Walking clients through a project can be tedious, particularly if the work is still ongoing. Architects have long relied on paper, physical models, field visits, and, more recently, digital tools to convey progress on a project. Earlier this year, Autodesk announced plans to make 3D models created in a selection of its software programs compatible with Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality (AR) technology. The company is not alone. Software developers in the AEC space are evolving digital modeling with the development of AR and virtual reality (VR) platforms that allow project teams to use mobile phones, tablets, and headsets to immerse themselves and their clients in their forthcoming buildings.
The new technology is promising for AEC—AR adds computer-generated objects and textures to real-world environments while VR immerses users in a digital simulation of a real (or soon to be real) environment—but it comes with its challenges.
“One of the hardest things [in encouraging adoption] is education,” says Lindsay Boyajian, marketing manager at Augment, an Orlando, Fla., and Paris–based startup whose iOS and Android app of the same name lets users overlay building plans, marketing materials, and other 2D collateral on a 3D BIM model. “A lot of people aren’t even aware of AR. They think it’s hard to use. We want to change the narrative around AR technology. It’s not this futuristic, far-off technology. It’s for now, and it’s adding great business value for architects.”
Designed for a smartphone or tablet, Augment offers plug-ins for Sketchup, Revit, 3DS Max, SolidWorks, and other design software. After uploading their building models to the the app, team members can use their device’s camera to scan either paper plans or the physical jobsite, bringing the project to life on the screen. Users can then navigate the project through the app. Other features include photo sharing and soon, Boyajian says, the ability to change the colors of objects in the models. Augment comes with a selection of models for public use. Additional features such as custom models and advanced tracking are available at a price set per client.
Visidraft, a startup in the Washington, D.C., metro area, created its eponymous iOS app to let project teams see building products and other elements, such as furniture, within a 3D CAD model of a space. The app is compatible with models from Autodesk's AutoCAD, Revit, and 3DS Max platforms, as well as Trimble's SketchUp, Nemetschek Vectorworks, and Graphisoft's ArchiCAD, and its uses span early-stage massing to finalizing finish choices.
“We build a 3D model of the world around you so that once you place virtual objects inside them, we understand the distances [between the object and its surroundings] and how they relate to that environment,” Visidraft founder and CEO Andrew Kemendo told ARCHITECT earlier this year (see the video below). “That way, you can actually walk around physically with your device and see how [the spaces] change.”
AR and VR technologies are less likely to replace than to supplement CAD, BIM, and the standby paper plans, says James Benham, CEO at Bryan, Texas–based AEC software developer JBKnowledge, which makes the iOS and Android app SmartReality. “People aren’t that good at visualizing things [like completed projects],” Benham says, “so when we were able to produce an app that you can point at a plan file and immediately overlay the BIM model, it helps the owners and constructors and architects communicate their vision for the building … in a way that was never really possible before.”
SmartReality was designed for the AEC sector and works with many 3D software programs, including Revit, the company says. It allows users to turn 2D plans into interactive 3D models on a tablet or through a VR headset like the Oculus Rift VR and Epson's Moverio BT-200 smart glasses. Users file their models with JBKnowledge, which converts them for use with the app. Once converted, project team members can use SmartReality to scan their paper plans with the device's camera, syncing it with the correct 3D model.
The company has also developed a version of the app compatible with tablets that run Google’s Project Tango scanning software and allows users to walk through a floor plan while the virtual model appears around them. Future developments include integrating Leap Motion software for the Oculus Rift VR, allowing gesture-driven commands that let individuals wearing the headset visualize a design over a period of time in a single sitting. “You can walk into a building and make a circle with your hands. It’ll then step forward through the schedule so you can watch the building be built around you,” Benham says.
All of the apps mentioned in this article are free to download. Pricing for in-app functions varies.