Technology

Balfour Beatty aand VR experts create H&S simulator

21 October 2014 | By Elaine Knutt

A group of Balfour Beatty US employees has teamed up with programmers from US company IrisVR to find a new use for the “Oculus Rift” virtual reality headset – as a site simulator that can teach workers what is and isn’t safe behaviour.

For a construction newcomer, donning the Oculus Rift headset would be analagous to a trainee pilot practising landing aircraft while remaining no more than three metres above the ground. 

The idea took first prize in the “Unreal Challenge” section of the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Hackathon, which was held at Seattle’s University of Washington over a long weekend in September.

The aim of the app is to adapt SketchUp 3D modelling to turn site safety training into a virtual reality game. The app assesses how safely the gamer behaves and how well they understand safety concepts, then gives them a score at the end of the game.

Although the Oculus Rift head-mounted display won’t go on sale until April next year, it has created a huge amount of interest in the past year. It gained celebrity when Facebook bought the company that makes it for $2bn in July.

The AEC Hackathon brought together more than 100 delegates from the worlds of construction, computer gaming, virtual reality simulation, business software and mixed them with a scattering of academics and entrepreneurs.

The aim of the event wasn’t to break into anybody’s intranet and steal their data, but rather to work out if the way the computer industry creates virtual worlds in games can inform the way software designers create virtual worlds in building information models.

Jason Reece, senior process manager in technology solutions group at Balfour Beatty USA, paid tribute to the help the construction teams received from the software professionals. He said: “A key for the people from the construction industry was working with the software engineers. This enabled the teams to create a solution that would otherwise take years to develop.” 

Other discussions at the event centred on 3D printing, the way laser scanning can help to capture the information for BIM, and how the internet of things is going to change residential design.

Alongside the Unreal Challenge, there was a competition between nine teams to see which could come up with the best digital innovation to improve productivity. A team from Balfour Beatty USA took the top prize here as well, with some help from software engineers from Microsoft (Seattle being that company’s home town).

Balfour’s idea was to adapt the production reporting system developed by software house Newforma to allow it to track more accurately how man hours are spent on a building project.

The particular contribution of the “hackathon” team was to work out how to fit the software more accurately to the reality of a building site; it also transmits information directly from the field and creates a paperless document management system that allows for centralised data storage.

The Seattle hackathon was the third of its kind. The other two were held last at Facebook’s campus at Menlo Park, California, in November 2013 and in March this year. The AEC Hackathon team are hoping to stage the next one in Rio de Janeiro next year.