Of all the emerging tech trends in construction, augmented reality (AR) stands out as one of the most futuristic, but it’s also already having a real impact on site crews.
As its CEO has described it, Spectar is the information bridge that brings BIM from the home office and makes it accessible in the field. Here we talk about Spectar’s journey, what exactly AR can do for construction, and how they are on the verge of owning the experience of the frontline construction worker in AR.
Would you mind talking a bit about Spectar, your own history and your vision for the company?
Spectar began as an R&D shop for a Los Angeles-area wall and ceiling contractor. Initially, we envisioned a future where every tradesperson and apprentice can be in an augmented reality (AR) device – the idea being that you never need to look at 2D plans, you always look at a BIM model 3D. Plus, this template is always up to date, easy to understand, very visual, and contains basically all the data you need and is accessible to everyone on the spot.
That was the initial thesis and what we tested was whether it would create value. Would this speed up the installation? Would it benefit this particular wall and ceiling contractor? How can this benefit the whole industry?
The test involved framing a typical nine-foot wall and bathroom. And it turned out that when we gave the AR device to an apprentice who had never used it before, that apprentice was 60% faster – still not the speed of the companion, but he was 60% faster, and the companion was about 15% faster, compared to the conventional method.
That’s when we realized: we shouldn’t consider it the fastest — it’s not Formula 1. It’s not about taking your best mate from 70 linear feet of framing a day to 90. No, it’s about getting an apprentice to go from 20 to 32 feet with this new tool.
We’re not going to make the best any faster. We’re going to take people in horse-drawn carriages and put them in cars.
We executed these successful proofs of concept to such an extent that it was clear to everyone involved that we could make a product out of it. A scalable product, beyond the company and beyond any profession, we were convinced that it could cover the entire field of construction.
So we are still in 2016. Your proof of concept was validated quickly, right?
That year we did a lot of rapid testing. Since then we have been established as a company and building our product. We started with a sturdy background because everything until then was tape and glue. The goal was to build the proper infrastructure and ensure that everything related to BIM was secure and reliable.
We decided to focus on what Microsoft calls the frontline worker – we in the industry call it the tradesperson.
Our plan is to be the leader in the “AR for Trade Professional” category for construction. Although it is one of the most difficult industries, it is a category that will move the needle significantly. If we can get someone to install racks 20% faster and hangers 40% faster, all of a sudden every subcontractor is doing a lot more “on-site work” with the same amount of time, which delivers real value across the entire value chain.
A step back for the uninitiated, what is augmented reality and why is it important for construction?
What users are doing is overlaying building information models (BIM) onto existing conditions at a 1:1 scale. People on the site are wearing what they call “BIM helmets”, which are a Trimble XR-10 with Microsoft HoloLens 2 running Spectar software.
When in Spectar, they see the geometry of the built space and the overlay of a virtual model in the existing conditions. Imagine, there is an existing pipe and there is a pipe in the model, you will see a virtual pipe overlaying the real one – and once you look at this overlay of this pipe, you can get data from it.
A lot of data is already built into every model created by BIM designers, especially if you think of Revit families. So you can look at this pipe and you can find answers to these types of questions: “What is this pipe? Who is the supplier? What is the dimension, size, material, elevation, is it insulated, what is the distance from the bottom of the insulation to the reference, etc. »
And we don’t just stop at static data. We also enter the dynamic data, that is, if there is a database.
Everything is Internet of Things (IoT) today. So you can look at a pump, for example, and say, “Is this pump working or not?” What are the RPMs of the pump? How much does this pump pump? What is it pumping?”
From a smart yard perspective, it can also be “What are the item specifications?” Who’s the manufacturer? When will it be delivered? When will it be installed? How can we program it with the work that we are currently doing? It becomes dynamic when you are able to interact with construction planning. And I imagine augmented reality is the opportunity to do so.
Yeah. And by the way, static data includes all of your submission information. You are on the spot – you can program it; you can assign attributes to it. Has it been delivered? Is it installed? Is it operational and so on?
When you look at any study on productivity in construction, a lot of it comes down to digitization. I think it involves coordination, communication and the ability for the office and the field to be in tune with each other. And so these designers don’t just design arbitrary things. They design things that will be useful and digestible by the craft in the field — and the craft in the field, when it encounters latent conditions or unexpected conditions, it is able to convey that information to the designers and has just completed this cycle . This is, again, very basic, but very hard to do in construction.
When many people look at construction, they start off by saying “AEC Industry”. But our position has always been that the AEC is not an industry, the AEC is a series of industries.
We can do very; very big claims and you hear thought leaders talk about billions of dollars in total addressable market. But that doesn’t sit well with a lot of mechanical contractors, wall and ceiling contractors, or electrical contractors because their lives are very focused on their specific business and building things that their trades people are into. experts.
And these people say, “It’s great that BIM is creating all this transparency. Until now, the main beneficiaries of BIM have been owners, architects and engineers. Please explain to my foreman how he can relate the design to the terrain? With Spectar, the estate has a product that any foreman can give to the trades professional and say, “I have all the BIM data and a record of all the constructability decisions that have been made on this project. so far this will help you do your job.
Where does Spectar stand in terms of reliance on other emerging tech trends. You mentioned Microsoft HoloLens2. I imagine many of your apps and use cases leverage Microsoft in some way. Do you see many other hardware vendors offering augmented reality specifically for construction sites?
Most of our revenue comes from construction GCs and subcontractors who do the work. And when we talk about how these companies approach the work, they are very clear: the hands of the person on the ground must convert the material, time and effort into a building. The hands of the tradesman are not a cost center, they are a profit center for a subcontractor.
So it’s very clear that they need a portable security device where people can see realistic elements, with hands that hold tools and materials. They are also very clear about the “user experience” and that the pipe should look like a pipe, not lines etc etc.
To accomplish all of this, when you start putting together the specs the construction world needs: an OSHA-approved device that works in large spaces; and it has to work with conditions that change every day. And it must render huge BIM holograms reliably and accurately. We are working with a client today, they have 29 different business layers in the model with three mechanical contractors on one project. These are huge five gigabyte models.
To succeed in construction, AR devices must become tools. The device has to be really powerful and it has to be as reliable as the rest of their tools. So far, I can’t see anyone other than Microsoft being able to come up with a device that can meet this requirement. Trimble makes it very user-friendly in the field in terms of last mile security, which is a must. I think Microsoft with the Trimble XR-10 hardware will continue to lead the market in the medium term.
That said, I think there are other players who will step up. I believe Apple will step up and give Microsoft a good run. And there are other devices that are shaking up the industry. Microsoft needs to have competition, we need to see the global market grow, so all devices get better and faster.
There’s no doubt that five years from now we’ll have AR devices that are lighter, more powerful, and safe to use on jobsites while delivering reliable AR experiences to end users.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Construction Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve field performance and agility.
It provides construction companies with an on-the-ground assessment that delivers transformative insights into their on-the-ground operations and is proven to accelerate innovation and technology adoption for top ENR contractors.
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