May 25, 2016

Virtual Reality Meets Design and Construction

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There’s been a lot of news about virtual reality (VR) lately; however it is more than just a buzzword at Westwood. We’ve implemented VR technologies in our day-to-day workflow to deliver a better product to our clients. I recently spoke on this topic at the Midwest University’s 2016 Conference, presenting Westwood’s vision of VR and drone technologies and how it will impact the design and construction industries. 

VR has picked up steam in the past year, with things like Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift headsets becoming commonplace. VR is something consumers are embracing and really expecting in their everyday lives. I don’t think the expectation is really any different when they’re dealing with a design professional. The technology is available for professionals, we just need to take that step into the future and utilize it. With software like Autodesk’s InfraWorks, Westwood brings its clients’ designs to the next level. Combined with photogrammetry from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), virtual 3D designs can take on a realistic feel while incorporating real-time site data.

Visualizing a project site with a large footprint can be a challenge, even for folks who are experienced in the industry. The reality of what is going to be constructed really “clicks” when the project stakeholders can see the design virtually in 3D. Exploring the virtual site model, Westwood’s engineers and designers can find potential problems or areas of improvement before construction starts. Clients visiting their site can take out an iPad and use the InfraWorks app to explore the design in an augmented reality environment. The app takes their GPS signal and transports them “into” the model. The model moves left and right, up and down, as you explore the design in context with the natural environment. The InfraWorks app lets our clients see what their project will look like while they experience the wind and the natural environment around them. Having quality 3D models also helps gain regulatory approval and public buy-in. The public can easily visualize the proposed project and understand how it will fit in with the existing landscape. 

The benefits of virtual reality don’t end at the design phase. With a UAV (or drone), aerial photos of a site can be taken at a regular interval during construction. From there, 3D site models while under construction.  Proposed features, such as additional buildings, roads, and other structures, can be added using InfraWorks, allowing project stakeholders to get a good feel for upcoming and future additions to the landscape. UAVs also make it much easier to document the site changes week-to-week or month-to-month with aerial photography. 

The next frontier in VR is 360-degree spherical photography. While this technology has been around for years, primarily in residential real estate and Google Street View, it has recently been miniaturized and simplified. One doesn’t need to have the extraordinary financial and technical resources of Google to document a project in a manner similar to Street View. 360-degree imagery allows the viewer to truly get a sense of scale and place wherever a photo is taken. The imagery can even be viewed using VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. Are the existing terrain conditions and vegetation daunting? Or is the landscape wide-open? Is the project being constructed with the original design intent? With 360-degree imagery, it really is the next best thing to actually standing on-site.

The world of virtual reality technology is changing and improving rapidly. From 3D modeling to UAVs to 360-degree photography, Westwood is using these technologies to enhance many of our projects. Combining the expertise of our industry professionals with VR technologies, we are able to reduce costly errors, take projects to the next level, and provide a venue for clients to play an active role in design. 

Better people. Better technologies. Better results!

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