Digital Construction Week, 2019

Showcasing uses of virtual reality

As we highlighted at our recent Predictions 2020 and Beyond event, extended reality is rapidly gaining momentum in enterprise markets, particularly where there are high concentrations of “task workers”. For a segment of the workforce that has not particularly benefited from many of the technology innovations that brought increased productivity to knowledge workers, technologies like extended reality introduce new possibilities for hands-free interaction with applications and information.

To explore the area in more detail, we recently attended Digital Construction Week at the ExCel event centre in London, in search of emerging and exciting uses of virtual reality (VR) in the construction industry.

The most popular use of VR at the show was visualization, by some distance. This corresponds with our survey research, which indicates that visualization is the leading use among organizations currently using extended reality, with over half of early adopters investing in this type of usage.

Current enterprise usage of extended reality by firms using the technology – IT decision-maker survey, CCS Insight 2019

A number of companies at the event demonstrated the ability to take CAD-based architectural plans for a building and then step into the design in VR. This allows creators, designers, architects, builders and other stakeholders to gain insights on a construction project well before any construction work has begun.

In one demonstration offered by US start-up Iris VR, using a virtual Notre Dame cathedral, we were able to move seamlessly between a model view outside the building and surrounding area to a first-person view that let users navigate and analyse the interior and exterior of the cathedral. Although not demonstrated at the show, users are also able to collaborate with other VR participants, sharing the virtual experience alongside support for voice conferencing.

Although the product was impressive in demonstration, we were interested to hear from a different visualization company that people actively involved in the design process often prefer to view the visualization on a standard monitor rather than using a VR headset, only using the VR experience for presentations to customers and other stakeholders. This left the impression that perhaps VR remains a novelty add-on for companies in this sector, rather than a truly developed and unique design tool to be harnessed for innovative projects. This is partly owing to the immaturity of many of these VR applications, which do not yet support the ability to make changes to the model from within the VR experience beyond perhaps annotating the design. The VR experience needs to become a more embedded part of the workflow to overcome this.

In line with our survey results, the second use of VR we saw was for training and development, albeit only from one company, Brighton-based Make Real. On display was an extended training programme originally commissioned by Vodafone that taught engineers how to safely work at heights, such as on rooftops. In contrast to the visualization applications, it was clear that usage of VR in training is much more established and well-tested, with Make Real indicating significant projects with customers including Lloyds Banking Group and Severn Trent Water. Among the benefits highlighted by customers are significant improvements in information retention for those who have undergone VR-based training.

This supports some of our recent discussion of the potential for VR in learning and training (see A Cutting-Edge VR Experience). In particular, VR in six degrees of freedom allows users to engage fully with an interactive environment. We believe this has huge potential, especially as new technologies such as eye-tracking and haptics are added into the fold.

Most exhibitors were using the Oculus Rift S for their demonstrations, but we also got a glimpse of HP’s Reverb device, which was part of a compact workstation set-up allowing users to dock a computer into a backpack and enjoy a standalone VR experience with a headset that would normally be tethered. However, there were no live demonstrations of this, and HP failed to convince us who would use this sort of set-up on a regular basis.

Beyond VR, we saw one augmented reality headset on display: Lenovo’s ThinkReality A6 device, which has an attached computer that fits in the user’s pocket. However, with the device still in pre-production, it appeared to be present only as a talking point and there was no real demonstrations or notable applications. We didn’t find any mixed reality headsets on display.

Overall, the event was a little disappointing from the perspective of extended reality. Although there were a smattering of VR applications on show, they were limited and it was clear that some applications remain immature and are consequently still little more than a novelty for organizations. However, VR as a training aid shone through as an impressive use of the technology, and we hope to see continued development in this area.