Williams Scotsman

Virtual Reality: A New Tool for Design and Construction

In a time travel novel written nearly 50 years ago, a scientific research experiment enables the narrator to walk about and interact in his environment as it existed in a previous century. To be sure, there are many dangers inherent in a time travel adventure, but the most impactful one is this: The hero is seeing his surroundings as it was in medieval times, when in fact he’s physically wandering about the countryside oblivious to any modern infrastructure. Not surprisingly, one of the characters walks in front of a train because there was no train in the world he saw.

In today’s virtual reality, when you put on the headset you are an active explorer in a world that could mimic reality or create a totally new one. Unlike the constraints of fiction time travel, virtual reality allows you to interact and affect that environment and never be concerned about the location of the 5:15 commuter train. 

According to Jeff Jacobson, CEO of ConstructionVR, VR’s fundamental elements date back to flight-simulator research in the late 1960s: a virtual environment, a prop to affect that environment and a digital display to view it. Hardware advances made by smartphones and the software developments of the gaming industry have contributed to making VR more accessible and practical for design applications. If roughly 65 percent of the population is more comfortable with and receptive to visual learning – per the Visual Teaching Alliance among others -  virtual reality would be the ultimate learning tool.

Consider some of VR’s possible applications:

• Offering exciting new shopping experiences where consumers can get a sense of product scale and customization
• Traveling without leaving home
• Conducting field training
• Facilitating virtual reality field trips so students can explore art and history museums as well as college campuses
• Delivering in-depth information and real-life application processes to engineers working on infrastructure projects
• Supporting on-the-job training within the medical profession as well as enhancing the diagnostic process, thereby cutting down on unnecessary procedures
• Learning a new skill without the fear of causing any damage or accident (e.g., learning to drive or operate equipment)

Virtual Reality in Construction

For the construction industry, VR allows stakeholders – architects, builders, project managers, designers, work flow schedulers and clients – to visualize what will be built, how it will be built and ways to improve jobsite safety as it is being built. Nationally known construction firms currently incorporating VR into their best practices include McCarthy, DPR Construction, Balfour Beatty, Gilbane, Mortenson, and Bechtel among others. By experiencing it through VR, any problems, glitches or flaws can be detected, adjusted or eliminated before one shovel pierces the ground. Documentation and updates on a project traditionally accomplished through photographs and on-site tours can now be handled by virtual reality. VR can also provide a sense of how a project would affect its surrounding environment – the landscape as well as vehicle and pedestrian traffic, for instance. This could be extremely beneficial in alleviating the fears of concerned neighboring communities or environmentalists. It’s much easier to understand something you can see as well as read about. 

WillScot is experimenting with VR to better understand its potential for the modular solution industry. The idea is that through VR customers gain a sense of the spatial nature of furnished modular space far better than the typical two-dimensional floor plans. With VR goggles on, a project manager could see where the desks, chairs and conference table are in relation to the windows, walls and panels of his/her chosen temporary space and have a better understanding of how everything will flow. Although still in its infancy and not yet available as a broad based selling tool, VR could be a major innovation in the sales cycle in the coming years.

“The use and expectation of technology have been steadily increasing through the years. Incorporating technology in an impactful way into the business is a strategically important way to grow and become more efficient”, observes Justin Samek, senior product manager at WillScot. “Virtual reality technology presents an exciting opportunity for the sales teams to reach our customers in new ways. It doesn’t replace any processes we currently use; it gives us an additional tool. VR allows customers to better conceptualize and they appreciate it.”

To paraphrase a Chinese philosopher: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn”. Virtual reality certainly involves us; now we must learn from it.

Construction is needed within a variety of industries and so are modular spaces
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