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Virtual reality in construction: Could it replace site visits?

Ever-increasing advancements in technology are leading to a virtual reality (VR) boom in the construction industry. Although decades ago it seemed only possible in sci-fi movies, nowadays it’s easy to see someone with a VR headset in the office. This article will explore the current state of virtual reality and whether it could replace site visits at all.

Virtual reality: Now more accessible than ever

In a recent post, we talked about augmented reality and its future uses in construction. Here, we will focus on virtual reality instead. The main difference is that whilst augmented reality uses the real environment through a camera, virtual reality removes completely the need for ‘real reality’. VR places the user in the middle of a totally virtual environment, in which she can move and interact.

Some years ago, you would need to spend several hundred pounds to get the entry-level VR headset. Nowadays you can get a decent VR headset for less than £100. Even better, you can spend £10-20 on an accessory to hold your phone in front of your eyes, and lo and behold you now have a cheap VR headset.

The beauty of virtual reality comes from its relatively inexpensive cost – you can build a 3D model of a construction site for a few thousand pounds, rather than the millions of pounds required to build the real site. Once the 3D model is created, you can give VR headsets to individuals to test the model. Although traditionally VR has been used mainly for visualisation purposes – like a videogame –, industry experts are starting to realise it has many more advantages.

VR for learning and training

The most advanced VR equipment doesn’t only use a headset for you to see the virtual environment. It also enables you to use your hands thanks to special gloves or joysticks. This means you can ‘touch’, ‘move’ or ‘throw’ virtual objects. One of the added advantages this poses for construction sites is the possibility to recreate scenarios on site before they actually happen. For example, it can help machine drivers to learn how to react in case of an accident. It can also help them to improve their skills in driving, as VR can serve as a driving simulator.

Using VR to manage and coordinate construction sites

Another key application of VR for construction sites is to manage and coordinate the works more effectively and safely. For these cases, rather than placing yourself at ground level within the 3D virtual environment, you can see the entire construction site from the sky. Since you can use your hands, you can take plant and machines and move them around the site, replicating their real movement. Some of the latest technologies are also representing exclusion zones around cranes, excavators, dumpers, etc. This feature allows the entire project team to use the VR model to assess risks and logistics during different operations.

For example, you can recreate a scenario where you are erecting beams to install in a new bridge over the motorway. You can place your crane next to the new bridge, and you can see the exclusion zone around it. Since you also have some excavators working nearby, you can check if the exclusion zones of both pieces of plant will clash. You can also quickly check if the safety barrier you are installing leaves enough space for construction workers to move around the crane safely. Recreating scenarios is pretty much like a game – grab the crane with your hands in the VR environment and move it around, to see how the exclusion zone interacts with the different elements in the surroundings. All of it in real-time, and it only takes seconds to do several checks.

Virtual reality and safety in construction

VR has great potential to improve safety on construction sites. Also, evidence has shown that getting operatives to practice in the virtual scenario before going out on site makes them more confident. They are more aware of the site and its risks without having been on the real site previously. Because of this, many companies are starting to use VR as a tool for training. Once the 3D model is set up, this option is cheaper than bringing everybody on site. More importantly, it’s far safer. Professionals at all levels can make their first mistakes in the VR scenario, with no impact at all. This way they can practice until they stop making mistakes, thus reducing considerably risks on site. The video below is a good example of how VR is being used for safety training in the construction industry.

Finally, there is no doubt that VR will play an increasingly important role in construction and engineering as BIM becomes business as usual. Since many people can be within the same VR environment at the same time, it’s clearly a great tool for collaboration. Site workers and engineers can all come together into the same virtual environment and discuss potential hazards, issues and solutions.

So, can VR replace site visits? Well, for now we’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to VR capabilities for construction sites. It can definitely save you a couple of site visits, such as your basic inductions and some safety training. But we are not quite there yet in terms of eliminating all site visits. Let’s see what the future of VR can bring to the industry.

Have you already used VR in your projects? What did you use it for? Leave us a comment below!


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