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Over the last few years, the development of virtual reality has come along in leaps and bounds, already pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible. Now, having already started its march on the entertainment industry, VR is being touted as the answer to a long list of challenges faced by businesses around the world.

At the top of this list is the UK construction industry which, like other countries, is currently seeing slowed productivity, a widening skills gap, and stifled growth. Having seen what VR is capable of across the pond and the growing popularity of virtual reality technology, could it be the saving grace of UK construction and if so, what’s holding us back from embracing this innovative solution.

The Future is Already Here

shutterstock_276380672 (1)Just twenty year ago, VR was limited to the likes of sci-fi films. But now, ask the public and you’re likely to hear now-familiar words such as ‘Oculus Rift’ or ‘Hololens’.

As technology has developed, we’ve moved away from VR as a science fiction toy and towards a technology that is able to bring other worlds to life in a way that is practical and enables comprehensive problem solving. Over in the States, VR has started to become a familiar tool for leading construction firms.

There are already over 50 types of VR technology being employed in construction, architecture and engineering – all primarily in the US. A survey earlier this year on emerging technologies by ARC Document Solutions found that 65.3% of respondents chose VR as the next big technology trend – ahead of drones at 61.9%, for surveying purposes. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the future of construction is already here, and US firms are already seeing huge benefits as a result.

Feedback Welcomed

When asked about the shortcomings of how modern day construction is managed, a common response is clients’ insistence on making multiple changes to the design or development of a finished structure or discovering during structural testing that changes need to be made for health and safety reasons. In our industry, we can alter bespoke software development at any time using an agile methodology, but changes to a construction project can require additional funds and resources for physical alterations, as well as cause losses in time and manpower.

shutterstock_77726605One of the most popular applications of virtual reality currently, then, is to curtail the need to make changes later on in a project’s life. Speaking on Balfour Beatty’s use of VR, Daniel Shirkey highlights that they can now invite end users into the process to provide feedback, which allows the team to make “impactful decisions, potentially saving lives”. Elsewhere, McCarthy famously built a ‘BIM Cave’, which utilises projection technology and special glasses to create a virtual rendering of a room, at which point structural tests and alterations can be undertaken – all before a single brick has been laid.

Glancing the Future

As we’ve seen in the UK construction industry’s recent productivity problems, there’s a need for workflows and processes to become more streamlined in order to reduce costs and complete projects ahead of schedule. Many hurdles which affect firms’ success in this area come from unknown factors late in the project’s life – factors which can now be exposed ahead of time.

One of the most important (in terms of productivity and efficiency) applications of VR in construction currently, is assessing future challenges using computer rendered structures which can be explored by project managers and end users. This application answers questions such as whether or not a worker can fit into a specific space to complete work, or if a design is structurally viable using the materials on hand.

What’s more, by experiencing the project in a realistic environment, project managers can understand how best to work with certain conditions and surroundings to piece together a more effective workflow strategy. The result is an invaluable time saving thanks to circumventing future challenges and finding better ways to work with the environment.

Willingness Required

Although its many applications may provide an antidote to more immediate construction challenges in the industry, VR faces one major hurdle. According to Peter Barden, writing for Construction Superintendent, “the only limitations in VR rest in the industry’s willingness to adopt and utilize the technology.” Arguably, this is why we’re seeing more progress with construction VR in the States than in the UK – the risk at such an uncertain time could be perceived as too high.

shutterstock_218843947 (1)Another limitation is perhaps the fact that this technology requires specific skillsets – and with skills shortages present across industries at the moment, firms need to drive talented individuals towards the construction industry, or rely on third party developers to deliver the goods.

In short, VR has the capabilities necessary to target and resolve specific challenges facing the UK construction industry – as has been demonstrated in the application of virtual reality technology in the States already. Although there are rumblings of VR technology being applied in UK construction, it has yet to become widespread – and the only way to make that happen is a universal push towards the technology.

With time, further demonstrations of its potential and pressure to innovate, we can be confident that we’ll see more of VR in UK construction in the coming years – and then we’ll be able to tell if it was worth the wait.

Kaleida design and create bespoke software for customers in a range of industries. Find out more about our services or get in touch to discuss how we can help your business.


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