Turning architectural concept into the reality that was to become Sydney’s Opera House took an entire book, filled with 38 painstakingly detailed pages of plans, sections and elevations that eventually allowed the iconic – yet complex – building to be constructed.
Wind the clock forward 55 years and the increasingly innovative, organic designs emerging from the current generation of leading architects somehow also need to make the transition from the blueprint to the building.
The time-honoured drawing and documentation approach taken by Jorn Utzon with the Opera House has sustained the profession for decades, but the advent of augmented reality technologies now offers the potential to revolutionise both architecture and construction.
Gwyllim Jahn, a lecturer in architectural design, and Cameron Newnham, associate lecturer and industry fellow, both in RMIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Design, have been testing the capabilities of the Microsoft HoloLens and exploring how it could guide construction workers involved in complex assembly projects.
They believe augmented reality has the potential to revolutionise both architecture and construction.
They are now exploring how HoloLens solutions might be commercialised, potentially transforming building worldwide.
Architects have of course long relied on technology to design buildings and also to create computer representations that allow people with limited spatial expertise or technical knowledge to understand how designs would manifest in the real world.
Jahn explains; “We got the HoloLens in mid-January at RMIT. One of the first conversations we had when we put the thing on looking at virtual models was that we could use the technology to advise construction workers in complex assembly projects.
“A lot of our research within the Architectural Robotics Lab at RMIT has been figuring out how to use industrial robots to build complex parts of buildings – but one of the big challenges we face with using robots in architecture and construction is the difficulty to get robotic arms to assemble collections of customised parts.”
Instead of attempting to automate assembly Jahn and Newnham realised that the HoloLens could; “Augment the capability of existing construction workers to assemble highly intricate and often complex building forms that we were designing in the school.”
Jahn explains that one of the first test applications of the HoloLens was to create a holographic template for masonry construction. The holograph showed the precise location of bricks in a complex double-curved wall structure.
“You could basically run a course of bricks in a horizontal layer using the template – then use a simple interface to click up or down to show you where the next bricks go on the template.” It means that a bricklayer would simply have to follow the template displayed on the HoloLens, assured that it exactly matched the architect’s intent.
While the initial prototype of the HoloLens application was created swiftly by Newnham it continues to be iterated and refined, and tested on increasingly challenging designs.
Newnham’s software streams digital models directly from the CAD (computer aided design) systems that architects use into the holographic environment. According to Jahn, this means that for RMIT’s architecture students who have been among the first to trial the system; “There’s no need to learn how to code. They don’t need to learn how the HoloLens developer kit works – they just keep working with same workflow they use in the design studio and the HoloLens becomes seamlessly integrated as a way of visualising what they are modelling in CAD.”
The ease with which complex CAD drawings can be brought to life in the HoloLens’s augmented reality, means according to Newnham that; “It greatly expands the design space and the types of things we can design because the complexity doesn’t have much bearing on the time it takes to construct – because either way you are still following a template.
“There isn’t the enormous overhead of documenting or building complex jigs or any of the things that generally makes building complex structures incredibly difficult.”
He believes that the technology has the potential to ratchet up architectural creativity by making the complex simpler to build, and also transform the way architectural practices are structured, potentially replacing huge and time consuming documentation with an augmented reality solution that guides construction workers step-by-step through the build.
And, in a real life application, because the HoloLens is worn by the user as they walk around a construction site the architect and construction worker would see the same images – but still be able to gesticulate and point to things ensuring crystal clear communications about particular site issues.
For architecture and construction applications the spatial tracking of the device is particularly critical says Newnham; “If we can reduce the error rate of the spatial tracking down to building tolerance which is around 5 mm – then I don’t see any barrier to it being used on site for set out and construction.
Jahn agrees; “The communication and shared experience is so incredibly important for us – it trumps virtual reality.” The RMIT team also believes augmented reality would also strip out much of the cost, delay and redundancy experienced today when design practices constantly need to redraw plans to help builders understand how to turn the plan into reality, while builders struggle to make sense of two dimensional drawings or sections.
“We think there is enormous potential to radically change all of that using holographic models instead of drawn two dimensional documentation,” says Jahn.
Jahn and Newnham are now starting to engage with a variety of industry partners including architectural practices, engineering consultants and acoustics experts, to see how augmented reality could be even more widely deployed across the sector.