC report that one of the biggest benefits of the technology relates to improved workflow. 



Dozens of teams report having identified and fixed design flaws faster and earlier in their projects. This alone has brought significant cost savings and can even boost team morale as it reduces redundant efforts. For instance, there is also excitement about the prospect of retiring time-consuming and cumbersome physical 3D models and replacing them with VR walk throughs that are easier to build, change, and experience. 


The workflow benefits are both among the most obvious and impactful of all the trends.




Possibly one of the most promising trends relates to training. The world of VR/AR may open up a plethora of opportunities for training for everyone ranging from architects and designers to construction workers. Retail giants like Walmart have jumped on using AR applications for training programs, paving the way for other industries to imagine the potential. 


The biggest trend in training is likely to center on safety. Increased construction site safety has reputation, cost, and emotional benefits—a technology that can reduce accidents and casualties will be quick to catch on.



Deploying VR/AR as a training tool over traditional methods has multiple benefits. 


First, safety training that simulates real world scenarios can have a wider scope because there is no need to build physical infrastructure. The number of scenarios that can be placed in front of a trainee is virtually without limit. 


Second, VR/AR applications coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI) could generate randomness in a way that is often not present in traditional training design. In a non-VR world, creating random scenarios is costly, and it’s difficult to evaluate trainee performance on an apples-to-apples level in real-life. Unlimited opportunities for randomization—something that is already used in video games—are a game changer.


Finally, these training tools are scalable. Once developed and the capital expense is paid, they can be used anywhere with minimal variable costs to deploy a training module.


Change is Coming


How much these trends affect AEC in the next decade will depend on how quickly the industry adopts the technology. There is a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which VR/AR developers will be looking at market size and user adoption rates as they decide where to focus investment, while AEC players will be looking to the industry to provide user-friendly solutions that are easy to adopt before they take the plunge. It may be difficult to predict how fast these trends will change the industry, but one thing is certain: the change is coming. Do you want to stay behind or jump to the front of the pack?