High-Tech Headgear Making Inroads in Construction Industry

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By Elliott T. Dube

Ultra-sophisticated augmented reality headgear could cut into the traditional hard hat’s territory on construction sites.

While virtual reality (VR) immerses a user in a simulated world, augmented reality (AR) overlays digital information on a user’s view of the real world.

An AR headset can be loaded with data from building information modeling (BIM), which creates digital representations of structures. A worker might look at a wall through the AR headset’s visor, which can then display BIM-derived imagery of the mechanical and plumbing systems behind the wall. Or a worker might focus on a pipe and use the display to check its specifications and make sure it’s not overheating.

Multiple successful AR case studies during the past couple years have demonstrated AR’s cost-cutting, time-shaving and safety-boosting potential, Brian Mullins, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based AR company DAQRI, told Bloomberg BNA. In that period, a number of large contractors have taken the leap, gone beyond the pilot phase and started to use AR operationally, he said.

The value of AR is similar to that of mobile computing, Mullins said. “With a desktop computer, you can do” computer-aided design, “you can do all your modeling, you get insight. Then you have to remember that insight when you go out in the field,” Mullins said. “With AR, it’s like mobile—you’re taking it with you and you can have that insight right there, where you can take action.”

Industry-Based AR Pool Small but Ambitious

DAQRI’s Smart Helmet is an industry-focused AR device that includes a high-speed wide-angle tracking camera, a thermal camera, multiple sensors and a sixth-generation Intel Core processor. It’s geared to a variety of industries, including construction. Resembling the top half of a motorcycle helmet, it also provides head and eye protection.

DAQRI is one of the few key players in the space for AR hardware not geared to consumers, Taylor Cupp, a technologist at Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, one of the top contractors in the U.S., told Bloomberg BNA.

Another player is tech giant Microsoft Corp., which has produced a pair of mixed reality smartglasses called the HoloLens, currently available to developers. Technology company Trimble Inc. is integrating its 3D modeling and collaboration software with the HoloLens for use in the architecture, engineering, construction and operations industries.

The broader AR market, for industry and consumers, is projected to reach $80 billion within the decade. A current symbol of this money surge is secretive startup Magic Leap Inc., valued at $4.5 billion without having yet released a commercial product. The company, which has received funds from such big names as Google, Qualcomm Ventures and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., has reportedly been working on a virtual retinal display that projects imagery directly onto the eye.

In late 2016, Mortenson and DAQRI did a case study at the building site for a new specialty center of the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

The companies tackled the major challenge of taking a planned, coordinated 3D model and testing the DAQRI Smart Helmet’s ability to project it “in the exact space in the real world of where it was supposed to be located,” Cupp said. The case study showed that the technology is “pretty close” to achieving full spatial awareness, he said.

“The devices already do a fair amount of mapping, and they can almost work backwards and start to develop a map of the spaces you’re in and that you’re working on,” Mullins said.

Ready to Ride Technological Wave

The construction industry has been “quite ripe for innovation,” Cupp said. Mortenson had to stretch technological boundaries when it took on the project for what many in the industry called the “unbuildable” Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in the late-1990s, he said.

The company used then-nascent BIM technology to handle challenges such as achieving the necessary precision for the concert hall’s complicated steel work. Mortenson has continued to be tech-savvy: In recent years, its use of BIM and VR to create 3D simulations of buildings and how they might come together has become integral to the company’s project planning, Cupp said.

The past year or so has seen “tons of venture capital” realize that the construction industry has historically lagged in terms of using technology to solve major problems, Cupp said. “So we’re seeing a big swing in that right now—AR is really no different.”

AR technology continues to develop: It stands where VR technology was a few years ago, Cupp said.

There has been progress in getting AR to be as effective in high-activity workplaces with moving parts and people as in static environments, Mullins said. Not too far off is the technology’s eventual capability of functioning outdoors at any time of day and in a variety of weather conditions, he said.

AR’s current status resembles the early days of the internet, when there were both early adopters and skeptics who doubted that the new technology would really be a business game-changer and ended up getting left behind, Mullins said.

“We’re in the phase now where a lot of people have actually already realized that, yes, they could save money, yes, they could make workers safer, and that if they want to innovate in their industries, now is the time to adopt AR,” Mullins said.

AR’s potential was spotlighted in a 2015 study by the Boeing Co. and Iowa State University in which different groups of trainees assembled an airplane wing.

Trainees who received digital instructions on an AR headset’s display made significantly fewer first-time errors and completed the job 30 percent faster on average than trainees who used an immobile desktop computer for their instructions. The researchers found that workers using AR instructions also gain a faster understanding of how to do tasks correctly.

“In a nutshell, it’s really augmented quality assurance and quality control, directly in the field,” Cupp said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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