Just-in-Place: The Case for Augmented Reality in AEC

June 25, 2015 Dace Campbell

AR: An Extension of Lean Construction

For decades, pundits, prophets, prognosticators, and purveyors of technology have been forecasting the fit of Augmented Reality (AR) for the AEC industry (I know, I'm one of them!) In recent years, as hardware evolves, and BIM matures, we find ourselves on the threshold of AR solutions being truly capable of extending capabilities for architects, contractors, and owners.

Autodesk is no stranger to AR, and we continue to keep an eye on the technology, looking for the right solutions for our customers. We've defined (refined?) AR as the real-time display of spatially contextual information, where context is the physical environment. In today's world of "big data," we are seeking out ways to support the industry's efforts to offer the right information and the right materials to the right people, in the right place, at the right time. In manufacturing and construction, we talk about just-in-time (JIT) delivery to support Lean operations and production control. With AR, we extend that conversation beyond Just-in-Time, to Just-in-Place delivery of information. That is, information is served up to the end user in an appropriate, localized, specific spatial context.

Is AR Ready for You?

That's me, kicking the tires on DAQRI's Augmented "Smart Helmet"

I recently attended both the Augmented Worlds Expo in Santa Clara, and Autodesk's NAC3 (North American Construction Customer Council) hosted by DAQRI in Los Angeles. At both events, you could all but taste the anticipation of AR solutions made ready for the AEC industry. The evolution of hardware sensors and processors, wearable form factors, and software development toolkits has bred a diverse range of AR solutions for businesses and consumers alike. DAQRI, in particular, is now offering their Smart Helmet, with a world of potential to disrupt the way we consume and process information on the construction site. On the low end, 3D-printed lenses can be clipped to your smart-phone to support immersive viewing of spatially contextual information for as little as $20! No AR solution on the market today is without its flaws, and there is plenty of room for improvement when applying AR in AEC, such as: support for collaborative decision-making, hands-free tasks, balancing task-focus and safety, and application in harsh environmental conditions. But there are a lot of things to like about what solutions are here and on their way as technology continues to get better.

Augmented Reality in AEC

At Autodesk, we've identified over a dozen use cases for AR in design, construction, and facilities operations and maintenance. We've analyzed these according to the business pain points they address, the scope or value of that pain, the potential for integration with our solutions, phase of a project, and level of effort to implement (including user's motion area, indoor/outdoor mix, scene preparation, tracking accuracy required, display latency allowed, see-through requirements, and data-serving burden). We've also asked ourselves: in which of these uses cases is AR a truly unique solution, as opposed to alternative ways to solve the problem? That is: where is AR desirable, and perhaps even necessary, to eliminate specific industry pains by applying its unique characteristics?

Overlay and Compare

A skeptic can reasonably argue that, while beneficial, AR isn't a unique or necessary solution in almost all AEC use cases. However, one condition keeps coming up over and over again, where AR can truly and uniquely solve a problem, save valuable time, and improve confidence in decision-making: real-time overlay of information onto the real world to support comparison (and contrast). To illustrate this, think of these cartoon sketches, in which you are tasked to identify the subtle differences between them, and think of how dramatically the process could be improved simply by overlaying one image over the other in a single display:


Can you spot the 8 differences?


Overlay the images into a single display to easily identify the differences!

Sweet Spots for AR in AEC

We perform this comparison exercise again and again in design, construction, and operations – except in AEC it's much harder than the challenge shown in the cartoon example above. In some cases, the question isn't simply: "can you spot the 8 differences?" Rather, it's: "Are there any differences? If so, where? And, how many are there (and how do you correct them)?" With this condition applied as a filter to the long list of potential AEC uses cases, just a few rise to the top: the ones in which we need to perform compare and contrast tasks in quickly and accurately. In gross terms, they exist where the real world (as-is conditions), the Building Information Model (intended conditions), and the newly constructed world (as-built conditions) each intersect with the other, as shown here:


There are three intersections between these realms. Architects deal with the intersection between "as-is" and "intended" when visualizing their designs in/at the project site. Think of AR here as a real-time, interactive, "photo-match" for studying and communicating a design in context. Next, contractors face the comparison between the "intended" design and the "as-built" project, both when performing layout on the site and again when performing quality control to confirm that their work was installed or assembled correctly (see also: Capture Reality, Recapture Time). Finally, owners contend with the overlap between the "as-built" documentation and the true "as-is" world of the facility in operations. Here, they seek to supplement their experience of the living project with meta-data and systems hidden or enclosed by architectural finishes. In all of these cases, the key project stakeholders look for a solution in which they can view virtual data overlaid on the physical world, intuitively and in real time, to compare and contrast new and old, desired and actual, recorded and reality. Serving up the proper information in context is key, both just-in-time and just-in-place. After all, there is a time – and a place – for everything.

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