The Future of VR - Ep 2: Interview with Will Adams of Mortenson Construction and Rene Fresquez of Hewitt Architects

When I visited Mortenson Construction in Kirkland last month to see what Will Adams and his colleagues were up to I was surprised and impressed with the level and quality of the VR experiences that a small team inside a construction firm was producing.  It was also interesting to see how building contractors were providing value to their clients through simulation and visualization.  The approach reminded me of how Milwaukee's Gilbane Construction and their VR lead Lucas Richmond, employs VR to tell client stories and add value.   In many ways general contractors have taken control of the BIM process, coordinating the exchange and updating of building models alongside architects.  I see similar things happening within VR/AR and from what I see many contractors are currently way ahead of others in the AEC community.

Another trend I witnessed on a recent trip to Hewitt Architects in Seattle was how quickly architecture firms are embracing 360 renderings and photosphere creation using tools built into their existing modeling software.  When I spoke to Rene Fresquez it was clear that he was able to rapidly create 360 renderings and was eager to spread the word across his firm.  One of the challenges many of these firms face is deploying VR technology firm wide and educating others in the process of VR creation.  It is also interesting to consider how one distributes and shares all the content to clients and stakeholders.  

I had the pleasure of asking Will and Rene what they think about the future of VR in their respective fields and below are their insights and answers.  Enjoy.


Will Adams | Mortenson Construction

Will Adams was pursuing his masters of architecture at the University of Minnesota when he discovered virtual reality (VR) and its potential to impact design and construction. He began researching real-world applications of the medium with Mortenson Construction, which is headquartered in Minneapolis and has an ongoing partnership with the University. Eventually, Mortenson enlisted Will's help to develop VR, AR, and MR tools which assist project teams in visualizing and simulating buildings before they are constructed, assisting decision making and avoiding costly changes.

Will Adams Headshot.jpg

Q.   How is VR AR and MR currently implemented in your firm's everyday practice?

A.   We are currently using primarily VR and AR In everyday practice. In our view, VR is a more mature technology and so we’re focusing primarily on how we can use VR to add value to our customer’s businesses, improve communication between stakeholders on our projects, and be able to do more with less. Specifically, we’re using building information models, which have become ubiquitous in the AEC industry, as a starting point for our environments. Depending on our use case, we continue to develop the environment. For instance, if our customer is a stadium owner who needs to sell premium seats and suites, we’d be adding detail, custom interaction, materiality, etc.  We’ll train the owner’s staff on the use of VR hardware and the specifics of the environment we produced for them, and they will use it as a sales tool. We have also had great success using VR in a mockup replacement capacity. During construction of projects, it’s often necessary to build physical mockups of spaces that will be repeated. This serves as a design review tool, it’s a way to get decisions made, and gives the project team an opportunity to practice installation before working on the final product. The problem with physical mockups is that they are wasteful, expensive, and difficult to change once they have been built.
 
We’re also investing R&D time into AR, as we see it as a technology with a greater high-end potential than VR. We’re currently working with the University of Washington to provide a mobile based AR experience which will allow students to visualize the end result of a project which is just beginning construction as they walk by the job site. We’re also working on tools which are specific to the construction process, and providing our craftspeople with real-time immersive access to building model information while they’re in the field.


Q.  What are the elements about VR AR MR that get you the most excited?

A.   There are so many things we’re excited about, because we feel that where we’re at in terms of technology right now, is just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of VR, we’re really excited in the near term for wireless headsets, lighter and smaller headsets, inside-out tracking, full body tracking, and technology that enhances the social aspects of the experience. In terms of AR, we’re really looking forward to headsets with more processing power and larger fields of view. In my opinion, we’ll see a convergence of VR and AR in one piece of hardware, and VR and AR will no longer be separate things – they’ll be settings on a continuum. Overall, I’m just excited to see how this technology transforms the AEC industry.

Q.  What trends to do you see related to AR VR MR and how long do you think it will take to for VR AR MR execution to become mainstream?

A.   Right now, I see specific people who are passionate about technology in design taking on VR as a nights and weekends project. I expect that bigger contractors will start to invest more intentionally in the technology quite soon. An interesting thing about VR/AR/MR is that it requires so much customization to do it well that the traditional, one-size-fits-all type of program that virtual design and construction practitioners typically utilize doesn’t really work well. It’s necessary to be at least somewhat facile with coding and using software development tools. It also doesn’t seem to work very well to just take someone who’s never worked in the AEC industry but knows software development and ask them to develop AEC focused VR/AR – you need to understand the way things work in the industry, the tools that are used, and what problems need to be solved. I think we’ll see more mainstream execution of VR in a couple years as the investments that construction companies start to make now coalesce into industry-standard tools. 

 

Rene Fresquez | Hewitt Architects

Rene has nine years of design experience working as collaborative team leader providing skilled and creative 3D design and analysis that helps his clients visualize and better understand what their completed projects will be. He is involved in projects from inception to completion carrying designs from development through building occupancy.  At Hewitt, and in his personal life, Rene is a enthusiastic advocate for the immense possibilities in design, creation and revolution that mixed reality technology offers. 


Q.  How does Hewitt currently implement VR AR MR in their everyday practice? 

A.  We are currently using some very simple out of the box stereo panorama tools to get panospheres of our Revit projects and view them with cardboard style headsets. We have some exciting stuff planned, including what I believe will be the first use of VR viewing in the context of a Seattle Design Review meeting; as well as developing an in-house augmented reality app for select projects.

Q. What are the elements about VR AR MR that get you the most excited? 

A.  Personally, the most exciting aspect for myself as a designer is the ability to quickly inhabit a design idea.  We are getting to the point where we have virtual presence within our digital models and can improve our designs based on that experience.  Imagine taking a client on a virtual stroll through a design before the project even breaks ground!  That is exciting.  If the old adage of “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings true, then how many words is a virtual world worth?
 
Q.  What trends to do you see among contractors related to AR VR MR and how long do you think it will take to for VR AR MR execution to become really mainstream? 

A.  The biggest trend I see right now is not too surprising, which is to use VR as a looking glass.  The majority of architects that I have seen using AR/VR are still at the observation stage.  While I believe that walk-throughs and presentations are easily the most direct application to our industry, I can imagine so many other ways of using the technology - from real time consultant collaboration to virtual design engines allowing us to build our digital models from the inside out.

When do I think it will become mainstream?  That is hard to say.  2016 was supposed to be the year of virtual reality but thanks to hardware limitations and compelling use cases, that did not happen in a substantial way. The current tethered experiences while impressive in their quality still make for a high upfront cost and are hard to get in front of a client.  I think as WebVR and mobile VR mature those will really help with mainstream adoption.

Rene Fresquez recently won first prize in the 'Digital Cities' category at the Seattle AEC Hackathon for Site Sight - A mixed reality application for visualization of open data sets and their effect on the built environment.  

Rene Fresquez recently won first prize in the 'Digital Cities' category at the Seattle AEC Hackathon for Site Sight - A mixed reality application for visualization of open data sets and their effect on the built environment.  

 

kEY TAKE AWAYS
 

Take Away 1:  A huge amount of excitement and anticipation exists around developing a lighter, wireless form factor that can be deployed in the field and empower blue collar workers, on site, to easily access three dimensional digital information.

Take Away 2:  There is a desire for a convergence of VR and AR into one headset with seamless transitions between holograms and fully immersive first-person perspectival content.  Being able to quickly change scales is critical for users to understand the space and its details.

Take Away 3:  The distribution of virtual reality will transition from a closed console based system to an open-source web based experience.  Client will receive links through webVR tools and experience VR on their personal devices directly in a browser.  This will enable sharing and allow for virtual reality to scale.


Big thanks to Will and Rene for agreeing to contribute their thoughts and ideas.


Boaz Ashkenazy is CMO and co-founder of @Studio216.  Studio216 is a immersive technology agency focused on VR AR MR for the enterprise.   He is also a dynamic entrepreneur, speaker and writer from Seattle who is examining and envisioning the future of immersive technologies. Boaz can be reached at boaz@studio216.com or on twitter @boazashkenazy