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To CAVE or not to CAVE?

Building and Construction Authority [BCA] defines Virtual Design and Construction [VDC] as ‘the management of BIM models as well as people and processes in order to achieve explicit project or organisational goals and to improve performance’ [BCA, VDC Guide, Version 1.0 – Oct 2017, p.10].

We all know BIM is not VDC, but serves as a tool to facilitate the activities to execute VDC. It can be segregated into two components, Virtual Construction and Virtual Design. Virtual Construction is pretty straightforward, it is basically rehearsing the construction sequence through virtual simulation. Virtual Design on other hand is to build the model virtually with design intent and if the design stages [Schematic Design or Design development stages] permits – a virtual walkthrough is conducted with the model, with a simulated experience. This simulation sometimes aid design reviews, technical coordination and collaboration.

The Collaboration Hub at Surbana Jurong Consultants Pte Ltd was recently established to facilitate Integrated Digital Delivery [IDD] and VDC. My colleague Dr Choo Thian Siong and I were very fortunate to be invited for a tour. Mr Chandra Hampiholi, Principal BIM manager [SJ], explained that the Hub was established to facilitate Virtual Reality [VR], Augmented Reality [AR] and Mixed Reality [MR] in their Design and Collaboration workflow. Mr. Dean Ng [in charge of the Hub, SJ] explained the Hub has two capabilities, one of which is the iVRS-CAVE System – Cave Automatic Virtual Environment [C.A.V.E] and the other an HTC Vive Virtual Reality System. Both systems are almost similar, whilst the VR system requires users to don on the headset, the CAVE System only requires users to wear a pair of VR glasses. Whilst the CAVE System wearables are more light-weight than the VR system, the iVRS setup is more ‘heavy-weight’.

CAVE systems is a proprietor system and it is by Visbox, Inc. The CAVE system is a projection-based VR display, where 'it is projected onto between three to six walls of a room sized cube.' [Visbox, Inc, 2018] Visbox, Inc has six products under the CAVE systems and from our visit, SJ system is probably the VisCube M4. Mr Tee Jia Hen, Co-Founder, CEO of VRcollab explained that the CAVE systems works with a VR software, VRcollab. The demonstration illustrate a Model built in Revit and with the VRcollab Plugin, the model is converted into a VRcollab model, which is then projected via the Cave systems.

Dean explained SJ BIM VR workflow converts the design model from the BIM Software into a VRcollab model. The converted output can be in two format one of which is the Lite version, where the model is viewed via a Vive headset or the Studio version, which is viewed via the CAVE systems. 'VRcollab STUDIO is a software product specially created for CAVE systems, that allow for Architecture and Construction professionals to view thier BIM models using 3D glasses and further interact with it via VDC centric software features.' [VRcollab, 2018]. Multiple users from different locations can view the same VRcollab model in real time. Feedbacks and comments are recorded automatically during technical coordination, in which are then consolidated and generated as a report, in HTML, PDF, Excel Sheets format or BIM Collaboration Format [BCF]. Dean further explained whilst the upfront costs are costly, the ROI outweighs the upfront costs, because through the immersive VR environment, stakeholders can anticipate issues such as headroom or maintenance issues during the walkthroughs. If these issues were built, rectifying them on site will cost even more when the issues are discovered.

However, if your organisation cannot afford to dish out 100k for a CAVE System, there is the Lite version, where an upfront cost will set you back with a min. 20k, but with a caveat of yearly USD 2.2k subscription of the VRcollab Lite version. Why 20k, well this cost takes into account of the Gamer Laptop [Aftershock, P870TM_M1, NVIDIA Geforce GTX 1080 gaphics card], projector or monitor screen/ tv and the Lite version setups.

The Lite Version was demonstrated with a train station model, we tried using the ‘nunchucks’ [handheld controllers], to annotate, make measurements, select the components to display their properties, and did some walkthroughs both in the station and in the plenum space. In the plenum space, we could view M&E ducts and the strange feeling one had is when I view out of the plenum space, I naturally ducked my head, afraid that I might bump my head into the slab soffit and ceiling. It felt quite surreal, when VR can be that immersive and real in this instance.

From a Project Manager perspective, the VR setup at the Hub, is almost like the holy grail for tech coordination. The Hub’s benefits can be concluded into three aspects, one, Collaboration is in real time and regardless where everyone is at to coordinate. Two, comments on issues are annotated in real time and recorded automatically, thus eliminating the risks of missing minutes or misconstrued comments. Third, the immersive environment can pre-empt any unforeseen situations in the designed model. Fourth, the VR walkthrough let users experience the actual built environment in a simulation [or in a safe environment], where 'natural interaction can occur on a 1:1 human scale'. [Visbox, Inc, 2018]

Progressively, we will experience more VR proliferation in our BE industry and hopefully, the technology could become less costly for an industry grade product [or not], such as the Lite or CAVE Studio version. It is already readily available for consumers, the question now is how ready are professionals to let clients experience VR, as immersion can result in more comments on the design thus resulting in more design changes. However, pre-emptive strikes on unforeseen issues could help save time in changes thus nullifying the effects caused by design changes. Regardless of what the future holds, as a BIM Tool, we should consider them as a form of tool that helps better our workflow.

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