Augmented and Virtual Reality: What They Mean for Safety and Training

The virtues of virtual reality have been touted for more than 20 years, to the point that one is tempted to paraphrase Charles De Gaulle and suggest that VR is “the technology of the future, and always will be.”

But perhaps that future is finally here, as the price of VR equipment drops and companies embrace it. 

Among other applications, VR could help enhance safety and training experiences. Construction giant Bechtel is working with tech company Human Condition Safety to create virtual reality training for real-life difficult and dangerous situations. According to a news release, “For example, a worker might virtually practice unloading a beam from a crane 20 stories in the air on a foggy morning, instead of doing it for the first time in real life.”

Although VR has opened up another outlet for safety and training, it is not without its limitations; you are totally immersed in it, separated from the reality that still surrounds. You do not want to be wandering around a construction site with a VR set on your head.  

It is likely that Augmented Reality, or AR, will have a bigger and more immediate impact. In buildings designed using BIM, the entire project is built in a computer and can be seen at virtual full size through headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens. Architectural drawings might well disappear as workers view their tasks in AR instead. 

ThyssenKrupp, the big elevator company, is trying out the HoloLens with its elevator maintenance teams. There are thousands of different configurations and millions of parts among the elevators they maintain, but technicians can use AR to dig into the problems on site more quickly and safely. Before a technician even gets to the site he or she can get familiarized with the machine room layout, zoom in and out and learn how it all fits together. Technologies like the HoloLens give technicians the ability to look at a component and see a catalog of its parts right in their field of view.

According to ThysssenKrupp, “Initial field trials have already shown that a service maintenance intervention can be done up to four times faster than before by using the device.”

Writing in MIT Technology Review, Elizabeth Woyke worried that AR might be as much a safety hazard as a helper. Though it could increase efficiency and save money, “There’s a possibility that the holographic images could divert your attention and cause you to take a wrong step — a potentially fatal move on a multistory construction site.” Yet the point of AR is that you are looking through the headset at the real thing, augmented with additional information.

Construction has always been hard, dangerous and complicated work. VR and AR may well change this, not only by helping workers see how things fit together but letting them practice on the ground first, before they have to do it 20 stories in the air on a foggy morning. That could add up to saving time, money and lives.


Lloyd Alter is a cured architect now writing about design for and contributing to and The Guardian. He is adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto.