How VR is rebuilding the construction industry
Imagine you’re touring a facility your construction crew is building. The space is open. The equipment has yet to arrive. The paint cans are untouched. But soon, it will be the crown jewel of your client’s industry.
As you continue to explore, you marvel at the time and money it’s taken just to go vertical. You go to where the stairs are about to be built and see they lead directly into… A wall.
Not an office. Not a work floor. A wall. And just like that, the project is back to the drawing board. This is the stairway to nowhere. And as ridiculous as it sounds, this type of error happens more than you might think.
Angel Say is the co-founder of Resolve — a virtual reality app that has begun to revolutionize the construction industry. Over the years, he and his team have helped crews catch everything from missing doors to incorrect dimensions to, yes, stairways to nowhere.
How have they done this? By completely rethinking the way we approve building plans.
Understanding the importance of user experience
Angel realized that these kinds of mistakes aren’t a knowledge or skill problem. They’re a user experience problem. “Teams used to open up the model on a computer and then the team would just have to imagine themselves in the building and say yes or no to important decisions” he explains.
But what if instead of imagining it, you could use virtual reality software to see it with your own eyes? That single thought served as the basis for creating Resolve, which, as Angel puts it, “Lets you walk through buildings before they're built.”
The app works by turning Building Information Modeling (BIM) files into digital twins. Using a VR headset, crews can then put themselves inside the building plans to work on designs and catch mistakes. It’s a revolutionary resource that required revolutions of its own to create.
“We had been working with the Meta team when we got an early dev kit for the Quest,” Angel explains. “Our first question was if we could even get these models to open on the device. When we found a way to make it happen, everybody celebrated. Even some of our enterprise partners were shocked because they couldn’t even open these files on their laptops.”
Angel’s interest in virtual reality software began the same way as many others — with video games. But as the technology evolved, he soon wondered how it could be leveraged for more productive purposes.
The answer came from an experience he and his team had back in college. “The school newspaper did a piece where they revealed that a new building blocked off about a third of the astrophysics observatory,” he recalls. “That just kind of prompted a lot of discussion about how people are reviewing buildings.”
This insight quickly took flight. In 2015, the group became one of Y Combinator’s first VR investments, going on to create the first VR visualization product for architects working in commercial spaces. Five years later, the Resolve brand that would eventually prevent the stairway to nowhere came to fruition.
That incident is something Angel still jokes about. “I always used to use that as an example of something that would never happen - and then it did,” he laughs.
VR headsets - a money saver for the construction industry
What’s remarkable is that this seemingly trivial mistake has non-trivial consequences. Buildings are interconnected structures, and making a small change to one part can force dramatic changes to another.
“Maybe there was supposed to be a door, but because the door wasn't modeled the structural engineer put critical beams through where it was supposed to go. So the whole building has been coordinated in a way that assumed there was no door,” says Angel.
According to global insurer Axa, the cost of fixing these mistakes - what’s known in the construction industry as ‘rework’ - can be up to 5% of the contract value of a project. Putting an exact figure on that isn’t easy, but it may add up to as much as $177bn in lost value annually in the US alone.
In some industries, of course, the consequences are even more dire than the impact on a project’s profitability. Imagine if there’s a delay with a facility meant to create life-saving drugs, or if there’s an issue with a water plant that could jeopardize the safety of the water supply.
That’s why the old review process so desperately needed the kind of user experience upgrade that virtual reality software can provide.
Finding mistakes before going vertical is the safest, most cost-efficient way to minimize their impact - as Angel likes to say, “It’s easier to move bits than atoms.” But with computer models, teams are not only forced to imagine what the construction will look like, they’re also at the mercy of the person presenting them. “If someone wants to look at the electrical and I don’t show it, that's their chance gone,” he says emphatically.
With Resolve, each person can put on their own headset and see what matters to them. Electricians can check out the wires. Plumbers can review the pipes. And they can do it simultaneously.
The Resolve team has also included several features to improve the in-world user VR experience, including a mini-map for navigation, fast travel options, and the ability to leave comments.
The challenges of using virtual reality software
But these user experience benefits also come with their own challenges, especially for those who aren’t tech savvy.
Angel gives an example of something he’s witnessed while training new clients. “The controller for the Quest very much mimics video game controllers. So when we're doing training with people, we’ll tell them to press forward on the joystick. But they don’t know what that is, and they shouldn’t have to. Their expertise is in something else.”
The team’s solution was as simple as it was ingenious. “We color-coded all of the inputs, so now we can tell them to press forward on the purple joystick, and all they have to do is look for the right color,” he said.
Despite the benefits, it can still be difficult to convince workers to adopt virtual reality software. Many in the construction industry have spent years perfecting their own processes—working in the same apps, doing the same review procedures, following the same workflows—and they have little interest in disrupting them.
Angel believes the answer to this also lies in the way people experience VR. “The challenge is making the tech invisible,” he says. “That’s why we integrated with Autodesk Construction Cloud, which is the industry standard for collaboration. That was a huge unblock for people since it’s already part of their workflow.”
By integrating with the virtual reality software the construction industry is already using, Resolve was able to turn itself from a disruptor to an enabler. There’s no extra work to be done and no change in how teams have to function in order to leverage it. The roadblocks are gone.
According to Angel, that means many of the company’s clients are now using it for their own purposes after construction. “People are starting to realize that if they have a digital twin of their building, they can use it for training. They can hire 100 technicians and have them touch things or use it for emergency drills with first responders.”
This has helped spark safer and more effective training experiences, leading to improved productivity and increased employee retention for these businesses. And it only happened because they recognized the potential of virtual reality software just as much as Resolve did.
Angel and his team have completely reinvented the review process in the construction industry. By making the user experience inside VR seamless from start to finish, they’ve helped countless crews save countless hours without disrupting what they do best: Designing and building.
It’s all led to more possibilities, more successes… And fewer stairways to nowhere.
Mixed reality is creating brand new ways to work, including the ability to hone difficult or dangerous skills using virtual simulations of real-life work environments. Learn more about boosting company performance by learning and training in mixed reality.