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A new virtual reality product may be the key to addressing Canada’s skilled-labour shortage

By Jim Timlick

 

One of the challenges facing the Canadian construction industry is the need to attract new workers. In fact, some estimates predict the sector will require more than 300,000 additional skilled workers over the next decade to keep pace with current labour demands.

A British-based technology company has created a new product that could help address that need. In 2019, Luminous Group, located in Newcastle in northern England, began developing a one-of-a-kind virtual reality (VR) application for the construction and ground engineering industries. The system has been commercially available for a little over a year and allows users to enter a fully immersive 3D environment where they can witness first-hand everything from simulated slope stabilization work to driving piles. It is already being used by several companies in the United Kingdom, the Middle East and the United States, and its developer is hoping to tap into the Canadian market in the near future.

Luminous managing director Ben Bennett says one of the major benefits of the system is its ability to help construction companies engage with a younger, tech-savvy workforce.

“You can really get them excited and immersed in what they are doing using this platform,” Bennett said via telephone from England. “What we find is that a lot of clients come to use the system for training initially, but then they repurpose it for trade shows and will use it at recruitment fairs because it really brings people in with this new technology.”

Luminous was originally founded in 2004, by Bennett’s father, Peter, as Digital Surveys Ltd., and was focused mostly on creating digital versions of complex environments such as heritage sites, oil rigs and caves that could then be turned into 3D models. The company was rebranded in 2016 as it began to look at ways that VR technology could be used to provide clients with additional value for the 3D content that was already being created for them.

In 2018, the software studio teamed up with another British firm, Aarsleff Ground Engineering, to develop a VR application that would allow that company’s clients to virtually visit their construction site through VR rooms known as ‘vrooms.’ The application was built on top of the Unity game engine, which has been adopted for enterprise use by a number of industries outside of video games including film, automotive and engineering. The only hardware users require is a VR headset, which can either be tethered to a high-end gaming PC or operate in a self-contained fashion such as the popular Oculus Quest.

Once a 3D model of a construction site has been created, it is uploaded to a secure, cloud-based server where it can be accessed using a VR headset. The Luminous application is unique because users not only experience first-hand the engineering techniques that will be used above ground, but also below. That includes everything from driving sheet piles to soil nailing and grouting.

“One of the things that differentiates us from other development studios is that a lot of our clients want to recreate real-world environments,” Bennett said. “We’re not creating fictional environments. We’re building a virtual scenario based on a real-world location. In the piling (section of the) application, we’re able to show the users what actually happens under the ground and take them into the earth and see these processes and procedures going on under the ground that you couldn’t show them conventionally.”

To date, the Luminous system has been used in construction primarily to deliver training that would be too expensive or hazardous to provide in a real-world environment, says Bennett.

It offers a number of different modules including an orientation component for first-time users to familiarize themselves with it. There’s also a guided learning mode that walks users step by step through the process, a practice mode where they can practise what they’ve learned, as well as an assessment mode that enables companies to track the progress of employees.

“Because it’s very physical, it’s helping to build up that muscle memory. And then getting people to practise it and use their own initiative in the practice and assessment modes, it really reinforces the learning aspect,” Bennett said.

“We’re not looking to replace the way companies train their staff. It’s just about speeding up the whole process. You can train them on hazardous things and things you couldn’t do in the real-world and show them the consequences if they do something wrong and potentially what could happen.”

Another benefit of the system, Bennett says, is unlike other teaching tools, it provides a distraction-free environment.

“Once you’ve got the headset on, there are no distractions,” he said. “It’s not like a PowerPoint presentation where you can just go to sleep if you’re bored. You physically have to interact with this system.”

The first iteration of the application was very much a collaborative effort, with Aarsleff’s in-house engineers providing detailed information to Luminous’s design team to ensure each ground engineering technique was accurately reproduced in the virtual world. Aarsleff also engaged a number of leading machine and rig manufacturers, including Junttan, Klemm and Movax, to provide photos, 3D model drawings and datasheets to showcase their machines in the application. The application can be adapted to incorporate virtually any make or model of machine.

“If a company came to us with a different type of piling or a new way of doing things, we can adapt it and add that as a feature,” Bennett said.

Phil Watson, a 3D real-time developer for Luminous, says the system was designed to be extremely user friendly, regardless of whether or not a person has used VR technology before.

“We built-in the orientation procedure to get you used to the headset and get you used to interacting using the controllers to reach out and touch things and lift things,” he said. “Once you get up to speed with all of that, it’s actually a pretty quick process to get the hang of it. Within 20 minutes most people can navigate around it.”

Jessica Banham, group marketing and brand manager for Aarsleff, says her company was anxious to explore how VR technology could be used in the construction industry. One of the reasons for that interest, she says, was to find a different way to attract the attention of aspiring engineers and other younger workers.

“Construction work can often appear dull and dated,” she said. “We understand that to attract the talent our industry needs, we must work to change these outdated perceptions about what it means to work in construction. Success will hinge on the emergence of a fresh wave of talent who can collaborate across sectors and disciplines using new digital tools.”

The Luminous VR system has already reaped some substantial rewards in that regard for Aarsleff. The company experienced a huge uptake in students signing up for its mailing list after demonstrating the application at the 2019 Newcastle University Engineering, Science and Technology Fair. As well, more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 16 checked it out during a demonstration at the Lincolnshire Construction Week event.

Banham says the feedback Aarsleff has received from clients who have used the application has also been vastly positive. One client in particular was so impressed it signed up for more than $8.6 million worth of work following a demonstration.

“Utilizing VR in this way has provided some of our clients with a greater visual understanding of the products and services we carry out on site,” she said. “In addition, combining the VR with our continuing professional development seminars has increased our customers’ confidence in our products immensely, including their knowledge of sectional flight auger, sheet piling, soil nailing and drilling and grouting operations.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more people around the world have been forced to work from home. As a result, Bennett says Luminous has “definitely seen more interest” in its VR system since it allows people in multiple locations to meet in a virtual environment.

“We can deploy this in any location. That whole collaboration piece is a real bonus in the current climate,” he said.

The success of the Luminous VR application has prompted the company to begin investigating how it might be able to incorporate augmented reality or mixed reality technology into future versions of the system.

Although Luminous hasn’t yet begun marketing its VR technology in Canada, it’s very much a market the company is interested in.

“We’ve worked with some Canadian companies in the past on the 3D mapping side of things, so it would be great to get some more projects there,” Bennett said, adding there’s huge potential for growth in the enterprise VR market, which is expected to be worth more than $7 billion globally within the next three to four years.

 

 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.