Digital realities

  • Immersive technologies reaching a tipping point
  • Construction industry looks to benefit with practical solutions
  • Laing O'Rourke's Digital Engineering team continue to look to the future

At what point do immersive technologies such as virtual reality turn into practical solutions? From retailers who visualise home furnishings and different wall colour paints in situ for consumers, to police departments putting forensics and detectives into virtual crime scenes, a tipping point is being reached. So what about the construction industry?

This is just one of the questions posed to Graham Brierley and Paul Devitt in Laing O’Rourke’s Digital Engineering team, and Stephen Bradby, Principal Engineer at Select.

“I often talk about the pace of change in this growth area of digital realities. The numbers of options are increasing, and expectations follow close behind, you can even get some of this kit as a gift when you upgrade your phone,” says Graham. 

Laing O’Rourke has a rich history in terms of a commitment to innovation and excellence in engineering, and a restless spirit for finding new approaches to traditional long-term challenges.

Graham adds: “We’ve been looking at the various options from as early as 2008 at London’s Cannon Street station, and in less than ten years we have seen significant change in how that hardware has developed. The challenge we face is that we often want to apply technology in environments or within processes which may differ from the original intentions of the design. We’re getting good stakeholder engagement on digital realities, so I’m particularly excited to research and develop these applications of validation and verification further.”

Principal Digital Engineer, Paul Devitt, gives us more background on what is now a ten-year history with immersive technologies.

“It’s amazing to consider where we are now”, says Paul, “because we have equipment such as the mixed reality Hololens that can ‘read the room’. This gives you incredible flexibility and an added dimension or two when it comes to applying and scrutinising digital design models. On a grand scale, you can visualise our tunnel boring machine on the Northern Line extension, to much smaller details where we’re trialling this technology on several projects. Through the holo-lens we are trialling on the Southwark 251 accommodation block to set out ceiling lights and other elements set in the soffit of the apartment ceilings virtually. The positions are seen through the Hololens and then marked manually, cutting down the setting out time used on traditional methods.”

So is virtual reality already being superseded in terms of its practical use? Stephen Bradby picks up the story. “We’ve actually found VR incredibly useful in Select, using a crane simulator to show how the new Google headquarters site in London’s busy Kings Cross district could function virtually. That gave us the ability to demonstrate to Network Rail the critical interface between the cranes on-site and the busy railway. “Game-ification” has effectively allowed us to not only sit inside and drive the cranes months before we get to site, but also to fly around site in a virtual drone and stand in the tracks at King’s cross station, to see what a train driver will see when he or she exists the tunnel.”

It’s not just in the UK either, the team share learning across the globe, with bathroom pod configuration in the Middle East allowing designers the ability to capture what kind of tiles, and colour, they would like on the walls of the completed units.

It’s an exciting place to be says Graham, “and it’s not just fully immersive technology that makes the difference, for many years now our internal teams of designers have had the ability to create incredibly realistic films allowing clients and future users the ability to walk through, say a new-build hospital at the planning stages. Our Symmetry and work winning teams deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Graham has also attended the UKs Digital Construction week late last year.

“It was great to hear so many positive references to Laing O’Rourke, specifically our commitment to DfMA and Digital Engineering, from recognised industry figures speaking at that event. There was a presentation from Ravintheran Kugananthan on innovation at Crossrail and the Digital Engineering Thames Tideway Tunnel exhibit. Another popular exhibit demonstrated the development of the Tunnel Boring Machine familiarisation safety training, which is due to be launched this year.

And the future of digital realities? Paul, sums up the challenges.

“Clearly we’ve made major strides already and of course the pace of change is speeding up all the time. If there’s one area of improvement or final frontier that needs to be overcome, it’s accuracy. For project purposes - on the example shared here on setting out - the accuracy needs to improve, but that will come. When it does we really will revolutionise our ability to engineer, to innovate and we will start to catch up with the aerospace and automotive industries, which is where we want to be.”

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