The Brooklyn Tower, the Testing Ground for Augmented Construction Reality

Adam Chernick of SHoP Architects demonstrates new software that can render real-time 3D data about ongoing construction at 9 DeKalb Avenue, soon to be the tallest tower in Brooklyn. Image Credit: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

How Virtual Reality is Augmenting Realty

From the design and construction of skyscrapers to picking the right sofa, virtual reality is infiltrating real estate in new ways.

In the span of 30 years, virtual reality has transformed from a science-fiction curio to a growing asset for the real estate industry. And some of the biggest changes in the field are now becoming commercially viable, thanks to the spread of affordable consumer hardware, like 360-degree cameras, and the ubiquity of powerful smartphones and devices.

There has never been a more likely moment for virtual and augmented reality to move beyond showroom demonstrations, not just in the increasingly digital buying and selling process, but also in design and construction, which remain stubbornly analog. Just ask the contractor lugging rolls of paper plans to construction sites.

To be sure, the technology is still something to behold, but the following examples aspire to something beyond the gee-whiz factor. Namely: How do you monetize this?

Augmented Construction Reality

On a recent tour of 9 DeKalb Avenue, the future site of a 1,066-foot residential tower, soon to be the tallest in Brooklyn, construction workers were still laying the foundation. Then an associate with SHoP, the architecture firm in charge of design, pointed an iPad toward the hole in the ground and dropped in a true-to-life rendering of the 74-story skyscraper. Using the iPad like a viewfinder, he was able to track the tower from base to neck-craning spire, showing how the building will relate to its neighbors.

We can visualize problems that would not be able to be seen from a computer screen

Adam Chernick, research and development lead for A.R. and V.R. with SHoP

“We can visualize problems that would not be able to be seen from a computer screen,” said Adam Chernick, as he tapped on individual panels of another tower rendering to receive live updates on the materials used, construction status and dimensions. Mr. Chernick, the research and development lead for A.R. and V.R. with SHoP, has been working closely with the designers on the augmented reality app.

The rendering is not merely a fancy 3D illustration, which could have been produced years ago, but a dynamic stand-in for what has or hasn’t been completed on site, Mr. Chernick said. It marries two- and three-dimensional design data so that a contractor can peer through the virtual facade and determine where plumbing should be installed, whether the electrician has left adequate space for ventilation ducts or if columns are correctly aligned.

“One of the challenges that we face industrywide is communication,” said Michael Jones, a project director with JDS Development Group, the developer. “Having that information get down all the way to the guy with the tool in his hand in the snow — it’s a difficult game of telephone,” he added, noting that this app should prevent some on-site mistakes, avoiding the need for expensive remedies.

The technology is made possible by the use of the Unity engine, a software platform created in 2005 by the San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, primarily for the video-game industry. Today it is used in half of all mobile games, the company said, including the massively popular augmented-reality game Pokemon Go. In 2018, the company began tailoring its tool set for architecture and design clients.

In the next few years, I think we’ll see pervasive use of real-time 3D in the building industry

Tony Parisi, SHoP Architects global head of A.R. and V.R.

In the next few years, “I think we’ll see pervasive use of real-time 3D in the building industry,” said Tony Parisi, the company’s global head of A.R. and V.R. “Think about what you can save on re-dos alone” — which could translate to more investment in design and materials.

The software will also make it possible to build more difficult designs, said Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner with SHoP, pointing to the complicated hexagonal geometry of the tower. So far, the real-world savings are hard to estimate. The on-site crew is not yet using the software, relying instead on about 1,200 pages of 3-by-4-foot paper schematics mandated by the buildings department, said Foteinos Soulos, a senior associate with SHoP. But the construction workers will get their hands on the app soon and will build the tower using the software, he said; construction is expected to be completed in late 2021. “As the building goes up,” Mr. Soulos said, “the app is going to get better.”

By Stefanos Chen
November 8, 2019
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