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.
headshot of Martin McDonnell, founder of service company Soluis and technology specialist Sublime

“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.”