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by Alex Nicol
The year 2017 marked a new development in my work as the mobile team manager at Vectorworks, Inc. - one that perfectly aligned with a new trend in the AEC industries.
Apple just introduced its ARKit to complement the new iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X models. This platform allowed developers to create Augmented Reality (AR) applications that integrated live images from a device's camera with dynamic 3D models developed by the user.
My team at Vectorworks had been wanting to build an AR app for our customers for some time. We spent the first half of 2017 evaluating different AR engines and building a prototype for image-based AR. In this initial prototype, the AR model required a paper target or marker. The camera in the mobile device would then pick up the target and display the digital model within the real world on the screen. It proved moderately difficult to make significant progress, and we found that the solution was more of a novelty than useful for architects. The user was limited to viewing a very small 3D model on the piece of paper.
Seizing an Opportunity
Apple released the demo of ARKit in the summer of 2017, and from the moment we tried it, it was immediately clear there was a whole new world of AR available to us. We first created a model of a house frame and could walk around the interior of the building in its real scale. We gave demos to our in-house architects, who were blown away by the interactivity and ease of use ARKit provided.
This type of AR is called markerless augmented reality. The user does not need to print out an image to use it. It scans the surfaces of the real world to allow you to place the model on tables and floors, even walls. The model can then be scaled up to its real-world size. This is not a new technology, but the highly tuned quality and accessibility of markerless AR is game changing. The user does not need to purchase anything, providing they have a capable mobile device.
Development of the AR viewer was quite rapid, and we had a releasable version by December of 2017 - only three months after working in earnest on the project.
Judging from the steady adoption rate of users who installed this new feature, I think this is a technology architects should consider for future projects. With major companies already integrating AR into their own design tools (e.g., Ikea, Sherwin-Williams), this has potential to be revolutionary for the AEC space.
Here you can see the virtual model being projected into a real-world café at the Vectorworks headquarters in Columbia, MD. Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.
The Reasons You Want to See
Still not convinced? Here are three reasons why you should embrace AR:
Reason #1: AR's setup is simple
We were confident in Apple to deliver more value to the ARKit ecosystem over time. Since the AR engine was built into the iOS operating system, it is highly tuned and operates extremely well on supported devices.
Most AR apps come with built-in content already included, but architects will want their own models. Fortunately, it's quite easy to convert a Vectorworks model into a format that is useable for ARKit. The architect would just have to learn how to manipulate their model in the Vectorworks Nomad app using a device they already have. When working with any iOS device that supports ARKit, the user must first scan the floor or another horizontal surface. Then the user would tap the screen to place the model - a completely scaled-down version that is visible in the iOS device's camera.
To build on this ease of use, Apple also created a set of standard gestures that AR apps can implement. Examples include:
- Pinch to scale up or down.
- Use two fingers to pan the object around on the surface it is placed on.
- Perform a rotate gesture to rotate objects on the surface.
The user can also tap elements of the model to hide. For architects, this could mean removing the roof of a building to show the interior floor plan layout to a client.
Reason #2: AR is great for client interactions
AR techniques can also help clients understand the designer's intent in a more interactive way. This allows for a more refined conceptualization of how the design will feel and look from any angle.
Why is this important? While it is a natural ability for architects to deeply conceptualize a design from 2D or 3D drawings, clients often need aids to help them bridge this gap. Clients are literally paying for changes to their environment and AR helps deliver these highly realistic experiences.
And yes, renderings and drawings also have the benefit of providing high-quality, photorealistic effects that can help clients visualize how the design will appear. But on the other hand, renderings are static images that must be re-rendered to provide a view from a different camera location.
In addition to enhancing drawings, AR is also a complementary presentation tool to Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 photos. It gives client interaction a new and interesting way to convey design intent, by letting the user see a virtual design in the real-world environment. Since complex navigation of the model within VR may be disorienting to some clients, AR can be used as a more natural and intuitive presentation tool. Once you place the model on a surface, exploring the model is as easy as walking around and viewing through the device, which can be helpful when discussing options with clients. In other words, everything is completely within the user's control.
Here are additional examples of realistic scenarios you may encounter with a client:
- Show different options for new cabinetry for a kitchen remodel.
- For construction projects, show different orientations of the building design in context of the site where it will be built.
- When building out an office work space, figuring out the most natural cubicle arrangement.
Reason #3: AR is cost effective
Despite arguments that the newest iPhone models are expensive, this investment may be well worth it. For AR to be completely seamless, the technology has to be highly tuned. It has to analyze each frame to inform the engine to how the device is oriented, while simultaneously using device sensors. It's actually a lot of work for a device that fits into the palm of your hand.
In a similar vein, the cost of AR functionality is no contest compared to the hours it takes to create multiple photorealistic renderings (with all different angles) to ensure you are on the same page as your client. With AR, these views can be created almost instantly. Change management is more efficient on your end, while still maintaining the same look and feel as a photorealistic rendering to impress even the toughest of clients. All you need is the right app to get the job done, which is what motivated us to create a new AR viewing mode in our Vectorworks Nomad mobile app.
The Vectorworks Nomad app puts the power of AR in your hands.
Image courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.
Simply put, AR technology is focused on reality. The virtual is superimposed into the real world such that it tricks your brain into thinking it really exists. When a 3D model of a couch you'd like to purchase can be shown where it will be placed, you can make better design decisions over which one to choose. You can ask yourself: "Will it fit into the space?" or "Will it work with your color scheme?" AR can give you the extra peace of mind that you're making the right choice.
On the other hand, if AR is not done well, or if the device is too slow, the illusion is completely lost. It's like computer-generated graphics in movies: it needs to look realistic, otherwise it looks totally fake and the suspension of disbelief is lost. And the last thing an architect needs is to design something that is incomplete, inauthentic or unrealistic.
It is because of the precise nature of an architect's job that the successful result is oftentimes a built structure in the real world. AR can provide a new and interesting tool to ideate over design options within the context of its ultimate destination in the reality. It is ubiquitous and integrated, and in my opinion is the next big thing for AEC. It will be interesting to see how far this technology will push us, and what we have to look forward to next.
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