Putting the realistic into VR – Charles Dunk, AECOM, Interview

Technological innovation is one of engineering firm AECOM’s key focuses, and Charles Dunk is the man at the heart of the company’s impressive immersion technology services in the UAE and Oman. Dunk is a stalwart of the regional construction industry, having worked on the contractor side of the industry before transitioning to AECOM in 2013.

In his current role, Dunk helps AECOM Middle East develop immersive content for regional projects using a variety of technologies including virtualisation, augmentation and virtual reality. To do this, he relies on several carefully selected tools including Oculus Rift VR headsets, smart devices and touchscreens, as well as web and projection with head tracking for holographic interaction. Dunk is a self-confessed tech geek and an innovator, which is what brought him to AECOM in the first place.

“AECOM were early adopters of BIM in the Middle East, and I was recruited because of that. The person that recruited me remembered that I had once stuck a miniature laser scanner to my helmet on a building site. I walked around scanning the hospital project looking a little foolish and the memory stuck, and I was recruited in part because of that willingness to try new things,” Dunk says with a smile.

Having joined AECOM and working closely with the firm’s local BIM team, Dunk then ceased an opportunity to innovate whilst working on a theme park, which kick-started the consultancy’s VR drive. “About two years ago, I was working within the BIM team and the Oculus Rift was starting to be publicised. I took a risk and tried the technology on a theme park project and it took off. I took it to a project office where we had about 40 people, including the IP holder. Theming was very important for the project and even with very simple lighting and materials, it made a massive stir. Later, we found out the client was interested to hear that we were using VR to evaluate the project. It was primarily used to understand the space, and that was when I realised that this is genuinely useful. So I approached our leadership, saying: ‘Look, this is something that we should take on.’ And after a few conversations and a solid business plan, we kicked off about 18 months ago.”

Technology as a Differentiator

Since then, the firm has been taking advantage of VR technology to accomplish a number of objectives with clients and stakeholders. Dunk explains: “We use it for projects with large groups and stakeholders – it helps communicate with non-technical stakeholders and approvers. A big risk for many Middle East projects is keeping to the programme and getting approvals from statutory authorities without impacting the end date.”

“We use traditional ways of approaching stakeholders, but we sometimes also use innovative ways. An example would be for mega Dubai projects – using technology doesn’t guarantee approval, but we find that we get faster approvals or more informed decisions. Internally, we also use it for risk management of designs. Recently we used VR on a theme park project to understand the complicated 3D nature of a rollercoaster threading through an existing structure.”

It’s here that Dunk notes that while the firm also has an augmented reality offering, it has different use cases compared to virtual reality. “Augmented reality is more about the bigger scale, like master planning projects. Virtual reality tends to be for the building scale and we’re also using VR for driving simulations, which comes in handy on transportation projects.”

AECOM’s technology offering has been well received and the firm now sees three different levels of engagement from clients. “Some clients are asking for it as a contracted deliverable, so there’s clearly demand. Then there are other clients who want it but say ‘Can we bundle virtual reality with your existing service offering?’ So then we have to figure out how to make it work commercially. There are also clients that don’t ask for it but we offer VR or AR because we think it will improve the project and get better collaborator engagement. So there are three levels of engagement with clients.”

With regard to the amount of detail the company builds into its models, Dunk notes that beyond increasingly detailed VR visuals, AECOM is also able to offer acoustic modelling.

“The more senses you engage, the more immersive the experience. We have a specialist in Glasgow, an acoustics engineer, and he understands material properties for VR. If it’s an outside plaza, acoustic properties are less important, but if it’s for a new royal theatre for example, then yes, we would physically, visually and acoustically model the interior space. We’ve modelled an airport terminal with people moving around and as they get closer, you can hear their footsteps. At a more advanced level this is called binaural sound.”

The firm turned to acoustic modelling on the theme park project mentioned earlier, but Dunk notes that there is an element of guesswork on early models. “In that theme park project, we wanted to know if you could still have a conversation a few metres away from a rollercoaster while the ride was running. It’s sometimes guesswork because at the stage you’re modelling, you don’t always know acoustic properties. On the visual side of VR, we’re very well developed I think, but on the acoustic side there’s more to do.”

Going further still, the company explored adding odour to its models, but clients have yet to request this form of immersion. “We seriously considered olfactory boxes and offered it to a client, but they declined in the end. It was for a golf course; the user could play a round with their movements tracked with a Kinect sensor. Their marketing team suggested it to us. It’s a lot harder to control, but from our point of view it’s just a one or zero and the olfactory device just plugs into a computer. When an avatar in the virtual world goes to a certain location, a variable controls the device and releases a preset smell,” explains Dunk.

Progression of Technology

Looking ahead, usage AR and VR in the consumer and business sectors could change significantly. Dunk references the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as an indicator of things to come.

“Two years ago, everyone had VR. This year, it was only Sony that had a significant VR presence. I think it’s an indicator of what we’re going to see this year in the consumer space, but adoption will continue to grow at a more organic pace within the wider industry and specifically in construction. I think other manufacturing and fabrication industries will also adopt immersive technology. We will see continued adoption of digital visualisation and immersive technology, it will be used to understand projects, be it car building, aerospace or construction, but adoption will not be as fast as the consumer sector.

“On the consumer side, we’re reaching peak VR or we’re close to it, I think. Educating the public about the difference between AR and VR is going to be AR’s biggest challenge this year. I see AR picking up and VR becoming a niche but not going away. Also, I think we’ll see a blending of AR and VR technologies and not the two distinct versions we know now. Some people are starting to use the phrase XR to describe immersive technology.”

AECOM’s management team firmly believes that immersive technology helps to deliver better projects, which leads to satisfied clients and repeat business. As a result, the firm is committed to developing its immersion offering further.

Dunk explains: “Self-presence and tactile/haptic response are in the works. Both are technically challenging but we have tried prototypes. We experimented with presence in a train simulator where you could see your own hands. Tactile response needs physical interaction in the real world. There are gloves now available, and I’ve seen full body suits that vibrate for haptic feedback. The speed of vibration and low voltage electricity emulates the difference between a smooth surface and a rough one, but you can still push your hand through it. Right now, a visual cue works well, like putting your hand through a table. I saw a supplier doing this: you see your hand become skeletonised, so you realise your hand has passed through something.”

The consultancy is also working closely with certain hardware/software vendors. “We were early adopters of Trimble Microsoft HoloLens – we provided digital models and Trimble ported the data in such a way that it could be seen in the headsets. HoloLens started about 18 months ago and we then worked with Trimble to help influence the developers of HoloLens. We’ve also struck up a relationship with HTC which gives us early access to their hardware, their SDKs, and we’re on their VIVE X programme. This allows us to work with software like Unity or Unreal and be ahead of our competitors because we already know how to develop VR-ready content.”

The firm is blazing a trail for others within the construction industry and uses VR in multiple ways, including communication and to fill in gaps where BIM software falls short. “We have a standard VR suite set-up across the globe, which means we can offer VR to large multidisciplines and fast track projects. Globally disparate teams meet inside digital models and we always find something with VR that might have been missed in drawings or with traditional screens – I’ve had this happen time and again. This is particularly true with regards to voids – software is good at detecting clashes but gaps are hard to detect automatically. BIM software is very good at quantification and clash detection, but the software can’t always tell you if there’s meant to be a gap or not. VR is very good at detecting stuff like this; you walk around a space and you can see design errors. This is particularly useful when we are offering QA/QC services on somebody else’s design,” comments Dunk.

Considering that AECOM’s immersion technology can help deliver better quality projects, there is significant potential for the firm to be engaged purely from a QA/QC standpoint. In fact, the firm is engaged on such a project at the moment, but Dunk notes that there are challenges when competing with firms outside the construction industry.

“Right now, we’re running a virtual reality driving simulation, working with a transportation authority in the UAE to simulate what it’s like to drive on their new highways. We may not be designing that highway scheme, but they approached us and said: ‘We’d like to know what it’s like to drive on our new highway, we’re concerned about this area over there.’ When we get into that space, we’re then competing against non-construction companies or non-AEC companies. That’s challenging because they might have a whole visualisation department producing movies. We don’t have that facility immediately available – we can ramp up, but the margins become quite fierce.”

That said, AECOM will continue to develop its immersive technology and research shows that its clients recognise and value its commitment to innovation, especially as it results in better quality projects. Dunk concludes: “AECOM has always had technical skills and I think that’s what separates us from our competitors, as well as how we invest and develop these technical skills. A senior VP recently described us as the sizzle on the steak.”

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