Immersive technologies help us bridge reality and imagination

With technology becoming more affordable, what are the opportunities for immersive technologies – virtual, augmented and mixed reality – for engineering and construction? Andrew Zhao investigates.

When medieval cartographers reached the end of chartered waters, they would sketch in fearsome sea monsters and strange beasts as a clear warning to navigators. Here be dragons! The physical domain (the real world) and the cognitive domain (the known world) didn’t meet, so the map makers filled this gap with their colourful imaginations. 

Scientists and explorers have since completed their work. However, a new domain has emerged in recent decades, unleashing its own set of monsters. Digital. There is a new imagination gap, particularly in the field of engineering and construction. While the Internet of Things and the rise of digital twins are bridging the physical and digital domains, the gulf remains between the digital and the cognitive. And when you rely purely on imagination, you invite in risk and chaos. 

Immersive technology – a growing opportunity 

In most development and planning consultations, stakeholders are presented with a detailed drawing or a digital rendering of a building, asset or landscape. They are asked to interpret this data – and then imagine what it would feel like. Even with a complex digital twin, you can’t experience the building without a leap of imagination. 

The same is true in reverse. Feedback from stakeholders can be misinterpreted or overlooked if it isn’t successfully articulated. Community ownership (or rejection) of the scheme may ultimately depend on this two-way dialogue. 

Immersive technology completes the picture. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality applications allow stakeholders to envisage and interact with data. This means we can send information in the other, more difficult direction - from cognitive to digital. Immersive technologies can measure the way stakeholders respond naturally to virtual environments and situations, generating data about human behaviour that can be fed back into the design process. The result is a more responsive, user-centred design.

This technology is becoming increasingly mainstream. Last year, Walmart put 17,000 VR headsets in its stores to train over a million staff. Conservative estimates predict that the global immersive technology market will rise to US$80bn by 2025, of which US$5-US$15bn relates to the core engineering sectors.   

Using immersive tech in asset design

Fire engineering provides an opportunity for this technology to show its worth. Immersive technology allows fire safety engineers to set up worst-case scenarios for assets, allowing them to test the safety of their designs and adapt accordingly before construction. 

Likewise, imagination plays a big role in emergency response training. The expense of filling a sports stadium with actors to replicate a terror attack or fire is impractical. Immersive tech can give users a better sense of what happens when panic or confusion takes hold, providing emergency planners with a clearer sense of how to improve procedures. 

This technology will link up different aspects of our smart cities of tomorrow. Planners can gauge the flow of people in given circumstances, such as rush hour at a central train station, and design more accessible wayfinding for passengers with hearing or sight impairments.     

For all the rapid improvements in technology, we forget the human element at our peril. Immersive technologies put our ultimate customers at the heart of the design process, empowering engineers to make confident decisions for social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits. 

With immersive technology, there’s nowhere for the dragons to hide. 

Andrew Zhao is head of immersive at Mott MacDonald.