An architect holding an ipad over an empty space with the concept visualised on screen

Designs on a virtual future

Marshalls plc ammonite logo
Wednesday 30th March, 2016

For the past 20 years virtual reality and augmented reality software has kept us waiting with bated breath, wondering when the technology would ever live up to the dream. Now, however, two major players have delivered and we can finally explore new realities from the comfort of just about anywhere.

Google Cardboard, named after the material from which its simple viewing box is formed, is a system that sees users slot their smartphones into position and run an app which splits ‘scenes’ into two viewing screens – one for each eye – for a stereoscopic (3D) view. Oculus Rift, billed as ‘next-generation virtual reality’ is another major player in this arena. One of the best-known pieces of work created using Oculus Rift is Jerry’s Place, a fun, free project that saw developer Gregory W Miller accurately turn the apartment-based set of his favourite TV show, Seinfeld, into an interactive virtual reality experience. As both a piece of pop culture and an example of dedication to design, Jerry’s Place is impressive.

It’s easy to see how this new virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology can and will be used by marketers, but how will the construction industry turn these fantastic new tools to its advantage?

Virtual visualisation

The capacity to help a client clearly visualise how a project will look on completion is invaluable for architects and construction professionals alike. The blueprint and the 3D-printed model are both used to great effect to help everyone appreciate developing plans. However, neither can complete with the capacity to invite clients and colleagues to take a wander around a building before a single stone has been laid. Virtual reality lets you do exactly this, giving clients a preview that ensures the dreams in their minds match the design in yours[1]. Virtual reality allows us to get a sense of what a building will feel like as a living or workspace, where the light will fall, the lines the eye will follow and the flow through rooms. Once an expensive tool that only those operating in the very upper echelons of the market could afford to use, today the use of virtual reality is fast becoming standard industry practice. For some this means using technology to transform 3D models into virtual reality sets. Others, meanwhile are using drones carrying cameras and lasers to scan sites and creating the ‘new worlds’ that way.

Augmented reality

But what about augmented reality? How does that differ in scope and impact from virtual reality? While virtual reality replaces the real world with a new world, augmented reality builds unreal elements onto the real, existing world. It is a copy of the real world with extra, augmented parts. While virtual realities can exist independently of the real world, augmented realities can only be created using dimensions and landmarks of the real world.

Over the last five years, augmented reality has become a central tool in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction. Perhaps the best known use of augmented reality took place in New Zealand following 2011’s 6.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated the city of Christchurch. As well as killing 185 people and injuring several thousand, the earthquake left much of the city, including a number of significant heritage buildings, in ruins. Christchurch’s University of Canterbury released an app, CityViewAR, which lets people see how the city looked before the earthquake occurred. As well as being a great resource for the people of New Zealand, CityViewAR was used by planners, architects and engineers to visualise life in the city before disaster struck.

Best for BIM

Both augmented reality and virtual reality can be seen as tools in the larger arsenal of Building Information Modelling (BIM), a practice that’s on the rise across the UK’s construction industry. In essence, BIM is the use of a vast array of advanced technologies during the course of a building’s (or landscape’s) design, construction and implementation. Right now, we’re in the grip of an exciting wave of digital advancement that’s revolutionising the way we design, engineer and construct. For us here at Marshalls, this exciting development has real relevance to the way our products might be visualised in place and used, particularly given that this year the government is making BIM mandatory for all publicly-procured projects.

For example, as part of a wider BIM task, augmented reality may be used to envision how the aesthetics of different internal stone floors would complement the overall design of a retail, residential or leisure development’s interior. Or, if a client wanted to make a more informed choice on our range of permeable paving and the look each product delivers, augmented reality could prove very helpful. Would a concrete block in red create the heritage feel they’d like to achieve, or would a permeable flagstone be more to their taste? Functional matters too could be resolved through the use of augmented reality as part of a broad BIM process. The benefits of various drainage systems could be compared by landscapers looking to select the perfect option for the specific design in hand.

Right now, we’re standing on the cusp of a breakthrough period for BIM, virtual reality and augmented reality across our industry. New digital technologies and inspiring real-world design are working in tandem to give us better, more beautiful and functional outdoor spaces that exactly match our desires and expectations. As we move into this new era and embrace all the opportunities for design and construction more so than anything that’s ever gone before, Marshalls intends to lead the way.

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