More than Cool Tech: How Mixed Reality Is Closing the Construction Communication Gap

April 29, 2020 Jordan Lawver

When you hear the terms “mixed or augmented reality,” you may not immediately think about business and industry. But mixed reality (MR) is much more than the latest game craze; it’s playing a big part in construction. Like its sister technologies, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), mixed reality is solving some of the industry’s biggest challenges by enabling better communication and collaboration.

91% of contractors and owners agree that increased
collaboration reduces risk on construction projects. 

— "Managing Risk in the Construction Industry,” Dodge Data & Analytics

MR combines both immersive and interactive concepts of reality. Wearing a headset with a lens, the user can see digital content overlaid onto the actual environment. The headset’s cameras and sensors measure the user’s physical surroundings to determine where the user is located. Then holographic processing renders 3D images (holograms) onto the lens. The holograms are positioned in context of the location and are only visible to the user. Using hand controls, the user is able to manipulate the hologram and perform other tasks in the context of the physical environment. 

Download the eBook to discover how MR
can help you increase your team’s productivity.

What makes MR particularly effective in construction is that it’s giving contractors and subcontractors new ways to visualize a project in context on the work site. When everyone can see how the project will unfold in the real world and how certain components will be installed and integrated with others, teams develop a shared understanding of the project and the work to be completed. Because everyone can visualize the same desired end result, they can communicate and coordinate effectively.

But before we dive into exactly how MR can do this, it’s important to first understand the extent of the communication problem in construction and where the opportunities exist to improve it.

3 Ways Communication Gaps Occur in Construction

Siloed teams and disconnected workflows have historically plagued construction companies. While these issues in and of themselves are hard to measure, they ultimately result in delays, mistakes, and costly rework. When viewed in this context, there is a measurable impact and it’s often felt in the form of lost productivity and lowered profitability. In fact, poor communication alone is responsible for 26% of the $31 billion spent on rework in the U.S. 

Recognizing the problem is just half the battle. To solve it, you need to uncover the underlying reasons why communication and collaboration are difficult in the first place. Here are three ways communication breakdowns can occur. 

Misinterpretation of design intent

On a construction site, there are a number of teams, each with distinct accountabilities. Using 2D plans—or 3D models if they’re lucky—each team must interpret how to complete the scope of work they’re responsible for. Even the most capable, experienced teams may have a difficult time understanding the overall design intent without an easy way to visualize the desired result in context. 

Furthermore, each team may be responsible for one portion of the project, but that portion represents just one piece of the larger puzzle. If they aren’t able to visualize their work in the context of the larger project, they aren’t able to effectively coordinate the work to be done with other stakeholders on site.

Inefficient use of available data

Despite the growing use of 3D BIM models in pre-construction, it’s still common to revert to 2D drawings once work is underway. Even if teams have access to 3D models before the project begins, they may rely on a 2D plan to complete the work on site. When teams switch back and forth between 3D and 2D data, it only adds to the risk of confusion, misinterpretation, and errors. 

Without the ability to bring 3D data into the field, opportunities to improve workflows and foster coordination are lost. When you aren’t able to connect the right people to the right data at the right time, you experience disconnects between the office and the field that delay decisions, lower productivity, and increase the risk of mistakes.

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Challenges with training new workers

The ongoing labor shortage in construction means fewer skilled workers are available. When younger, less-experienced workers are hired, they’re often put into the field without adequate training. At the same time, many of the more experienced workers are nearing retirement and spending more time in the office than on the jobsite. Their experience is invaluable in getting younger workers up to speed, but transferring their knowledge in real time and in context can be difficult if they’re not physically present on the site.

The experts back at the office need to quickly and safely interact and communicate with the newer workers onsite to help guide their efforts. But they’re typically less comfortable using the digital tools that younger, more technologically savvy workers are used to. The result of this disconnect is that valuable training opportunities and exchanges of information between the old guard and the new are missed, bringing additional risk to the project. 

“Giving younger employees the skills, experience and confidence to manage major projects—and managing and motivating them in an appropriate manner—is one of the most important tasks facing the [construction] sector.”

KPMG Global Construction Survey

How MR Enables Better Communication & Collaboration

The inherent complexity of construction projects makes it more difficult to plan, execute, and coordinate efforts. But technology like MR is helping to address the complexity and fill the communication gaps. Construction professionals are using MR to bring design intent and models into the context of the actual work environment. With this powerful tool, you’re able to:

  • Encourage collaboration among stakeholders to gain buy-in and aid decision making
  • Visualize, express, and interact with 3D data in the field, gaining a clear vision and deeper understanding of the finished project
  • Foresee the work to come and identify possible site issues before they become costly problems
  • Deliver training safely and effectively, alleviating the challenges of communicating responsibilities and expectations to new workers
  • Motivate younger workers and increase their interest in the industry 

How contractors and trades benefit

MR technology is especially helpful for general contractors, field supervisors, and BIM coordinators who are tasked with coordinating the different trades on a project and ensuring work is being done correctly. MR allows you to give everyone involved access to the same data and a shared vision of the desired outcome. 

By helping workers gain a better understanding of the project—in much richer detail than they would get with 2D plans—you’re able to help them work more efficiently and break down the silos between teams. Overlaying 3D models against existing structures and systems allows teams to identify and resolve clashes before they snowball and require costly rework. They’re able to not only visualize their scope of work, but they can see how it interacts with other systems, fostering greater collaboration among teams. 

How newer and older workers alike benefit

MR sparks the interest of younger workers who are tech-savvy and looking for companies that are willing to adopt and use technology tools. By providing a “what you see is what you build” approach, MR can be used onsite to train new workers in fabrication sequencing by providing step-by-step guidance. It can also be used to provide safety training on equipment and processes in a real-world but controlled environment.

At the same time, more experienced subject matter experts can also use MR in the office to remotely train and assist others. The use of MR helps them transition away from performing the work themselves to transferring their invaluable knowledge and lessons learned to the next generation.

By closing the loop between the office and the work site, MR gives a multitude of construction professionals a highly effective way of visualizing and interacting with project data, the site, and each other at the same time. When your teams are communicating and collaborating effectively, you reduce the risk of clashes, misinterpretation, errors, and rework, and you’re able to get new workers up to speed quickly and safely.  

“[MR] enables workers in safety-controlled environments to access
model data directly on site and will change the way construction professionals design, build, and operate.”

“How VR, AR and MR Are Making a Positive Impact on Enterprise,” Forbes

Close Communication Gaps—and More—with Mixed Reality

Mixed reality solutions do more than improve project communication. When your workers are able to visualize and interact with 3D project data, they’re able to do their work with more speed, confidence, and accuracy, which increases overall productivity. By making it easier for your teams to visualize the work, giving them access to valuable project data, and training them efficiently and safely, you’ll deliver better projects and increase your competitive advantage, too. 

To learn more about MR can help you up-level your construction game, get the eBook.


Want to experience MR for yourself? Request a no-obligation demo of Trimble Connect for HoloLens.

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