Of all the technologies expected to impact the building sector over coming years, one of the most critical areas with regard to likely effect over the near term revolves around the concept of virtual reality (VR).

Across all sectors, the volume of investment going into this technology is massive. In March 2014, for example, Facebook forked out a whopping $2 billion for virtual reality headset maker Oculus Rift after the latter got started only two years earlier by raising just $2.4 million on Kickstarter.

Magic Leap, a Florida-based start-up said to be developing a ‘cinematic reality’ device, carries an implied company valuation of $US4.5 billion following a recent funding round in which it raised $US793 million despite not yet having a consumer product in the market.

Facebook, Samsung and Microsoft are each creating competing technology, while media reports suggest that Google is beefing up its VR team and Apple is getting in on the action.

The building sector is not missing out. A recent survey of leaders the architecture, engineering and construction industry conducted in the US by information management services provider AEC Document Solutions found that 65.3 per cent of respondents believed that virtual reality would be used much more going forward in design and construction practice. Survey participants indicated that VR technologies would make  projects easier to visualise and would speed up completion times as well as delivering reductions in labour and material requirements.

According to that survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents believe use of VR technologies in construction will be commonplace within the next five to 10 years.

In Australia, much effort is going into use of VR at the tertiary level. Deakin University, for instance, has recently launched its VR CAVE through which students can move around and ‘see’ potential design flaws in buildings or ‘experience’ hazardous environments. A number of universities including UNSW Australia, University of Adelaide, University of South Australia and Western Sydney University have developed a Situation Engine, meanwhile, where users can experience a variety of on-site ‘situations’ in a virtual sense.

So how will VR affect construction?

The area that gets the most attention revolves around design; virtual reality offers clients the opportunity to ‘walk through’ and ‘experience’ the building as it will function and appear when the final as-built product is delivered. They can use the technology to make changes to locations of partitions and walls, for instance.

When delivering the Martin Luther King Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Centre in Los Angeles, US construction outfit McCarthy Building Companies had doctors and nurses use VR headsets to ‘walk’ around the hospital and provide input on details such as where equipment should be placed for the actual rooms. Doing so allowed the company to gain insights on seemingly straightforward matters such as the location of equipment connectors on the wall behind the bed, the width of gaps between beds, and the location of furniture and trashcans. These are critical considerations in a hospital setting, where patients need to be able to be moved quickly and carefully and staff require easy access to appropriate equipment.

Beyond that, on the actual site during construction, possibilities come from a somewhat similar technology referred to as augmented reality, which combines the 3D architectural layout of the building with GPS data of a worker’s location and allows workers to put on goggles or hold up an iPad and get a three dimensional concept of where things need to go relative to where they are.

This could be useful where those performing excavations, for example, use their iPad or goggles to find out how deep they are and see in 3D whether or not they need to go deeper or how close they are to underground pipes or utilities. It could also be useful to those conducting installation of various kinds. The technology can read a building layout and tell hose workers whether or not they are in the right spot for the installation or need to move right or left.

Arguably the biggest area of impact in terms of the actual building process, however, revolves around training and occupational health and safety, according to University of NSW associate professor and chartered quantity surveyor Sid Newton. As well as having workers learn and trial new construction methods in a highly experiential way before going on site, Newton says VR is likely to be useful in terms of changing onsite behaviour patterns of workers with regard to safety.

As an example, he points to Gannon Constructions in Hong Kong, which has implemented VR training within their operations. Under this program, workers are immersed within a virtual construction site that contains a variety of potential hazards as well as unsafe practices. This gives them first-hand immersive experiences of accidents on site such as electrocution, drowning or falls from height. Subsequently, they share that experience with their peers in the class and talk about what could be done to better manage risk in such situations.

Newton says this has far more impact compared with less immersive forms of training.

“The impact of seeing those kinds of accidents sticks with people,” he said. “Gammon are convinced that the workers that witness an accident whether it is virtual or real are far more likely to be able to change their unsafe behaviours in the future.

“Videos have improved the situation significantly but I think there is nothing to duplicate the sense of presence that is able to be created (with VR). Once you don one of these headsets, you really do lose your sense of being in a place you were and you are present in that situation, and when you see people in accidents, it’s almost like seeing it in reality.

“We don’t want to traumatise workers, but I think that (by using VR) you can certainly go a long way to helping identify unsafe practices.”

In terms of obstacles toward greater use of VR within the sector, Newton says there is a temptation to look at the technology in the same way BIM and CAD were once seen, in that it was a big future prospect requiring large amounts of investment. Instead, he says VR is a pervasive technology which is available here and now, which you don’t ‘own’ in a traditional sense and which will have many different applications that require a number of smaller steps involving modestly expensive trials in terms of adoption rather than singular large chunks of investment.

Also, as it is with other types of technology and innovation impacting the sector, the project-based nature of construction is a potential barrier to adoption of VR in that individual project managers will have to trial it on individual projects as opposed to there being any form of industry-wide trial, he said.

Finally, while the longer term potential of VR in construction cannot be understated, Newton says it is important to maintain focus upon the more immediate picture and the smaller steps that can be taken toward adoption right now.

“I think you can get taken away by the hype and the possibilities,” he said. “There is enormous possibility for this technology. It’s developing and it’s exciting. The potential is huge.

“But you would be a brave person to sit today and say this is the outcome that all of this potential will have. We have to take a shorter term view.”