As investments in virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR) grow, the field is starting to develop industry-specific technologies poised to disrupt how the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry does business.
While there are plenty of large companies developing AEC-specific AR and VR technologies, a handful of startups are focusing specifically on AEC. They are betting that products designed for this multi-trillion dollar global industry will make enough waves to sustain their companies.
Someday, immersive media—the umbrella term encompassing AR, VR, and similar technologies—will affect the entire value chain of AEC. This includes improved marketing, better client and team communications and collaboration, saving time and money in the design process, identifying costly errors before they are made, affecting choice of building materials, and enhancing safety on construction sites.
Today, trends among immersive media startups signal three main areas of focus in AEC: marketing, workflow, and customized services.
AEC Marketing with VR/AR
Marketing VR and AR applications have been the quickest to come to market, possibly because gaming technology can be easily re-purposed here. Marketing applications present clients with an immersive experience that allows them to visualize and understand being inside a space. This does not require industrial-grade fidelity to work. There will eventually be a new generation of chips that enables smooth processing of super high-fidelity images, but the industry is still working on it. For marketing, however, there is no need to go that far—the simple experience of being immersed in a virtual reality model is enough to get an idea of what a space feels like before it’s built.
There are two categories of marketing-focused startups: integrated solutions and standalone software. Integrated solutions leverage existing design software to translate 3D designs into a virtual reality experience. Standalone software products are designed to create beautiful visual experiences to pitch clients.
VR-ifier and irisVR are two promising integrated solutions startups.
VR-ifier allows you to translate existing 3D data into VR interface quickly and easily. One of its features is simplifying complex data so that it can be handled in a VR environment. Once that data has been imported, VR-ifier makes it easy to create VR presentations of models to show clients. Compatible formats are: obj, fbx, ifc, stl, ply, and xyz. Users can also export “optimized models”—the simplified data sets—to obj and fbx formats for further manipulation.
Billed as a simple and user-friendly software, irisVR converts 3D files to VR presentations in one click. It supports conversions from SketchUp, Revit, Rhino, and FBX. While the main functionality relates to delivering VR presentations, it is also marketed as a design review and team collaboration tool. This makes VR easy for AEC, and they are optimized for low latency, high frame rates, and easy navigation to deliver a user-friendly, comfortable VR experience.
Technologies in the standalone category include Virtual Spaces and Unreal Engine.
Virtual Spaces targets interior design and real estate users. A “mobile VR” startup, it helps visualize architectural drawings and produces renderings that allow viewers to visualize and get a sense of scale, size, height, and depth of spaces. Designed to be used also as swanky “virtual tour” walkthrough tool, its main purpose to simplify and accelerate the sales cycle for real estate agents and developers. In addition to providing full VR experiences, the software simulates six degrees of freedom on 2D-screen virtual walk-through that give a sense of space, height and depth.
While not startups, Unreal Engine and Unity are also building AEC-focused solutions. Its value-add beyond a solution like Virtual Space is the premium quality photorealistic rendering. Used by some of the largest and most prestigious players in the industry—including the HOK and Zaha Hadid Architects—Unreal Studio allows users to iterate a design vision rapidly and communicate design intent to clients and stakeholders. Unity also has a unique partnership with Autodesk-megalith maker of many architectural design tools. While theses game engines also market the potential for improved workflow and ability to catch design errors early, the main focus is creating beautiful and interactive presentations.
AEC Workflow Startups
It’s difficult to underestimate the impact immersive media could have on AEC workflow. The ability to bring disparate parties into the same virtual space to test look, feel, and functionality before a design is finalized is nothing short of revolutionary. It provides clients with an enhanced ability to experience the final design. Teams gain opportunities to shortcut communications, test new ideas, and collaborate across geographies.
Two promising startups are investing in workflow applications: Trezi, and Unity.
Trezi is less focused on the industrial designers, and more focused on improving productivity of teams through multidisciplinary team collaboration.
Trezi is a collaboration software platform that improves collaboration and designs, reduces costs, and enables better marketing. They target three customer segments: architects and interior designers, building product manufacturers and suppliers, and rental property owners and tenants. The platform is compatible with existing design software including Revit, SketchUp, and Rhino, and converts models built in those environments to a full-scale interactive VR environment.
While not a startup, Unity has recently added AEC-specific software to its platform that was originally built for entertainment and manufacturing applications. They aim to lower costs, save time, and streamline workflows by accelerating the design, build, and operate lifecycle. Unity’s platform combines off-the-shelf elements with the ability to customize the software and code directly. With software suites for either studio- or enterprise-level clients, Unity can also import CAD and 3D BIM data. They aim to be a team’s all-in-one platform for translating design data into interactive and immersive experiences.
With the swift-growing suite of immersive media capabilities and products for AEC, this can be a confusing and cluttered world to navigate. It’s no surprise that some companies are providing consulting services to help others adopt immersive media.
Teatime is a “virtual and augmented reality studio” specializing in emerging technologies that provides both products and services for VR and AR. Targeting architecture and engineering firms, they are experts in various forms of immersive media and adept at building stories and narratives into the experiences they create. If you want a guide to teach you about available solutions, build a few presentations for you, or even customize software for you, hiring knowledgeable consultants could be an option. Teatime is also a software developer—they are the team behind the VR-ifier product described above.
The good news is that the market recognizes the potential for immersive media to disrupt both marketing cycles and workflow practices within AEC. Dozens of startups have emerged, and bigger firms are designing AEC-industry specific hardware and software. The challenge is that the number of solutions out there is making for a noisy and crowded field. It’s less a question of knowing whether to dive in, because the change is coming. It’s more a question of knowing how to dive in. By choosing one route, you are making a bet on which products will still be around and supported in five years. This is the risk of early adoption, but the benefits of embracing VR and AR early on will likely outweigh the risks.