The future of work: AR to propel construction industry
Charlotte Ashley meets Martin McDonnell, founder of creative studio Soluis and technology business Sublime, who recently secured £1 million (€1.1 million) funding to work on an application of AR in construction industry.
A trained architect with a side interest in gaming, Martin McDonnell always had a vested interest in the technology powering his two passions. “When I was younger I was always playing games and one way or another this coalesced into a real interest in 3D computer graphics,” recalls McDonnell. “I was able to get involved with some quite early 3D CAD systems and then the internet appeared while I was at University in the 90s, which was kind of mind-blowing.” McDonnell would pick up enough through this exploration to be recruited as a reseller for architectural 3D specialist Autodesk, before consulting architects, interior designers and construction companies on their use of 3D technology.
“What soon became clear was that despite being really interested in the more advanced side of 3D, at that stage (2000), they weren’t going to invest the time to recruit staff and train staff in carrying out such specialist tasks.” So McDonnell seized the opportunity. And so his service business, Soluis, was born, with the success that followed delivering visual media and interactive environments taking the company as far as ﬁeld as Middle East, Far East and the USA.
As its client base grew, so has the 55-strong company’s offerings, as new technologies paved the way for more productive construction processes. The dawn of games engines somewhat revolutionised half of Soluis’ services following a decade of using traditional workﬂow (i.e. 3D Studio Max and ofﬂine rendering). “Images being delivered in seconds and the ability to do real-time animation really opened up the world of VR and AR for us,” says McDonnell. “For us, training and simulation are the very obvious and best uses of VR in most industries. We see the most powerful aspect of VR is the ability to put you in an environment you can’t otherwise reach (particularly in construction and oil and gas).”
“We’ve recently created a completely separate business dedicating on introducing VR and AR technologies for the world of work.” Sister company Sublime will be rooted in the familiar territory of construction and property at ﬁrst, before branching out into oil and gas and other related services, and will soon have additional Dubai and China ofﬁces (following £850,000 of investment in China).
Although there is still work to be done in increasing awareness of all of the benefits among senior level decision makers, McDonnell says the pros of technology such as the company’s ‘Augmented Worker’ system (AWE) are potentially huge. “We intend to build two parallel things – one is a core back-end system that delivers data in an easy-to-consume way for AR,” says McDonnell. “The second aspect is ﬁve use case throughout the construction lifecycle.” These include design collaboration facilitating a shared experience of viewing and editing options between stakeholders, digital guidance for staff on-site doing complex tasks and monitoring of workers, as well as planning, sequencing and safety beneﬁts.
“We don’t really see a lot of construction and work tasks being taken over by robots when it comes to automation. We see the human becoming more and more powerful through overlaid glass and AR.”
“I think the ﬁfth one really trumps them all in terms of commercial value: asset management and maintenance.” McDonnell explains that the increased efﬁciency provided from being able to plan and, crucially, execute maintenance tasks thanks to overlaid glass is signiﬁcant. He afﬁrms: “We don’t really see a lot of construction and work tasks being taken over by robots as such, in terms of automation. We see the human becoming more and more powerful through overlaid glass and AR.” McDonnell says the company’s ﬁrst project, delivered with Crossrail (London’s upcoming railway line), has already indicated that its potential is “enormous.”
There are still challenges to working with AR and VR, with the technology available currently not able to match the high expectations of what the technologies can do for the commercial world. “For me, with VR the barrier to adoption is the solo, detached nature of the headset – so this is something we’re trying to work to solve at Sublime by creating shared immersive spaces that deliver a group experience without goggles.”
With regards to AR, McDonnell says the main limitation is the hardware needed to allow projects to beneﬁt from its Augmented Worker system. “As soon as the hardware arrives, and practical things like battery power, price point and robustness come we all have to a lot of work to do to build up use cases and make them really compelling.”
McDonnell has no doubt about AR being a game-changer, however. “Our focus and intent, especially with regard to our recent Innovate bid (that was £1 million of funding across three years to build out the software platform for the augmented worker of the future) is having a platform ready to go that will deliver those experiences and software when those AR devices appear and are ready for the workplace.”
McDonnell has high hopes for the much-anticipated offering from US $2 billion (€1.7 billion) backed start-up MagicLeap; and says it may well be that very ﬁrst step into mass adoption of AR. “Over the next year I think we will see the ﬁrst amazing AR headsets. I think they’ll still be ﬂawed in one way or another, but within a few years I think we’ll then have a choice in what we do with VR headsets with AR and wearable glass.” He concludes: “At that point I honestly think all of our lives will change in terms of the way we implement it – in the same way that mobile phones have changed our lives. But we’re probably at least three years away from being able to deliver a really spectacular set of use cases that are incontrovertible (i.e. you were 10x more efﬁcient at asset management or health and safety incidents dropped from 1% to 0.1%) – then of course the world will sit up and take notice.”