Augmented Reality for Architects and Civil Engineers

Friday, May 27, 2016

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that allows you to superimpose computer-generated images created in CAD or building information modeling (BIM) software onto a user’s view of the real world, which creates a composite or augmented view.

The building and street are real, but the underground pipes are computer models. This "virtual excavation" is an example of augmented reality. (Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.)

In a previous article, we saw how AR can be used in CAD and manufacturing. A brief history of augmented reality technology dates back to the 1950s when Morton Heilig was designing the Sensorama Stimulator. This led to augmented reality in the mainstream in the 1990s, with the popular application of virtual first-down and scrimmage lines in live football games on television. Revenue forecasts for the technology show a potential for $1 billion this year but shoot up to $120 billion by 2020. Considering that AR is already touching so many different industries, such as archaeology, art, commerce, education, fashion, gaming, medical, military, navigation, sports, television and other entertainment, the forecast is easy to believe. For comparison, the global fast food industry generates around $570 billion in revenue. Augmented reality is no longer science fiction. Within the last few years, this has all become possible with the appropriate CAD software, 3D data from that software, a smartphone or tablet with a camera and the right amount of computing power. With this technology, you point your device (which includes a camera) on an object in the real world while computers add (augment), align and scale the 3D models with your view. The computer models appear in the real world, where they would be if completed. A “target,” often a printed QR code, is used to sync the location of the digital 3D data with the real world. You can walk around the object and look up or down, just as you would if it was there in real life. In addition to smartphones and tablets, recent advancements in technology have added an additional option for augmented reality viewing. Head-mounted displays can be modified to utilize see-through glasses or goggles that can project images over what you are looking at in real life. The Microsoft HoloLens, Google Cardboard and the ODG R-7 smartglasses are just a few examples.

Let's take a look at how augmented reality has and is currently being used in the architectural, BIM and construction industries. One of the biggest impacts AR has had on the architectural and construction industries is the ability to more realistically visualize a project. Architects and designers can show their designs to their clients as they would appear in their proposed sites. There are many examples for how augmented reality can help with visualization. A lot of people have trouble visualizing an end product from a set of 2D drawings, and while a 3D model can help visualize the product itself, it does nothing to help you visualize that product in its actual end environment. Let's say you bought a beautiful lakefront lot to build your dream home on but you can't decide which color siding, brick or stucco to go with or which roof style you should choose. Use augmented reality to review all of your options, seeing exactly how the different colors and textures work with the actual landscape and surroundings of your lot. Augmented reality could be used to show you how different furniture options would look in each room of your home. You can even look at how different paint colors and schemes would look inside your existing home.

Augmented reality is also being used in the construction industry.

An often-used example of the benefits of AR is how city planners and engineers in Christchurch, New Zealand, are using an app called CityViewAR in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes. The app was developed in the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Canterbury. It’s currently being used to show those involved in the planning and rebuilding of the destroyed buildings life-size 3D models of buildings throughout the city, as they would have stood before the earthquakes demolished them. This is helping the architects and planners make improvements as they move forward with the rebuilding process.

Many of the architectural CAD and BIM software companies have been embracing augmented reality and finding ways to incorporate it with their software solutions.


Autodesk, at one point, had an augmented reality plug-in for Autodesk Showcase. It was a pilot project from Autodesk Labs, but the project has since been retired. In 2015, however, they announced plans to make Autodesk 3D models compatible with Microsoft’s HoloLens. Autodesk stated that digital models using software such as Autodesk Maya or Fusion 360 could then be viewable in the mixed-reality environment enabled by Microsoft’s HoloLens. In discussing collaboration with Armstrong White, a graphic design and 3D animation studio, Vice President of Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions Robert “Buzz” Kross explained, "At Autodesk, our goal is to redefine design with state-of-the-art 2D and 3D technologies.” He went on to say, “By using Autodesk Showcase to leverage their data in a model-based environment, Armstrong White is able to take advantage of superior animation, visualization and simulation functionality—and ultimately provide a higher level of service to their customers.”

Bentley Systems

Bentley Systems has developed a prototype app for visualizing subsurface utilities in their real-world context, or as they call it, enhanced virtual excavation. The app includes a slicing tool to allow measurement of distances between pipes. If existing 3D data of the pipes are not available in a current BIM model, pipes can be detected using ground-penetrating radar and then converted into 3D data that can be used in the augmented views. Bentley continues to move forward with augmented reality exploration, including how to address the problem of getting accurate positioning in the real world for augmented reality. Stephane Cote of Bentley Systems went as far as saying, “One day, we may see all construction workers equipped with high-end smartphones integrated into their clothes, with wireless display on their digital contact lenses, following detailed visual and verbal instructions from a construction app that is carefully coordinating the work of all the workers on the site.”


Vectorworks users can use the third-party plug-in AR-media to visualize their projects with augmented reality, allowing them to study and analyze full-scaled virtual 3D models in a real-world environment. They can also communicate these designs to clients as standalone files that can be viewed in the free AR-media player, which means the client doesn't have to have their own seat of Vectorworks just to view the information. AR-media, available on both iOS and Android platforms, works with Vectorworks version 2012 and newer and requires a personal computer, smartphone or tablet with a webcam and a printed code attached to the software. It is also compatible with a wide range of head-mounted displays, including eMagin and iGlasses.


Trimble SketchUp users can also take advantage of the AR-media plug-in in conjunction with the Microsoft HoloLens to experience and utilize augmented reality. Using the HoloLens allows them to visualize their 3D SketchUp models in the actual real physical environment they are meant to be in when finished. 3D scanning technology can be used to capture existing site data, including topography, vegetation, light conditions, etc. That data can then be brought into SketchUp and combined or augmented with your proposed SketchUp design. This not only allows you to more effectively communicate your 3D projects, but also gives you the ability to study and analyze “to scale” models of your designs in their real-world environments. "Trimble has a mission to deliver solutions that transform the user experience and work processes in many industries," explained Bryn Fosburgh, vice president responsible for Trimble's construction technology divisions. "We believe that HoloLens is a game-changer for design and construction teams by facilitating improved communication and enhanced transparency. We’re excited to partner with Microsoft in creating what could be a new era for technology in the AEC [architecture, engineering and construction] market." There is also a myriad of other third-party applications that allow you to incorporate augmented reality into your projects and processes. A few examples I found interesting include:

Smart Reality: Smart Reality from JBKnowledge is an application that utilizes a mobile device’s camera aimed at a printed “target” to overlay the 3D data, which allows for interactive project visualization. It’s available for iOS, Android, Oculus Rift and Epson Moverio BT-200 smartglasses.

Augment: The Augment app includes galleries of public 3D models and data and allows you to use your own. Another example of how augmented reality can be used is in marketing. Instead of relying on 2D plan views of projects in your brochures, Augment allows you to bring them to life. Your marketing prospects just needs to scan your 2D image with the free Augment app to view your project in augmented reality.

Pair: Andrew Kemendo, founder of Visidraft, now known as Pair, explained that once you augment your virtual objects into their real-world environments, “we understand the distances and how they relate to that environment. That way you can actually walk around physically with your device and see how they change, just like if they were already built.” Pair is an iOS app that allows you to virtually walk through your models.

LORAR+: The LORAR+ application from the Australian engineering firm Laing O’Rourke allows you to interact with 3D models, animations, holograms and virtual environments in real time. The LORAR+ app is available to download on both iOS and Android devices.

ViewAR: The team at ViewAR can custom build augmented reality applications for you. They can even help you build your 3D model library. The applications can include many different features, such as walkthroughs of designs prior to construction, the ability to show large exterior renovations and remodels as well as the ability to preview furniture floor/wall finishings.


In addition to design and presentation advantages, augmented reality has its place in the construction side of things as well. QR codes or markers can be used on construction projects that when scanned, provide access to current 3D BIM models as well as other project information including change orders. Augmented reality can allow a contractor to walk through a construction site while viewing an augmented overlay of a BIM model on top of as-built construction for comparison. The contractor can even take pictures or video for review by the project team. It would also give the team the ability to see unbuilt structures like underground pipes, cables or ducts, as they will appear as the project progresses. BIMevoke: BIMevoke is a 3D design and BIM consulting firm. They offer a free augmented reality app and can even help get your existing information into 3D data to use with the app. The BIMevoke website describes myriad uses for the app, such as: Engineers making onsite repairs to pumps can see superimposed 3D imagery using their smart device. The procedure might highlight an image of the tool that they need. The app can illustrate the exact motion the engineer needs to undertake to perform the task at hand. The augmented reality system can label all the important parts. Complex procedural repairs can be broken down into a series of simple steps. Simulations can be used to train technicians that can significantly reduce training expenses.

Scribble Digital: Scribble Digital is a mobile app development company that also has apps for property leasing, asset management, architecture, planning and construction. Uses for the app include the ability to show 3D buildings in their correct locations on 2D-printed maps. Buildings can be viewed, zoomed into and rotated 360°. Local surrounding geometry can be switched on and off.

SightSpace Pro: SightSpace Pro from Limitless Computing is an augmented reality app that allows you to blend your virtual designs in real-life environments and gives you the ability to do walkthroughs. It is meant to integrate with every phase of your project, including concept development, design, preconstruction planning, construction and on-going maintenance. SightSpace Pro is available for download at the App Store and Google Play and can be used with .DWG, .DXF, .DGN, .SKP, .KMZ, .KML and .DAE file formats.


Augmented reality has shown proven benefits for the architectural, BIM and construction industries. New uses for the technology are still being developed, and the technology is becoming more far-reaching and easier to acquire in terms of required hardware, software and associated cost. As companies continue to look for new and promising ways to streamline processes while continuing to add value and improve on the bottom line, augmented reality seems to be a technology that will only become more and more of a common term.

Inherently, however, there are still some challenges in using AR. Challenges such as the potential for out-of-date or incorrect model information, as well as the issue of being able to ensure accurate positioning that might be affected by week signals due to weather or obstacles such as a building, a structure or terrain.

The companies that learn to embrace the technology as it continues to grow while working to overcome those challenges will be far ahead of the game when it comes to capitalizing on 3D data and how it fits into the real world.

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