There was a time…

a carpenters paper hat
The paper hat – not exactly a health & safety innovation

As we know from black and white Pathe film footage, Victorian photos and old woodcuts: there was a time, years ago, when everyone wore hats.

Whether  you were a professional or a tradesperson, chance are you wore a specific type of hat that marked you out, status-wise, as a member of an identifiable group – teachers wore Mortar-boards, financial executives wore Bowlers in the city – a master tradseman, such as a site foreman, might wear a silk Top hat, whilst Carpenters wore paper hats.

Some trades and professions still do wear hats, though these days, the reason tends not to be one of aesthetics, or even status, but for practicaility purposes.  In the 1980’s, construction workers rarely wore hard-hats and yet today, thanks to the evolution of health and safety legislation, the yellow hard-hat is ubiquitous on construction sites the world over, accidental deaths much reduced as a result.

There was a time also, when trades and entire industries were associated with iconic technology – the yard-stick of a surveyor, the Stethoscope of a doctor, the striped-pole of a barber and so on.  So here in the 21st Century, after over a century of industrial and technological innovation, should we be surprised to see the convergence of technology and headware?

The emergence of Virtual Reality (VR):

Occulus Rift VR headset
The Occulus Rift Virtual Reality headset

In recent years, the phrase “Virtual Reality” has appeared on the cultural horizon.  You may have heard of the Occulus Rift virtual headset, the pioneering VR company bought by Facebook.  Maybe you’ve seen the trailer for the up-and-coming film “Ready Player One” based on a future dystopian world where the majority of the world’s occupants eek out meaningful lives in an online Virtual Reality “gaming” world, whilst their real lives turn out to be hapless and meaningless shadows of what human existence ought to be.  You may even have already experienced Virtual Reality – the Sony Playstation games console now allows the user to play games (once the appropriate VR headset has been purchased) in varying Virtual Reality environments.

The essential idea of VR is straightforward enough to understand – a specialist headset, with tiny screens just inches away from one’s eyes and stereo headphones, convinces the user (to differing degrees) that they are in an artificially created environment, which they can move around in.  Whilst convincing enough to some of the senses, there is no way you could be wholly fooled into believing you had left normal reality and been transported elsewhere – the technology just isn’t mature or sophisticated enough yet, though with technological innovation moving forward at a steady pace, the future might change that.  Indeed, in calling the technology Virtual reality, we understand that the artifical world created by the headset is “almost or nearly as described, but not completely” reality.

Then there’s Augmented Reality (AR):

Microsoft Hololens
Augmented Reality – a confluence of real and digital

The dictionary defines augment as “to make (something) greater by adding to it; increase” and in this sense, AR offers a much more promising future of human tool use – of social and technological evolution, even.  Instead of creating an artifical environment to play in, which in effect closes you off from the real world, Augmented Reality superimposes a digital environment over the real world, adding layers of information to it and thereby enhancing the user’s interaction in the real world.  In effect, it’s a convergence of realities, creating a composite of digital and real-world references into one unified experience.

You may have seen the technological developments of Google when they brought out the experimental Google Glass, or perhaps seen the research going on with Microsoft to bring out the wearable computer and AR device the Hololens – a self-styled “mixed reality” headset which, amongst other things, will allow you to pin your emails to your kitchen wall, see a colleague from another office appear to stand in front of you in your room, or make virtual 3D objects to place around your home or office.   Ikea has even developed an AR app for smartphones which allows the user to see virtual sofas placed in their real-life living rooms, to get an idea of what they might look like in-situ, before making the purchase.

Construction models and reality:

It’s accepted that Building Information Model is an attempt to streamline and integrate the design of buildings with their construction – a way to extend the digitally designed world into the reality of those involved in the physical creation of the built environment.

revision cloud

The power of BIM tools, that is software which creates a classic 2D set of plans, but with all the associated data of materials, their properties of physical performance in the real world, with a corresponding 3D model as overview: the power of such tools allows a building design to be completely modelled and tested, modified and improved before a single spade is put into the real soil.

It’s a top-down development, where the benefits of time and resource saving largely accrues at the design level, filtering through to material quantification and finally into work scheduling on any given project, over time.  The UK strategy of working towards BIM 2.0 (and BIM 3.0 when it arrives) means that the larger (eg government) development projects are incoroprating BIM standards, whereas the medium sized to small sized projects carry on with the standards and tools of before.

Whilst we are on a path towards greater confluence between what an architect designs and the trades construct, might we wonder if BIM standards and 3D design concepts will easily integrate to the level of builders and installers?  If those charged with making a building design into a reality could somehow get inside the building model, it would solve many traditional issues in construction around the communication of what the designer intended and how best to carry out those plans.

BIM and Augmented Reality:

“Imagine you’re part of a crew constructing a new office building: Midway through the process, you’re on-site, inspecting the installation of HVAC systems. You put on a funny-looking construction helmet and step out of the service elevator. As you look up, there’s a drop ceiling being installed, but you want to know what’s going on behind it.”

“Through the visor on your helmet, you pull up the Building Information Model (BIM), which is instantly projected across your field of vision. There are heating ducts, water pipes, and electrical boxes, moving and shifting with your point of view as you walk along the corridors. Peel back layers of the model to see the building’s steel structure, insulation, and material finishes. It’s like having comic book–style X-ray vision—and soon, it could be a reality on a construction site near you.”  Zach Mortice, Chicago based architectural journalist.

AR for the construction worker

This magic hat, the DAQRI Smart Helmet, is a wearable augmented-reality system being developed for use in industrial fabrication industries— notably the building and construction industry. Essentially, it allows builders, engineers, and designers to take their BIM model to the construction site, wear it on their heads, and experience it as an immersive, full-scale 3D environment.

Giving construction crews access to this level of multilayered building information would let them see spatial relationships better; detect MEP clashes earlier; and in general, allow faster, more informed decisions with fewer errors. “It empowers you to make decisions in the field, as opposed to waiting till the end of your shift to check with your supervisor,” says Roy Ashok, DAQRI’s chief product officer. “It empowers the end construction worker.”

The helmets (which cost $15,000 each in this early development phase) are just starting to trickle onto construction sites as DAQRI begins short trial runs, including a collaboration with Mortenson Construction and Autodesk. As part of a proof-of-concept test, Mortenson used the helmets during construction of the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

“The BIM model is step one,” says Mortenson’s Senior Director of Project Solutions Ricardo Khan. “The reality is that the value of the model is probably 25 percent of the real value. The next 75 percent is connecting the field teams to the rest of the contractual project information in the space.”

How does it work?

Your gaze acts like a mouse pointer

In terms of hardware, the helmets have three different types of cameras that work together to locate users at a specific point in space and interpret the geometry around them. There’s a 166-degree, wide-angle grayscale lens that defines the user’s position in an environment, accurate to one centimeter.

Then there’s a depth-sensing camera (the Intel RealSense) that deciphers the geometry of the space and the objects within it, telling you, “this is a door, this is a window, this is a table,” Ashok says. This awareness allows you to place virtual content and alter a model. It also remembers a “map” of each room that’s created. “It’s almost like a cartography function,” Ashok says. A third, thermal, camera also allows users to map temperature readings onto objects rendered in 3D.

The DAQRI team decided the helmets would have to operate completely hands-free, and the engineers settled on what they call a “gaze and dwell system.” A reticule oriented in your field of vision moves as you move your head, “just like a mouse and cursor,” Ashok says. If you hover over a menu item, hyperlink, or model layer for a few seconds, it’s selected. The helmets come with Autodesk BIM 360 out of the box, but it’s mostly up to each company to create its own custom software (which DAQRI supports), because the product’s range of uses is so broad.

An architect could show his or her model to engineers and builders on-site before construction begins, and they can point out potential issues—when mistakes are far easier and cheaper to fix. The system’s clear visual interface means it could also provide construction crews with step-by-step instructions for punch-list inspections or even for maintenance long after construction is complete.

Peek into the future:

So what might it be like?  Here’s a quick presentation of the technology, to get an idea of what, in ten year’s time, might be the new hat of choice for the construction industry:

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