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Is Augmented Reality Going to Change Construction?

Picture this: As you climb out of your truck at the jobsite, you put on your glasses and say, “Glasses, show me yesterday’s report.” A display pops up right in front of your eyes, showing you the items that need your attention today. As you walk through the jobsite, you take photos of recent concrete pours or new electric work and compare them to older photos of those areas to mark progress. And you do it all without lifting a finger — just give a voice command and whatever you need pops up right in front of your eyes.

This type of technology is called Augmented Reality (AR) and it has a lot of people excited — both inside and outside the construction industry. But does AR have a valid place in construction? Or is it a quirky trend that will serve no practical purpose on the job?

What is Augmented Reality?

First, a quick explanation for those of you who may not have heard of it: Augmented Reality is the layering of computer-generated elements (such as sound, graphics, or video) over a real-world environment. The most well-known example today is Google Glass, which can display information and interact with social media while still letting you see the world around you.

Another handy AR application is interactive catalogs (see IKEA’s example). These apps let customers view the products as they’ll appear in their homes. Putting an architectural spin on this technology is Metaio’s Project Q. This app lets users view a potential building in 3D from every angle on their smartphones, allowing for powerful visualization of the project — before it has even begun.

Potential Uses for Augmented Reality in Construction

AR technology has many people in the construction industry excited. It has the potential to help get the job done faster and more efficiently. One of the ways AR can help on the jobsite is by geo-locating objects and structures that don’t exist on the site yet, but which will be there in the future. This can help them “see” the position of hidden elements like underground pipes, cables, and ducts hidden behind a wall, or boundaries for outer walls.

Another way AR can help on the job is by mapping the user’s exact location on the site (usually using GPS) and overlaying BIM information so the user can visualize the finished project compared to current progress. This lets the user “see” elements such as where columns and foundations should be placed and where important spaces are.

Using augmented reality allows for a more interactive view of the jobsite compared to working from traditional plans.

Challenges

Even with all these benefits, AR has a way to go before it can enjoy widespread adoption in construction applications. One potential pitfall is incomplete or out-of-date information resulting in major mistakes or accidents — for example, if the app displays the wrong location of a hidden pipe or cable.

Another hurdle to overcome is the limited ability of AR apps and devices to provide reliable positioning information of the user as he or she moves around the jobsite. Most of these apps currently use GPS positioning, but it has trouble pinpointing a location (it’s only accurate to within several feet). It also tends to lose signal if blocked by weather or a neighboring structure.

There’s been plenty of hype about augmented reality technology — and it does have the potential to provide some powerful benefits to construction teams. Google Glass, for example, provides a hands-free way of communicating on-site data with the office and other stakeholders.

But developers will have to overcome the technology’s limitations and make their apps and devices more reliable before they’re likely to see widespread adoption by contractors and other construction professionals.

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