In 2008, I tested out an augmented reality mobile app called Nearest Tube that allowed me to use my smartphone camera to navigate my way to the nearest London Underground entrance without having to unfold a giant paper map and confirm my status as a tourist. At the time, this seemed nothing short of magical. Five years later, thanks to Google Glass and many other solutions, augmented reality (AR) is finally getting the hype it deserves.
At its simplest, augmented reality is the convergence of data, cameras, mobile devices, and live end users, creating a multi-dimensional, real-time, interactive virtual environment that is overlaid on real world live imagery. The data element comes from all possible sources, including but not limited to social, geographic, geospatial, audio, video, graphic, and computational sources. Now, with the ability to depend on computers to organize all this data, end users are able to spend more time interpreting, designing, and building with that data. This frees users from the confines of a computer and allows them to experience technology through innovations like augmented reality.
Inspired by solutions like String™ Labs, I’ve had lots of time to brainstorm the more pragmatic approaches to augmented reality that the building industry could employ. Imagine if an iPad pointed at the roof of a home could replace it with an x-ray view of the loft to be added above. Imagine, as one of my clients envisioned, an electrical subcontractor walking onto a project site and letting a tablet or headset show him exactly where the conduit should be placed in the walls. Imagine quadcopters flying above a vacant lot, rendering a 3D model, to scale, using an app similar to SmartReality on a tablet or smartphone, allowing developers to discuss placement of a hospital’s parking lot.
Most augmented reality technology is experienced today through tablets and smartphones, but wearable devices will be the ultimate medium of AR. Think contact lenses with embedded LEDs like those used by Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Wearable devices will further incorporate the human element of AR, responding to sensory input from the end user and their environment while referencing a cloud database of BIM data. Some believe tech can be an obstacle to interacting with the real world, but augmented reality will be a strong argument for technology’s ability to enhance our interaction with the real world, especially on a job site.
The 2013 Construction Technology Integration Report revealed that nearly 40% of commercial builders are employing some form of BIM technology. With more BIM cloud solutions, this number will only continue to grow, regardless of individual users’ hardware, allowing BIM tools to be an option for even the smallest of construction IT budgets. As the BIM data sets get larger and the cloud makes them more accessible, solutions like augmented reality will create major competitive advantages.
Another recent study predicted that from now until 2016, the global market for augmented reality technology is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 54.3% per year. To help you understand that number, for the same period of time, the smartphone market is only expected to grow annually at 18% with mobile devices total at 8%.
Augmented reality is no longer the technology industry’s best-kept secret. It is matured, deployable, and now a considerable addition to any innovative IT strategy. Like any new technology, it will only become more pervasive and affordable. Combined with Virtual Reality solutions like Oculus Rift and 3D Printing solutions like Makerbot it becomes a comprehensive AEC solution for visualization and collaboration.