Virtual Reality is proving helpful in pre-construction, clash detection and training.
Virtual reality (VR) was once the symbol of a technologically advanced future that granted users the ability to transport to different worlds, augment their own reality, and develop endless applications in any field imaginable. It appears that advanced future has now become the present as VR has arrived on the scene and quickly captivated a worldwide audience.
Per Statista, “the VR industry is growing at a fast pace with revenues from virtual reality products — both hardware and software — projected to increase from $90 million in 2014 to $5.2 billion in 2018. The number of active VR users is forecast to reach 171 million by 2018. According to recent forecasts, revenue from virtual reality head-mounted displays is expected to grow from $685 million in 2015 to $3.89 billion in 2018.”
Several companies have already introduced VR technology. Sony’s Playstation VR, the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and Samsung Gear VR are some of the biggest players in this burgeoning marketplace.
Virtual reality has demonstrated many uses throughout multiple venues, some of which have piqued the interest of HVACR contractors.
At the 2017 AHR Expo in Las Vegas, several manufacturers showed off VR capabilities in their booths and explained how the technology is now being used for product demonstrations, sales calls, training opportunities, and more.
“Virtual reality is increasing its role in the HVAC industry,” said Amanda Comunale, director of construction piping services, Victaulic Co. “In preconstruction, it’s allowing project teams to visualize the job site in new ways. Technology, such as the HTC lens, gives project teams the ability to visualize clash detection in ways not currently possible in Navisworks. Contractors can fully immerse themselves in the model and truly walk a job site to spot issues and clashes. This technology also gives project managers and field foremen the ability to interact with the model the same way the drawing group is able to in the office.”
Jenny Sivie, director of advanced business development, Titus, said VR has been around for a while, mostly in gaming, but it’s just now starting to go mainstream to where people are considering other VR applications.
“Using VR for training [in HVAC] is one of the first applications,” said Sivie. “But training is just the beginning. Engineers, contractors, and architects can use VR to see and feel how a space or system will look or to virtually walk the owner through a building design. VR isn’t without some challenges though. While VR will always be a cheaper and faster way to model and evaluate a building than actually constructing it, it’s still relatively expensive. As costs come down, VR could become more common in the HVAC industry.”
Brown Technical Media Corp., a division of Panther Biotechnology, in partnership with The Center of Air Conditioning and Heating, is introducing virtual reality environment (VRE)-based training into technical skill trades. Brown leaders believe this type of training may prove to have as big an impact in these fields that it now has in the medical, health care, science, and engineering professions.
“Portable e-learning-based VREs can reach out to a larger trainee population in a cost-effective manner while providing new learning experiences that are far more price-competitive to deliver,” stated Noah Davis, president and COO of Panther, per a company release. “Students who struggle to pass their respective state level exams to become licensed techs will find VREs attractive learning assistance tools, given their rich, interactive environments. Brown will continue to upgrade the vocational training vertical with proven technology for their intended applications.”
For contractors, VR may not immediately jump to mind as something that can enhance their bottom lines or respective businesses, but Comunale said the technology provides the tools necessary to fully visualize a model and see clashes that may have caused unforeseen issues in the field.
“By identifying these clashes upfront, contractors can eliminate the risk of on-site issues that are costly and time-consuming to fix in the field,” she said. “Giving contractors the ability to truly visualize and walk their projects allows them to see what used to be a computer model, only in new ways. This, coupled with the ability to make their routing changes quickly, speeds up the preconstruction process and gets teams on the job faster with fewer errors in the field.”
While Matt Mauzy, president, Mauzy Heating, Air & Solar, San Diego, had heard the term “virtual reality” before his company started using it, he had no idea that it had progressed nearly as far as it has. The company now uses VR viewers on sales calls with customers, which allows them to try out the technology and view the company’s warehouse, offices, and more.
“We are always trying to improve our sales process,” said Mauzy. “When we get in customers’ homes, we wear booties with our company name on them and put down a company logo doormat over the customer’s doormat to put our booties on, so we’re always trying to stay out front and on the cutting edge. I am always trying to show customers exactly what our company is about and what made VR attractive to me is it allows me to show them our supply rooms, our offices, and our staff and give them a chance to appreciate what we’re about.”
FUN FOR ALL AGES
Virtual reality, at least on its surface, may seem like something only for a younger generation willing to quickly adapt to new technology, especially at the technician level.
A study from YouVisit found that 18 percent of 18- to 24-year-old respondents reported they’ve already trialed VR technologies while 46 percent said they’re eager to try them out.
“It has gotten harder to get a couple of days of an engineer’s or contractor’s time to do our full on-site training, so they like being able to do the training at their pace and in locations that are most convenient for them,” said Sivie. “Additionally, the younger generation grew up with easy access to learning videos, thanks to YouTube, so the idea of sitting in a classroom setting for a couple of days isn’t that appealing.”
Comunale highlighted that the younger generation is used to utilizing VR technology for gaming, so they innately see its value.
“For older generations, it’s a ‘see it to believe it’ technology,” she said. “Once they see the virtual representation of their project and embed themselves in the model, they understand the differences between a VR model and a flat 3-D computer model.”
The study from YouVisit also found that one in seven Americans aged 65 and over wants to try virtual reality, so it’s certainly a market with potential to cross generational boundaries.
“The younger generation will definitely ‘get it’ right away,” said Sivie. “We have been testing the technology in the office during development, and all ages are amazed when they put the headset on and look around the virtual space. I think the older generation will realize that VR is the next best thing to being on-site and hands-on for training.”
Mauzy said that while younger consumers are definitely eager to use VR, he has already interacted with a number of older customers who are willing to try out and enjoy the benefits of VR, as well.
“I thought maybe some of our older customers — those 55 and older — wouldn’t embrace it as much, but, believe it or not, they actually embraced it even more because they’re so blown away by it,” he said. “Most of these people have email accounts and smartphones, so they kind of see how exciting technology can be. All ages have truly embraced it. There are people with real dry personalities who have little to no technology in their homes and still don’t have an email account who won’t embrace it, but that is a very small percentage.”
AUGMENTED REALITY AND BEYOND
Alongside virtual reality, the concept of augmented reality (AR) is also coming onto the scene in numerous applications and has potential in HVAC.
AR takes a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound, video, graphics, or GPS data.
Comunale said AR is becoming more popular in HVAC settings.
“With AR, contractors and engineers can create a virtual representation of a piping system within a physical building or project,” she said. “Imagine standing in an empty room and placing virtual components on a tablet screen to fit the room you are standing in. Without the screen, the room looks empty, but looking through the lens of the tablet, you can truly see how your mechanical room will fit together. You can then take a screenshot of the room and load the exact components into your model.”
Sivie said AR is also going to be big — maybe bigger than VR — in the future because it will have many of the same applications but is more of a group experience, whereas VR is an individual experience because it requires a headset.
Whether AR or VR ends up being the more popular option as the market defines itself, both Comunale and Sivie see their usage growing greatly in the coming years, especially as costs come down.
“VR and AR will become much more mainstream in HVAC in the future,” said Sivie. “The biggest challenge to seeing it on every job site or for every product or system training right now is the cost to create the virtual environment. I think AR will takeoff first because AR doesn’t need to have a virtual environment to work; however, as development and hardware costs come down in price, we’ll see more VR, as well.”
“As VR technology becomes less expensive, and the software behind the lens becomes more robust, we see it playing a much larger role in the industry,” said Comunale. “VR lens technology and AR programs require limited implementation time, and users see value in a single use. The barrier to entry on some of this technology is the cost. In the coming years, we see the cost decreasing, which would allow companies of all sizes to begin utilizing virtual reality in the construction process.”
Mauzy agreed that VR is only going to grow in popularity in the coming years and said his company is already thinking of new ways to utilize it.
“We are already thinking of taking the app and having different versions of it,” he said. “We would love to have a virtual reality timelapse and take customers not only into our facility or a home, but show them a full installation of a system in two minutes. We’re thinking of ways to continue to use this technology to move forward.”