One of the most exciting developments seen on construction jobsites these days are wearable devices incorporating augmented reality (AR). This technology improves both workflow efficiency and worker safety.
Current users report that wearable AR devices also allow them to better bridge the knowledge gap between new workers and seasoned employees.
Don’t confuse AR with VR (virtual reality). AR is the enhancement of the real world using computer-generated perceptual information through an interactive experience. VR is a simulated, artificial reality.
AR-wearable designs are not the full-vision VR goggles used in video games either. AR devices head-mount and snap onto safety helmets, attach to bump caps, or are worn directly on the head. A high-resolution micro display that views like a seven-inch tablet fits just below the worker’s line of sight without interfering with his or her front-facing direct vision. The device can be flipped up out of the way when not needed.
Wearable AR devices have the potential to improve project workflow right out of the box.
“One of the prime benefits of wearables is field-to-office video communication,” says Zachary Wassenberg of Burns & McDonnell, an engineering, architecture, construction, environmental and consulting solutions firm, based in Kansas City, Mo. “This is a very important function for justifying the return on investment. AR technology shrinks the knowledge gap by taking existing resources, leveraging them, and then fully utilizing them and capturing the knowledge to ensure it’s retained within the organization.”
AR devices can be used for wireless live-streaming of site conditions and data gathering, thereby reducing the need for multiple, handheld devices like phones, tablets, notebooks and cameras. For example, if someone in the field has a question, he or she can contact experts back in the office in a real-time, hands-free, audio-video conference environment, maintaining awareness of his or her work surroundings as he or she is guided through a process.
Imagine information gathered from actual field or site conditions being uploaded immediately to a head office software platform and date-stamped. That means more efficient processes, possibly less time in the field, and fewer errors.
The other important benefit of wearable AR devices is safety. AR devices make inspection processes safer because they create a hands-free environment. If a worker is holding a tablet, phone or roll of drawings, that’s one less hand available to support him or her when encountering an obstacle or when a ladder needs to be climbed. In cold weather, gloves don’t have to be removed. And, because the voice and video communication are hands-free, the distractions of operating a phone or tablet is eliminated. Although it can be difficult to quantify these safety benefits, studies of people in the field using AR wearables report feeling safer.
Wearable AR devices can integrate with many third-party software technologies, an attribute Wassenburg calls being “vendor-agnostic.” For example, a worker in the field using a GPS interface can document, record and transmit the condition or status of known site assets back to the office. Conversely, the office can transmit virtual checklists to the worker for on-site confirmation, guiding him or her to exact site locations, prompting the individual to take photos and make audio notes in real-time as he or she moves around. The software can open the camera automatically, take the photos required, and then direct the supervisor to the next required location. The captured audio notes can later be transcribed to text.
AR wearables can also integrate with range-finding and measurement software, consolidating into a single, hands-free process what were previously multi-step processes using third-party, handheld devices. Over the course of a project and hundreds of such interactions, the time savings can really add up.
The promise of faster connectivity speeds through future 5G networks means the functionality and widespread adoption of AR wearables is destined to increase rapidly.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.