Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality for the Construction Industry in a Nutshell

Which technologies you can already benefit from for your projects, and which can become interesting in the near future.

Virtual (VR), Augmented (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) mark the beginning of a new era of immersive technology. Open a random newspaper, and chances are high that you will find an article about at least one of those three new technologies. On top of that, the hardware you need becomes more affordable by the minute, meaning that more and more entrepreneurs and innovators will adopt reality technology in their businesses soon.

One industry which can particularly profit from reality technologies is the construction industry. Computer-aided design software (CAD-software) has been used to plan new projects for years, and with the rise of Building Information Modeling all over the world, the uses for reality technologies are numerous. Theoretically, using VR, AR, and MR to plan a project can enormously reduce the costs while delivering better results. Practically, for example, VR trainings are already in use to make construction sites safer for everyone, which actually works, as various research has shown. And with virtual job walks over the construction site, travel costs can be considerably reduced: executives can check up on the progress from their office or while travelling. Some companies offer virtual tours to sell houses before they even began building them, and this seems to be a pretty good idea — who wouldn’t like to walk through a house before buying it?

But when it comes to the technology that is most promising to use for construction projects, there is no patent remedy. Depending on the size and orientation of your business, different reality technologies might fit your needs best. You need a solid understanding of the differences between Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality to know which of these three you should go for. And as a picture is worth a thousand words, we made a diagram explaining the differences between VR, AR and MR to outline the core principles:

Graphic by HoloBuilder, Icons from The Noun Project | CC BY 3.0 US

All of these technologies deliver information, but the way how they do it differs from one to another.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is all about creating immersive surroundings. You are placed in a virtual environment without any visual relation to the real world. This means that the actual space around you — your office, your living room, or wherever you put the VR glasses on — is not visible anymore. Instead, you completely dive into the virtual experience, which could be anything from flying a spaceship to walking over a construction site.

Click the image to load the virtual tour

Different from this, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality enhance the existing reality. Rather than whisking you away to other places, the two technologies enrich your real surroundings with additional, virtual information. So what’s the difference between those two?

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is widely used in the commercial sector to add a single piece of virtual information to a specific point in reality. This point is called “marker” and tells the device (through which you are looking) that a specific virtual element belongs to this place. The virtual object will always be displayed there, on top of the marker, and you can walk around it to watch it from all angles. This technique is often used to place 3D models into the real world. A marker can be placed inside a catalog to visualize a product as a smaller scaled 3D model or to show it in real life size right where the marker is placed.

You can view the augmented real world through some kind of glasses, but also through your phone. Its camera will be used to capture and show you a real-life preview of reality with the added virtual objects. If you decide to go for some glasses, chances are high that it provides you with a head-up-display-like experience, as you may know it from video games. Information is displayed statically in your field of view: imagine you are going for a jog and always see your heart-rate in the upper-right corner of your view. When you turn your head around, the overlay moves with your looking direction. Thus, AR always refers to a view of the real world with virtually added information, but both are not linked in a semantic manner — your device doesn’t ‘understand’ its surroundings.

Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality is a term coined by Microsoft and it differs from Augmented Reality regarding the “melding” of reality and virtuality. An MR device (like the Microsoft HoloLens) allows you to ‘anchor’ objects in the real world, independent from any special marker. You could say that it is aware of its real world surroundings (if you are interested in the technical details, have a look at this article) and can place any virtual object inside of it, which will be correctly positioned and permanently visible at this place. Take a look at how the virtual sticky notes are always displayed on the fridge door:

via Giphy

As you can see, Mixed Reality combines the advantages of both VR and AR, as it allows you to manipulate your surroundings virtually.

So, which is the right for my construction project?

As clichéd as it may sound: it depends. But to go a bit more into detail:

Augmented Reality can provide additional information right in your field of view. This can come in handy if you want to check on details in design documents without taking your phone out of your pocket and browsing through your files for the information needed. It has very limited uses for the construction process itself, though, as AR does not really ‘understand’ where you are and what you are doing. Especially on construction sites, where there are always people or vehicles moving, AR cannot always correctly display the information you need in the real world, as the devices can’t contextually understand whether they see a wall or a person.

Mixed Reality is a promising technology, but it is still too young to be of much real use for the daily business right now. Generally, you could, for example, use such a solution to have a virtual overlay to your real surrounding which could help you detect measurement errors before it’s too late. But there are no reliable commercial solutions available for the HoloLens at the moment, which means that using it on a construction site can become a pretty tricky job — at least for now (end of 2016).

Virtual Reality, on the other hand, is already here. It is an immersive approach, which means that your actual real world surroundings have no influence on how you experience it. Using VR solutions is a good idea if you want to create virtual walk-throughs through the blueprints of your building, or if remote co-workers want to see how the building process is going. Another big plus is that it has become easy to create own 360°-content, for example of your construction site. 
On the downside, VR can cause dizziness for some. Though, so you should try out if you can work in VR, for example by buying an inexpensive Google Cardboard. Another possible disadvantage is that many existing high-end VR-devices are somewhat costly and need a powerful hardware setup — you can read more about that in our comparison of VR headsets.

In conclusion, each of the three different reality technologies has its own pros and cons, but for us, Virtual Reality has the most advantages for the time being: the creation of own 360°-content is becoming increasingly easy, and so is the sharing and collaborating with it. Tools like HoloBuilder allow users with little to no training to create their own digital job walks as virtual walk-throughs and enrich them with additional information. So it is up to you to decide when you would like to start with bringing your projects virtual representation online and start to benefit from cutting-edge technology.