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The future’s virtually here – how will it impact the reality of engineering?

Virtual reality isn’t just for the general consumer – the architecture, engineering and construction industry can take advantage of VR to solve some of the age-old challenges in the design process.

Explore the lost city of Petra, walk through of a state-of-the-art university engineering laboratory, experience the Arctic. Thanks to virtual reality (VR) technology these experiences are now just a click away on a smartphone. The appeal of this top tech trend isn’t just for the general consumer though – the architecture, engineering and construction industry can take advantage of VR to solve some of the age-old challenges in the design process.

Effectively presenting a three dimensional concept using a series of two dimensional drawings is often easier said than done. However, employing readily available VR headsets in the design process can eliminate these challenges and make collaborations between our clients and our colleagues easier for those who struggle to visualize assembled products from design drawings and even those who may not be physically present.

One of our clients recently asked, “Why do I need VR? What’s wrong with just looking at the 3D model on a flat screen?”

The answer is simple and resonates immediately: The flat screen is like looking at the world through a window. Putting on a VR headset allows you to climb through the window and walk around in the world.

Being able to navigate through the VR model offers many advantages:

  • Interacting with the model and others in the model at true scale regardless of your physical location.
  • Discovering design issues very early in the process can result in large savings to projects.
  • Finding safety problems before they can cause an injury.
  • Understanding complex engineering deliverables is much easier when you can see them in a virtual space.

With Consumer Reports projecting the purchase of over 13 million VR headsets last year, early adopters need to begin working through a new set of challenges. Headsets are everywhere now and cost from a few dollars to several thousands of dollars. Some are very portable, but not powerful. Some are very powerful, but not portable. The hardware landscape is changing almost daily. Equipping our organizations with the right toolsets for our designs is being slowed by the “wait and see” attitude of a buyer’s market, delaying quick adaptation of VR in our industry. However, harnessing available tools and technology now can still be beneficial. In fact, CH2M is working directly with developers to test and refine the latest VR hardware, getting involved early to radically transform typical development and review processes.

General consumers, and those in our industry, also are torn between VR and augmented reality (AR). Several headsets exist that allow the user to see the real world and at the same time have the 3D world layered in holographic form. In the past, one could only experience this augmented world in science fiction movies, but it’s now in use for maintenance, training, interactive design and a myriad of other industries and applications—even popular video games, like Pokémon GO. We’re challenged to decide whether we should implement VR or AR, or both – and as these two technologies continue maturing, we’ll need to continue the conversation about which technology will have the best outcomes in
our field.

Additionally, there are the human limitations to operating in a virtual world. Just as some people are susceptible to motion sickness, VR sickness can make wearing headgear for more than a few minutes very uncomfortable for some consumers. Being contained in a virtual world means that we can become overwhelmed by our senses and dangerously lose touch with the real world. In turn, collisions, falls and other similar mishaps can be common and require proper safety mechanisms and practices in place to avoid. It’s up to our design automation and IT organizations to figure out how best to employ this technology quickly and safely.

Even with these challenges, the advantages offered to the engineer or architect by using VR are too great to ignore. The reality is: the future is here and as engineers, contractors and architects, all we need to do to experience it is put on the latest VR headset.

With more than 30 years of experience in detailed engineering activities, including plant management and maintenance, plant capacity studies, systems improvement, new plant construction and manufacturing facilities optimizations – Mitch Hamm can often be found at the forefront of the latest technology. In fact, Mitch pioneered the marriage of engineering deliverables and 3D Virtual Reality at CH2M, allowing our designs to be explored in an immersive, realistic way which affords early optimization of concepts to decrease overall costs and time to construct.

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Mitch Hamm

Technical Discipline Manager
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