Virtual reality as the future of construction planning

by Carly Midgley | February 10, 2017 10:42 am

A virtual reality (VR) lab where users can explore a planned space before it is constructed using VR technology.
Photos courtesy Turner Medical & Research Solutions

by Russ Alford
Can you imagine being able to see and experience a building before it is constructed? This does not mean reviewing blueprints or watching a building information modeling (BIM) video, but virtually entering a room or building, walking around, and picking things up and rearranging them. That vision is now possible, thanks to virtual reality (VR).

No other equipment allows for this kind of interactivity, which gives owners the opportunity to see their projects come to life—and make changes to design and layout—before ground is broken.

Why use VR?
VR’s emergence into the construction industry has allowed construction and design teams to ensure efficient functionality of a room or space early on in the project. As VR equipment is portable, the cost of physical mockups—which cannot easily be transported—has also been eliminated. With portable VR equipment, construction teams can now set up the virtual space in a conference room, allowing any employees with a few minutes to spare to experience the space and offer their feedback.

These benefits make VR incredibly useful for a variety of spaces, including:

Use of VR in this industry is transforming the entire design and construction process. The ability of owners and employees to experience the built environment before a space is constructed has improved both the pace at which clients make decisions and the quality of those decisions, reducing design times and eliminating excessive changes to the project.

Being able to virtually enter a room or building also facilitates important conversations about equipment placement, guest flow, and the scale of the space. The VR experience is much more realistic and user-friendly than looking at blueprints and 3D models, giving clients the confidence to make significant—and much less expensive—changes during earlier stages of 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.

[3]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[4].

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