Virtual reality as the future of construction planning

This user is testing the height of a proposed charting station.

Crafting a virtual space
So how is this virtual world created? While it may seem as though the process would be incredibly complicated, it is actually fairly simple.

First, an architect creates the layout in BIM format, providing a digital 3D rendering of the room or building. The file is then uploaded into the VR software for conversion. At this point, the virtual file is ready for users to explore, with the furniture, medical equipment, and instruments within it as static objects. To allow for further interaction within the virtual space, designers can reenter the file and convert each item within the room into its own virtual file. This allows users to move these items around in the virtual space in real time, employing a VR wand. While inside the virtual room, clients can make changes and see how this affects the functionality of the space.

This technology’s impact on productivity is substantial. For example, when it was implemented in the design process for a new operating room at a major hospital in Ohio, 19 surgeons were able to take a virtual tour of the room before it was created. Over the course of two days, they identified 101 changes to be made, which would have taken weeks to recognize using traditional methods. The fact the surgeons were able to see and interact with the room meant they could spot issues more easily and help the team accomplish in two days what would otherwise have taken up to two months.

VR is also extremely useful when dealing with large spaces. In a hotel lobby, for example, there are countless considerations to make when it comes to layout (e.g. the ease with which guests flow in and out of the building, the positioning of furniture and amenities, and the overall aesthetic of the room), but it is difficult and costly to build a mockup of such a large-scale space. With VR, owners are able to truly see, feel, and sense the volume of the space—and therefore make design decisions confidently—before any construction begins.

VR continues to shape the future of the construction industry. As adaptation of this technology continues to grow, so will its benefits—for example, in addition to designing buildings and systems, VR makes it possible to design experiences. For projects like malls, airports, and museums, the customer experience is extremely important and—until now—has been extremely difficult to envision properly. VR changes this by allowing users to experience the design. The technology can also improve worker safety, as they can use VR to understand the risks of a specific installation before actually performing it.

Currently, the VR industry is working to ease the development of virtual models, with user-friendly software expected to become available this year. This software allows experienced BIM users to create VR objects in their models with a process similar to PowerPoint’s, allowing the number of VR users to grow. The ability of additional users to access the VR system—both onsite and remotely—is also in development. Having users who are located in different places be in the same virtual model concurrently will help transform communication. As this technology continues to advance, design professionals should master it to ultimately build the best possible spaces.

Russ Alford is general manager for the Turner Medical & Research Solutions (MRS) business unit, based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is responsible for the effective coordination and development of medical equipment planning and management projects across the United States, having joined Turner in 1982. During his career, Alford has been involved with the company’s retail, education, and healthcare market segments, and has led over $2 billion worth of design and construction efforts for projects across the United States. He can be reached at

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