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McKinstry and Visual Vocal Partner to Explore Applications of VR in Construction Industry

Seattle, McKinstry, Visual Vocal, construction industry, facility service markets, augmented reality, technology, design-build
Image courtesy of Visual Vocal

By Jack Stubbs

Technology continues to impact the evolving construction industry at the local and regional level, and new partnerships are looking to bring new platforms to the table in an attempt to further streamline operations within the industry.

In mid-August, McKinstry, a design-build-operate-and-maintain (DBOM) consulting firm, partnered with Seattle-based software company Visual Vocal to explore the potential implications for the Visual Vocal augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platform within the construction and facility service markets.

McKinstry and Visual Vocal are looking to explore how the AR and VR capabilities of modern smartphones can enable more efficient communication between members of the AEC (architecture/engineering/construction) community, and to make this technology more readily available to members within the AEC community, according to John SanGiovanni, CEO and cofounder of Visual Vocal. “As is often the case, I think phase one of adoption in the AEC industry is pretty experimental. People are doing showcases and limited pilots; they’re pretty time-intensive and not really deployment-ready. [But] the intent with our technology is that it is super accessible; it’s designed to overlay on the existing workflows and enhance those,” he said.

From a programmatic perspective, the idea is that technology like Visual Vocal’s platform can streamline operations on the job-site. Project teams can capture 3D environments using their phone or other 3D hardware, then mark-up and vocally annotate their work performed across building design, engineering, construction and operations. Visual Vocal works on iOS and Android mobile devices and the platform can be deployed universally across project teams using their existing equipment.

One of the main ideas behind the Visual Vocal platform—in which users wear a headset through which they can experience the built environment in a more collaborative, immersive and immediate setting—is that it builds upon other technologies that have been implemented in the construction industry over the last few years, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is a 3D model-based process that allows members of the AEC community to more efficiently plan, design, construction and manage buildings and project through the use of digital representations of space.

Methods like BIM have laid the groundwork for the application of AR and VR, which is becoming more widespread throughout the construction industry, according to Ash Awad, chief market officer at McKinstry. “I would start with the idea that over the last decade, BIM for the built environment is not just aesthetic, but also functional and about how a building is truly going to come together including any conflict resolution, scheduling of what systems will go into the building,” he said. “BIM has allowed the industry to be much more ready for the advent of AR or VR. For the AEC industry, the ability to actually collaborate on a very detailed model is happening now.”

Looking ahead, the hope is that the Visual Vocal technology further streamlines communication between members of the AEC community on the job-site and replaces older methods of 2D construction and engineering documents in favor of a more interactive, collaborative AR environment, according to Awad. “Our industry obviously takes many people to construct a building including architects, engineers, structural and mechanical engineers,” he said.

Accordingly, the increased application of technology within construction the industry is seen as a means to address a more long-standing obstacle within the industry, which historically has been defined by a separation of disciplines on any given project, according to Awad. “One of the main problems that we’ve seen in the construction industry is the siloeing of the different disciplines: architects might work with engineers; there may be a gap between them and the builder; and the builder might have gaps between themselves and the general contractors and subcontractors,” he said. “We know that a massive gap exists between [the stage of] design-build to operate-maintain, and some of those gaps exist because owners want to fragment out the project.”

Particularly in a growing sector like the construction industry—which historically has been plagued by issues like a distinct labor shortage, rising budget and project costs and job site safety concerns—the adoption of technology is seen as a necessary step to increasing productivity across the board. Awad thinks that over the last couple of decades, in particular, the construction industry has lagged in relation to other industries. “Over the last 20 years from 1995 to 2015, the construction industry has lost productivity. As many other industries have gained productivity and been able to produce more effectively and reduce costs over time, our trillion dollar industry has lost productivity between designing, building, operating and maintaining buildings,” he said.

More specifically, the hope is that the Visual Vocal AR and VR technology can be implemented within training, workforce development and job site safety programs as a means to replace older methods, according to SanGiovanni. “With regards to applications in training—especially when it comes to immersive computing like AR and VR—in-place training is all the rage right now and is a super inventive method of knowledge transfer,” he said. “Whereas a traditional facilities technical training or safety training would happen via a video or another web or screen-based method, this technology expands the reach and doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a formalized training program,” he said.

And while the smartphone-based technology is meant to further streamline communication on the job-site, it is not addressing a new issue within the industry but rather the more long-term issues that have evolved over the last few years, according to Awad. “Over 20 years we lost collaboration, but we’re starting to gain collaboration and are looking to accelerate that. We are in a risky business where a lot of the decisions being made are trying to defer risk and move risk from one party to another.”

And while the adoption of technology is being integrated as a means to improve the workflow and communications between members of the AEC community within an evolving industry, there remain some concerns about the rate at which this technology is impacting a traditionally interpersonal environment, according to SanGiovanni. “If you actually look at the worksite and these deep collaborations that lead to these multi-billion dollar projects, there is a massive human component in the collaboration, [but] a lot of these digital systems are so focused on the workflow that they don’t stop to recognize the importance of the human dimension,” he said.

Looking ahead in terms of where the adoption of this technology might occur, Awad thinks that this will be less determined by which cities or markets are traditionally seen as more tech-oriented and more a case of in which areas project teams are looking to foster increased collaboration in the first place. “In the Pacific Northwest, contractors and engineering firms in Seattle and Portland are particularly tech-friendly… here in Seattle, owners, developers and institutional entities like University of Washington have gone into progressive design-build projects where collaboration is key,” he said. “But instead of thinking about it along geographic lines, I think that the predictor of the adoption of these types of technology will be wherever new procurement methods are being adopted.”