AR and VR Take Public Project Planning into the Future

Technology leaves nothing to stakeholders’ imagination.

When a public agency announces an infrastructure project — construction of a new road, improvements to an intersection or renovations to a public building — stakeholders may struggle to visualize the impact on their communities. With virtual reality and augmented reality, public sector organizations have a highly effective new way to share that information and get public input into proposed projects.

AR helps people “see” changes

Augmented reality (AR) takes the current environment and superimposes proposed changes. AR models are constructed using information from various databases, such as sewer line plans, geographic information systems (GIS) and GPS.

AR is often used by agencies for field work. A state department of transportation could use AR to gain a better understanding of what’s beneath an existing or proposed road. For example, using goggles or a tablet, they could look at the road and “see” whether the utility lines run under it or parallel to it, according to Jeff Siegel, technology solutions center director and vice president at HNTB, an infrastructure solutions firm. Siegel specializing in the implementation of spatially enabled information systems and related technologies.

Another example Siegel provided: “Roadway design teams can take a preliminary design of an expanded road out into the field to look at the potential impact of that new segment of pavement or new intersection. They can visualize and interact with that new design.”

The Florida Turnpike System recently used AR for a new interchange and crossroads project. “The Turnpike will use eminent domain to take property. There are a number of property owners that are being impacted, so the Turnpike wanted to use the technology to hep communicate with stakeholders and to help with the land acquisition process,” Siegel noted.

For this project, Siegel’s company HNTB built an AR environment that stakeholders could access using iPads. They could see the proposed new pavement, the right of way and how much property they were going to lose.

For most people, using an iPad is easier and more natural than trying to read road plans. “It helped communicate the project better and helped stakeholders better understand it quicker,” said Siegel. “It definitely cut down on the time and the effort that would be required to try to orient someone to a roadway plan.”

“I truly believe that in the future it will become the standard of how we work as the technology becomes more and more consumer oriented.”

Jeff Siegel, Technology Solutions Center Director and Vice President at HNTB

Encouraged by this success, the Florida Turnpike agency is now looking at different ways to use AR on a consumer-level device, so that AR models of future projects could be sent out to the landowners.

Other agencies are using AR to help gauge public reaction to a project. “One of the things we have added is an augmented reality digital assistant, a virtual person who can be viewed or interacted with and can help explain the project,” Siegel said. Deploying the AR using inexpensive consumer devices like Google Cardboard could make it possible for someone to view the project right in their living room.

VR lets people interact with proposed designs

Virtual reality is effective in helping clients understand a new or renovated structure. “We’ve used VR in our sales cycle, proposing on large infrastructure projects and programs,” said Siegel. “We’ll set up large visualizations to explain our design approach to an interchange or a new mass transit station or an airport. It allows the audience to actually interact with the proposed design.”

VR gives clients a better feel for the project and the scale of elements like windows or escalators, he added. It also exposes potential conflicts earlier. While 3-D BIM models reveal hard conflicts, such as wiring and plumbing designed to take up the same space, VR can reveal soft conflicts.

“While technically a door can be placed in a certain spot, and it won’t conflict with the wall and window, is that right? There are things that can be built and that won’t cause major money issues, but it may cause interaction issues, aesthetic issues and things like that,” Siegel added. 

It’s likely that both public sector organizations and private companies will use AR and VR more frequently in the future.

“Compared to just a few years ago, it’s much more accessible and cost effective than it was,” said Siegel. “I truly believe that in the future it will become the standard of how we work as the technology becomes more and more consumer oriented.”

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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