4 Ways to Leverage Mixed Reality for Smarter Infrastructure Design

by Angus W. Stocking, L.S.
- Apr 17 2018 - 6 min read
mixed reality for infrastructure people using hololens
Mixed reality is a powerful tool for collaborative planning. Courtesy Microsoft HoloLens.

When Microsoft released the HoloLens in 2015, most saw it as a flashy new gaming platform, a goggle set that projected 3D images into the physical world. It wasn’t virtual reality, it was a mixed reality of actual environments and virtual objects in which players could quasi-physically engage in laser-gun fights with alien arachnid robots. But some users recognized HoloLens’ potential to solve problems in the real world—including bridging gaps in the infrastructure process.

“When Microsoft announced the HoloLens, we were as surprised as anyone,” says Scott Aldridge, senior manager, Innovation and Disruptive Technologies at CDM Smith. “Despite our focus on ways to use augmented and virtual reality in our business, HoloLens’ mixed reality was new to us, and we immediately understood it was a game changer.”

mixed reality in infrastructure people using hololens
Unlike augmented reality, mixed reality anchors virtual objects in physical spaces. Courtesy Microsoft HoloLens.

CDM Smith is a 125-office engineering and construction firm focused on water, transportation, energy, and public facilities. Aldridge’s role is to “Evaluate emerging technologies and make recommendations on how to apply them to business outcomes. We need to harness digital disruption in ways that generate value for our clients.”

The firm immediately realized HoloLens’ potential for collaborative planning and design in infrastructure, particularly in water and transportation. “We wanted to innovate, not be a ‘fast follower,’” Aldridge says.

CDM Smith uses a custom mixed-reality collaboration platform that allows direct import of models from Autodesk solutions such as InfraWorks and AutoCAD Civil 3D. Using it, CDM Smith has upended its entire architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) operations lifecycle. Here are four ways that mixed reality for infrastructure can help your firm work smarter, too.

1. Collaboration: All Hands on (Holo)Deck

Mixed reality uses headsets to project 3D objects into user-occupied spaces, blending aspects of virtual reality and, well, reality. But unlike in augmented reality, where virtual objects are merely overlaid onto physical spaces, in mixed reality, virtual objects can be anchored in those physical spaces.

When it comes to collaborative planning, the HoloLens system encourages two key approaches: First, multiple users can examine the same projected 3D design at the same time, from anywhere. “This allows us to collaborate in real time from remote locations, enabled by life-size 3D avatars,” Aldridge says. “We use the platform to enable better outcomes throughout the life of a project. We can leave notes, create annotations, and make measurements inside the mixed-reality experience.”

And second, accurately conveying the visibility of the physical space is an important part of what makes mixed reality better than virtual reality for collaborative design. The reason is simple, and endearingly human: “About a fifth of users get queasy using virtual reality, and that can put them off forever,” Aldridge says. “By contrast, I’ve probably given 3,000 hands-on mixed-reality demonstrations over the past three years, and I can count on one hand the number of times a user has complained of feeling sick because of the HoloLens.”

Compared to virtual reality, the realism of the 3D mixed-reality models is not a priority when it comes to collaborative design. “We don’t do Hollywood stuff; our models are for actual work,” Aldridge says. “We use our actual CAD models, and we keep them simple. They don’t look great, but they’re useful. One of the first designs was still in our CAD layer colors—very plain—but using it, we immediately found a design flaw we may not have noticed otherwise.”

mixed reality for infrastructure two people using MR at the same time
Using HoloLens, two users can examine the same design at the same time. Courtesy Microsoft HoloLens.

2. Knowledge Transfer: Seeing Is Sharing

Aldridge points out that the human brain devotes about 25 percent of available resources to processing visual data, “and it makes sense that immersive 3D models would be a very effective way to experience design at scale.” By making the 3D model visually accessible to all stakeholders, knowledge transfer from nontechnical experts is fast and effective.

An early use case of the HoloLens application provides a good example of this concept. To complete project planning for a large, new bus stop under a bridge in Michigan, 3D fly-throughs were created for client review, helping bring the project close to final approval for construction.

“As a test, I stuck the model into the HoloLens and took it to clients so we could walk around in it together,” Aldridge says. “Within five minutes, they noticed that several big, heavy, concrete planters—which doubled as benches—were too close to the edge of the road for safe sitting.”

Uncovering safety issues such as these allows for speedy redesign before breaking ground, ultimately saving major rework costs and change orders. Aldridge says that kind of useful insight from nontechnical infrastructure experts is becoming commonplace for CDM Smith engineers.

“Knowledge transfer is perhaps the best use of HoloLens in its present form,” he says. “Being able to include those folks who may not normally have input into designs allows us to take advantage of institutional knowledge from people with years of daily experience operating and maintaining infrastructure. This results in a design that, after construction, has far fewer issues to be addressed.”

3. Stakeholder Buy-in: The Power of the Walkthrough

In addition to collaborative design, CDM Smith is using mixed reality for client and public presentations. “Involvement, outreach, and engagement with the public and stakeholders is never better than with the use of mixed reality,” Aldridge says. “The technology is so new, and so few have experienced it that when they do it blows their minds.”

On roadway projects, for example, Aldridge will show up at town meetings with HoloLens sets so that planners and residents can viscerally experience a proposed intersection. “They’re able to walk through a design and actually experience it at scale,” he says. “And then they’re able to come to make more informed decisions. It augments our existing proven processes and leads to a more engaged and faster review process.”

4. Constructability Review: From Conceptualization to Operation

“Constructability review is one of the first areas that we looked at,” Aldridge says. “We are able to turn on and off various layers of an AutoCAD model or show only parts of a structure to look for conflicts.”

mixed reality for infrastructure using MR in facility operations
Collaborating through mixed reality can streamline facility operations. Courtesy CDM Smith.

This process has been particularly useful for the water industry, where designs are often complex and destined to go underground. Using mixed reality, designers and operators in remote locations come together and resolve issues quickly.

The benefits of mixed-reality review extend to facility operation. “We have created proofs of concept to create mixed-reality digital twins—virtual interactive clones of real-world assets,” Aldridge says. “They will be simple at first and evolve over time, improving their ability to collect and visualize the right data and apply the right analytics and rules. We see this as very valuable for operations and maintenance activities as well as asset management.”

Seeing a HoloLens demo online can make the technology seem trivial—just a bunch of guys in headsets, seemingly looking at a video game—but Aldridge says that impression immediately vanishes when users experience mixed reality for themselves. “Mixed reality is one of those rare technologies that must be experienced to truly understand its potential,” he says. “I think it’s one of the world’s top 10 new technologies and a good bet for closing the AEC productivity gap.”

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