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A few years ago, talk surrounded builders wearing goggles or headsets through which they could ‘see’ hidden pipes and cables, the position of a required post and the boundary of properties not yet marked by fences in greenfield areas.

Augmented reality – the overlay of digital images onto a view of the real world through headsets, goggles or hand held devices such as phones – is expected to deliver significant benefits during the design, construction and maintenance phase of new buildings.

As of yet, however, take up at least in the construction phase on site has thus far been limited.

Aiden Mercer, global marketing director at Bentley Systems, says adoption of AR on building sites has been slower than expected on a worldwide basis.

“What we have seen with augmented reality is that the potential for integration into a multitude of industries,” Mercer said. “But the take up has not been as much as we would have expected in the general collective.”

According to Mercer, barriers to adoption stem from a number of factors. With its beginnings having been in the gaming industry, there may be some scepticism as to the suitability of AR technology on construction sites given the high risk nature and specialised equipment featured on many sites. Those who work on site and have been performing their tasks in a capable fashion for years and may fail to see any need or value in bringing new technology on site.

Related to that, some question the suitability of the technology from an engineering perspective and its reliability to deliver the right information with the correct data. Investment in the hardware required to make this happen involves a capital cost – the return on which must be clearly demonstrated. Having all that data going out onto multiple sites in the field requires careful asset management and data security arrangements.

Finally, there are also the occupational health and safety considerations, such as headsets potentially impeding vision or hand held devices restricting use of both hands.

Add that up, Mercer said, and hesitancy surrounding the new technology was understandable.

Barriers associated with use of AR actually on site have been given increasing recognition by other commentators over recent years. Following research performed after being awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the National Association of Women in Construction, for instance, Sydney-based architect Rana Abboud talked about much hyped prototyped systems having problems with stability and jumping around when taken on site. At a practical level, Abboud said the need for workers to keep both hands free on the job meant that the only realistic types of hardware which could be used were headsets or glasses, adding that many headsets are too big and bulky for practical use on site.

In terms of strategies needed to overcome these challenges, Mercer says the most important thing is for the entire building process to be digitised from planning through to design, construction and asset maintenance – a process he said would not only capture data to feed into the augmented reality environment but would deliver benefits itself over the asset’s life cycle.

In addition, he says uses for augmented reality extend beyond the building process itself. During operations, the system could be used to simulate building emergencies such as explosions and evacuation procedures. The technology is also invaluable in simulating hazardous environments during safety training or in conducting site inductions for new workers, he said.

Finally, Mercer points out that reluctance on the part of the newer generation of millennials will not be as great as it is with the current generation of workers.

“They’ve grown up in these environments anyway – gaming environments and virtual environments,” Mercer said. “For them (millennials), it’s going to be second nature, but for the existing workforce, bringing in a new technology is a difficult task and must feel less intuitive.”

Augmented reality has the potential to deliver significant benefits throughout various phases of building projects.

For now, however, its adoption specifically on sites appears to be being held back by a number of factors.

 
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