Originally published in the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon
By: Kent Hohlfeld in Architecture and Engineering, News May 12, 2017 3:58 pm
Augmented reality: the next big thing?
To continue to push the envelope, a growing number of architects and builders are using innovative systems to look beyond the real world. One of the newest is augmented reality.
While virtual reality (VR) systems immerse users in entirely computer-generated worlds, augmented reality (AR) systems overlay information onto real-world settings. With a VR system, a user can walk through a building before it’s even built. With an AR system, a user can enter a building under construction, look out virtual windows, examine virtual walls or view virtual ductwork in a real ceiling.
“With augmented reality, it’s about augmenting the real world with something that is in the space,” said Ryan McCullough, an Ankrom Moisan Architects associate. “You’re augmenting what you see in the real world. In VR, you put on the headset and you are in an enclosed, self-contained space. (AR) is actually projecting holograms out into the world.”
Augmented reality first gained attention when Google released early versions of its Google Glass in 2013. The glasses could overlay maps, location information and Google search results onto space in the real world. But privacy and safety concerns arose, and Google shelved its prototype in 2015.
A much more successful example is the Pokémon Go app that was launched in summer 2016. Game players can see video creatures through their phone on a background made up of the real world.
Skanska used a similar iPhone app to show Banfield Pet Hospital officials what their new corporate headquarters in Vancouver, Washington, would look like after construction.
“We used an app from Inglobe,” said Steve Clem, Skanska vice president of project planning services. “It allowed us to create a marker that would allow the phone to detect the marker and would project an image of that project through the phone.
“We have done much more in the VR space than the AR space. It is more developed.”
But AR technology is progressing, and building industry professionals are finding more uses for it.
“One of the great things about augmented reality is that we can tell the computer how we want to interact,” McCullough said.
For instance, an AR headset can project a hologram of a building onto a conference table, stabilize it and allow people to view the building in different sizes from all sides and angles.
Ankrom Moisan is an early adopter of Microsoft’s HoloLens system. Unlike a VR headset that blacks out a person’s field of view, the HoloLens has clear lenses that project objects into the real world.
While VR systems often require high-end computers capable of generating an entire environment, the HoloLens system is entirely self-contained. Images are uploaded to the visor, which contains a computer capable of projecting the images into space.
Companies including Acer, Lenovo and HP are working on versions of AR headsets, but Microsoft is the front-runner, according to McCullough.
“There are more companies working in the VR space,” he said. “AR is more of a technical challenge, and it has taken a company like Microsoft to kind of take that on and figure out how to attack it.
“With augmented reality, you need the computer to be able understand something about the space you are in. Instead of completely replacing your environment, it has to look at the environment that you are in and know what it is looking at and be able to respond to that.”
Such technical challenges have limited development of AR systems. Unlike VR systems, which have a large library of software and developed uses, AR systems are still somewhat unknown. That has left some companies skeptical.
“In my experience the tech is not totally viable yet,” said Jonah Hawk, associate partner and visualization specialist at ZGF Architects. “There are some amazing tech demos. It is not our tool of choice. It is just not as developed right now.”
ZGF Architects, like most architecture firms, finds VR systems most useful. However, a lot is required to create a totally immersive experience. ZGF’s VR system runs on a 4.5 gigahertz, water-cooled computer with three separate graphics cards, two towers that monitor a person’s movement within the virtual world and the headset. Also, though a few VR headsets are wireless, most must be physically connected to the computer system – and that can limit movement within the virtual world.
Hardware costs for both systems are similar. While good VR headsets can cost as little at $800, the computer system to create the environment can cost $7,000 to $13,000. While the HoloLens costs $3,000 per pair, elements to be uploaded can be created on considerably cheaper computers.
The bigger cost for both systems is the time, training and software needed to use the hardware.
“All that content that has to be developed has a cost,” Hawk said. “There is a lot of work that goes into that.”
While VR systems have well-known uses, AR systems simply don’t yet. During a Design Week presentation at Ankrom Moisan’s offices, many attendees questioned the cost and potential use.
“We had people that said, ‘We could never do this where I work,’” said Caroline Dao, senior associate and director of technology at Ankrom Mosian. “They had questions like, ‘How do you sell this as a service?’”
Ankrom Moisan primarily uses AR to allow large groups of architects, engineers and consultants to simultaneously see the same elements or models without having to physically produce them.
The AR systems can also allow clients to see what an element will look like in a real space. For instance, a digital window can be projected onto a real wall, sized, moved and replaced at will. Virtual furniture can be placed into real space, without having to create a digital representation of the space.
“When we were looking for a new home (for Ankrom Moisan), we had been looking at the (Mason Ehrman Building),” Dao said. “Windows were going to be a contentious issue. Had we had a HoloLens at the Historic Landmarks Commission (hearing), that might have been a different story.”
While users debate whether VR or AR is most useful now, a mixed reality future is likely.
“I think they are both going to have their place,” Hawk said. “The difference between them is going to blend together.”
Currently, the only mixed reality headset scheduled for release is an Acer one that will work on Windows systems. Acer’s planned launch date is the fourth quarter of 2017. Though touted as a mixed reality device, it relies heavily on computer-generated environments and uses two cameras to bring real elements into the virtual world. Early versions appear to be geared toward computer gaming uses.
The ultimate goal for those working in the building industry is to get to a point where the two systems can be blended seamlessly.
“Where all this is going to end up is mixed reality,” McCullough said. “We will have the option to completely replace the environment or selectively add elements of real world to a virtual environment or selectively add elements of the virtual world to a real environment.”
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