Reality extensions in AEC

1928 0

Many innovations start out labelled as gimmicks, only to wait for other technologies and culture to catch up with them. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have enthralled future-gazers but they are still rarely deployed in the design market. There is scope for change.

We are only just starting to realise the possibilities of what can be done with the designs that we create in 3D by moving to 3D workflows. Investing time in using Building Information Modelling (BIM) on a project is not just about being able to produce faster 2D drawings, or purely about better co-ordination, BIM models are an asset for all phases of building design and that includes collaboration, simulation, analysis, 3D printing, animation and revolutionary applications like Virtual Reality (VR) and live interaction with Augmented Reality (AR).

Unlike classic VR, AR takes its main source imagery from the real world, i.e. what is displayed by a smartphone or tablet camera, and adds graphical and audio layers on top.

Up to now the primary and most successful use for AR has been to deliver tourist information overlaid on historical sights, or locations of nearby restaurants. Some large brands have also adopted the technology for advertising and adding to the so-called ‘customer experience’.

Swedish homeware retailer Ikea models all of its furniture products in 3D CAD, and has recently introduced AR applications, which enable customers to see catalogue items projected into their homes.

There are many examples in different market segments where AR is seen to have a future role. In medical, for instance, a surgeon could get MRI or ultrasound 3D data displayed through glasses as they operate. Battlefield technology has also been driving AR development as well as hardware, with advanced Heads-Up Displays (HUD), technology which is now appearing in cars such as BMW, Mercedes and Audi.

According to Tomi Ahonen in a recent TEDx presentation, current adoption of AR is estimated at around 60 million people using apps and features on a regular basis. By 2018, this is expected to grow to 200 million and there are estimates that this will exceed one billion users by 2020. While many of these will be gaming and lifestyle professional applications, AEC apps are starting to emerge out of the R&D labs of major players and start-ups.

A next generation residential building that will be built in Shanghai. Using a tag on a desk, users can walk around and see the 3D building model on a tablet

In the manufacturing space, companies such as Boeing, BMW, and Volkswagen already use AR on their assembly lines. Volkswagen has what it calls MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance) for servicing, which shows engineers how to perform the tasks of the specific job, step by step, with relevant supplemental information such as the tools to be used, assembly configurations and test specifications.

Quality control and laser scanning firm Faro has enabled its engineer inspection tools to support AR displays, projecting the CAD model to the engineer’s view, to test planned versus actual measurements.


The applications of AR appear to be very broad, from on-site display of buildings and pipework, to bringing models to life with 360 degree views at a scale which works on a tabletop from a patterned flat marker. By adopting and working in 3D, all this content is useful data downstream to AR and VR applications.

If the time is taken at the start of a BIM project to ensure that it is both accurately modelled and appropriately geo-located, using distributed cloud infrastructure, and delivered to smart mobile devices that feature GPS and accelerometers (a device that measures proper acceleration or ‘g-force’), models can be viewed anywhere, or overlaid in real-time reflecting the viewer’s position. This could be a proposed building in-situ, an overlay of pipework in the ground, or an x-ray view through a facility wall displaying cabling and ductwork.

It is one thing to be able to deliver up-to-date 2D drawings on site but imagine if every construction worker had access to the model through all phases of the build, projected in the correct 3D space, in real time, through the camera of a smart phone or tablet.

We have now reached a time when this technology is looking much more viable. Architects are starting to model in 3D, cloud management means data can be distributed anywhere, 4G data rates enable useable data streaming and smart phones have GPS, accelerometers and plenty of memory and computer power for AR applications.

VR and AR roundup

Autodesk Showcase, 3ds Max, InfraWorks 360, Maya, BIM 360 Layout

Autodesk has loads of applications. It also has loads of developers. The chances are you can find a Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) plug in for most of its applications.

Autodesk recently trialled its own plug-in for presentation tool Showcase. 3ds Max and Maya get plenty of support from the development community.

The recently launched BIM 360 Layout is capable of interacting with laser scanners and GPS survey systems on construction sites to guide the construction team to the exact placement of key points. This accurately positions the view of the model in the tablet with the direction in which it is pointing.

Autodesk has been developing its support for the Oculus Rift headset and while nothing has hit the streets yet, we are pretty sure that the company will be offering support where it sees fit.

Bentley Systems Augmented Reality Hypermodels

Currently under R&D, Bentley Systems is evaluating AR for infrastructure for displaying hidden underground infrastructure models, displaying attributes related to visible elements, infrastructure operations and maintenance.

The company is also looking at how this can be used for construction

The research uses smartphones and tablets to displays sections of drawings at 1:1 scale at the exact position they represent in the real world. The project uses Bentley Systems Hypermodel technology, which combines 2D and 3D models for distribution. The benefit of having the 3D model in an AR context is a given, the interesting twist will be seeing 2D drawing sections while looking at a real building or construction site.

WorldViz Vizard VR Toolkit with ARToolWorks AR extension

Vizard VR Toolkit is a platform to create applications that provide users with immersive experiences across VR technologies: head-mounted displays, multi-screen projection walls, consumer 3D monitors, trackers (head trackers, gloves, full body motion capture), and input devices (e.g., wands, steering wheels, gamepads).

The latest version embraces Autodesk 3ds Max binding and controlling shader. The Scene Editor Inspector can transform content from SketchUp and Revit.

The ARToolWorks extension takes advantage of Vizard features, such as the scene graph and 3D file importers, and provides a Python-based programming interface to develop AR applications.

IrisVR: Iris Viewer

A relatively new start-up and one that appears to be dedicated to the AEC space.

The base concept is to provide a platform to take architectural models and transform them into realistic 3D experiences. Drag and drop a model into the IrisVR app, put on your headset and go.

Iris Viewer supports SketchUp, 3ds Max, ArchiCAD, Revit and IFCs.

Iris Viewer developers recently attended an AEC hackathon and demonstrated their viewer when hooked up to an Oculus Rift. The base software is free and the highest tier (paid for) will concentrate on Building Information Modelling (BIM) providing real-time collaborative tools. The software is currently in Beta.


A relatively new French company that is dedicated to developing an AR solution for Android and Apple iOS devices.

The system accepts models created in Autodesk 3ds Max format or KMZ files, which are geo-referenced Google SketchUp models for conversion on a tablet.

Maximum model size is 50MB, up to 150,000 faces, with 450,000 vertices limit and 300 objects. Prices range from $100 a year per project up to $1,735 a year for unlimited projects.


A VR hardware and software firm based in London that resells existing technology and develops its own turnkey solutions.

The company has worked with Zaha Hadid, for which it developed a model that explored the effects of different lighting and airflows on one of its building projects. Using an iPad, the camera pointed towards a 3D model, while the AR layers showed the airflow around the building using animated arrows.

ARki: Augmented Reality Architectural Visualisation

Darf Design is an interactive design studio in London, working predominantly with augmented reality and mobile application development.

Arki is a service for real-time Augmented Reality visualisation of architectural models and can be deployed on any iOS / Android device.

The software incorporates several interactive functions including real-time shadow analysis, and material selection.

ARki also captures and records custom views of models in both movie and 2D still format. Users can save or share their recorded visualisations via email or social media directly from within ARki.


Started in London in October 2013 as a group project between four Innovation Design Engineering students of the Royal College of Art, GravitySketch aims to change the way we draw in 3D, and relies on the users’ spatial intelligence to draw in Augmented Reality 3D via a 2D sketch using a clear perspex board, a pen and a set of Laster Augmented Reality Glasses.

We think it looks quite cool.

The team are now actively raising investments.

AR issues

The current limitations start with the quality of the applications that glue this together as a solution. They often require data to be translated into another format, exported to another application, or to be ‘thinned’ out.

One of the key technical problems with AR is tracking. Ensuring that the viewpoint of the viewing device is accurate and the display of the projected model is smooth, is still very much a work in progress. With revisions to smart phones adding increasingly sensitive accelerometers and faster processors, this is improving year on year.

Onsite, however, when GPS is the main source of positioning the user’s viewpoint, the accuracy of display can drop to within metres leading to mismatches in overlaying the digital model in reality.

When inside a building GPS is less reliable and can be blocked. Here it is possible to improve accuracy through the use of markers. Hybrid tracking systems are in development to improve onsite registration. Bentley Systems’, for example, says AR accuracy has been addressed by its latest R&D projects.

Virtually real

Following years of what has been frankly ridiculous hype, Virtual Reality has gone from being a sci-fi replacement for life itself, to be regularly used in a desktop form by engineers and architects. Graphisoft’s BIMx technology for instance, allows models and environments to be wrapped up and sent to collaborators and clients, where they can get a desktop virtual experience of the design.

BIMx supports Zeiss Cinemizer Glasses, so it is also possible to run an immersive VR session on an ArchiCAD model.

With Oculus Rift and other headsets on the way for gamers, and with huge demand and competition driving costs down, we believe VR is going to be rapidly adopted by design teams.

Attendees at this year’s DEVELOP3D Live conference and exhibition had the chance to see Virtalis demonstrate the latest in collaborative stereoscopic 3D display systems and head tracking systems. Virtalis customers include Fluor Daniel, Taylor Woodrow, Mott MacDonald, Amersham and Balfour Beatty.

Many automotive firms also use these massive projected 3D displays to immerse their engineers during design meetings, displaying cars as 1:1 or higher ratios. Process Plant firms reduce downtime by using use VR to rehearse retrofit and refurbishment processes with engineering teams.

There is also a movement within design computing to capture the real world and bring that into VR within computers. This is the complete opposite mentality of AR. Using laser scanners, photographs, photogrammetry with lots of memory and processing, it is becoming easier to grab the real world in geometric form and model ‘in context’. In some respects this would negate the need for traditional Augmented Reality as the model’s context has been captured and displayed. However, this is a snapshot of the site and changes over time.

The technologies do not really compete, as the edges of VR and AR are blurring and are complimentary display/interaction technologies.

Reality Computing, as Autodesk is defining it, is about grabbing the physical world digitally, manipulating and analysing that information, and fabricating the result back into the physical world.

The results of this approach could be visualised through VR or used to feed an on-site AR experience.


The first and most portable AR hardware devices are smartphones and tablets. While these have a major disadvantage that you have to physically hold them in front of you to see the display, millions of people own one and they are improving in resolution and power. Android and iOS are the most commonly supported platforms and we have seen all major vendors demonstrate R&D projects that support these devices.

AR glasses are very much still in development and will not be coming to market any time soon but technical wizards are working on it.

CastAR glasses by Technical Illusions, feature two 1,280 x 720 micro-projectors. These projectors cast a stereoscopic scene onto a retro-reflective surface, together with a tracking camera. Via a clip-on device these can be turned into VR glasses too.

Epson’s imaginatively named Moverio BT-20 are in development and are Android-based, Bluetooth, binocular, transparent smart glasses with each lens having its own display projected at 960 x 540.

Meta is in development and looks to be straight out of Tony Stark’s Ironman lab. Again it overlays 3D on the lenses but has the ability to recognise gestures, manipulate projected 3D models in space and hopes to enable 3D modelling anywhere.

Atheer One from Atheer Labs are 3D Augmented Reality glasses that are gesture driven and run off an Android phone and have the equivalent of 26” tablet displays per eye. The company envisages them being used in oil and gas, healthcare or for field work. Target cost is $500-$850.

VR headsets

Products like Google Glass cannot provide a real Augmented Reality experience, as they are an in-view display and do not project an image across the users’ whole view. With smartphones and tablets, the subject looks at reality through the embedded camera.

Google Cardboard on the other hand is a self-build cardboard headset that can mount an Android Phone in front of your eyes for a low cost VR experience. The ultimate solution is likely a head mounted display of some sort. Here the biggest and most eagerly awaited VR entry is Oculus Rift, which provides a completely immersive experience with head tracking for Virtual Reality and, when combined with a camera, could provide an immersive Augmented Reality solution.

Bentley’s Research and Development team has been working hard on creating a usable Augmented Reality experience. The company feels it is close to solving the accuracy issue and has even incorporated 2D sectional views in its displays as an added benefit of its i-model format.

Oculus Rift provides 100 degree FOV at 960 x 1,080 resolution. The frame rate can vary depending on the software and processing required.

However, users would look very weird walking down the street wearing an Oculus Rift headset. Sony, Samsung, Zeiss and Totem are all building Oculus Rift competitors.

The resolution, frame rate and Field of View (FOV) are all important for fooling the brain into believing the immersion. In general, a 35-60 degree FOV is considered good enough for most situations. However, a 100 degree-plus FOV is needed when an application requires a great deal of peripheral information, as with gaming driving simulators for example.


In a relatively short space of time, we expect Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to become exceptionally commonplace in AEC and beyond. Combining existing and new types of display interfaces, firms will build this into the digital workflows.

We will see this technology shrink to being less bulky and obtrusive and more predictably accurate using networks and improved tracking electronics.

In the future site visits or construction workers could have this capability available within their safety goggles and all phones and tablets will be seen as windows to access the digital layers which have been mapped over our common reality and individual future designs.

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to AEC Magazine for FREE


Leave a comment