How an augmented reality spacewalk on the rocky surface of Mars marked the start of an opportunity that helps our designers better understand our clients’ needs
When Stantec’s chief information officer Chris McDonald (Edmonton, Alberta) and a handful of our design visualization specialists were first asked to come to the Microsoft Research Lab in Redmond, Washington, in mid-2016 they didn’t know what to expect. They’d been told only that they’d be viewing a product under development.
After passing through several layers of security, they learned Microsoft was developing the world’s first self-contained, holographic computer: the HoloLens. And they got to test it out: walking on Mars, designing islands, fixing cars, and more—all in augmented reality (AR). The battery-powered device—which would run on Windows 10 and be completely free of cables and cords—was expected to revolutionize gaming, telecommunications, science, education, and more.
It would also be a game-changer for architecture and engineering.
“We were blown away by what we saw, but we knew a great piece of hardware alone couldn’t get great results,” says innovative technology developer Aubrey Tucker (Vancouver, British Columbia). “We’d need to get the right software, standards, and workflows in place to unlock the potential of the device for the benefit of our clients.”
The meeting with Microsoft concluded with an invitation to join NASA, Volvo, and Trimble as a corporate partner in the development of HoloLens. Stantec wasn’t ready to sign on at that level. But our Company soon invested funding from its Greenlight program to explore how we could embrace HoloLens and AR to support our service own offering.
Visualizing the future
Stantec already had a strong three-dimensional (3D) design capability. Building Information Modelling (BIM) and 3D design were becoming business-as-usual on a vast number of our projects. We were investing in technology, and bringing dedicated software developers on board to work alongside our designers. In the UK, we’d acquired a small architectural visualization and animation firm composed of employees who’d honed their own skills in the gaming industry. We’d even helped clients build computer-actuated virtual environments (CAVEs): rooms with projectors that allowed teams to do virtual reality (VR) walk-throughs of their facilities.
The promise of an untethered device like HoloLens meant our clients would be able to do those walk-throughs within their actual facilities, rather than in an empty room. It’d be a more rounded sensory experience, allowing them to walk around and see exactly how proposed designs meshed with existing conditions. The technology would move our firm’s offering—and the industry—from VR to AR.
“Suddenly, HoloLens meant our clients—instead of investing in a multi-million dollar CAVE—could reap the benefits of visualization for only a few thousand dollars,” says visualization technology manager Rael Romero (Denver, Colorado). “It meant they could have an authentic experience to spur informed dialogue in early design stages, when changes can still be made without costly repercussions.”
_q_tweetable: Suddenly, HoloLens meant our clients...could reap the benefits of visualization for only a few thousand dollars._q_
The hospital room of the future
The Stantec team used funding from Greenlight, a program that supports our employees’ good ideas, to purchase HoloLens headsets. These headsets were distributed across several offices in North America. Individuals were charged with exploring how they could use the devices for their clients, and with evaluating the applications available to see if they fit our project needs—or if we’d need to begin development of custom software.
One of our first HoloLens projects was an AR experience at a fundraising event in Calgary, Alberta. The event was critical to support the expansion of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Foothills Medical Center, which will have 60 NICU beds when complete. That’s where HoloLens came into the picture. Doctors, donors, and other attendees donned headsets to view a current NICU room alongside a room with improved, state-of-the-art equipment. That experience—which showed how necessary the proposed upgrades were—helped raise money to close the funding gap.
Here, Aubrey Tucker wears a HoloLens headset, demonstrating the look and the functionality of the technology.
From VR to AR
For those outside the technology industry, VR and AR may seem similar. But the distinction between the two is significant: VR takes place within a simulated environment, while AR (also known as mixed reality) brings digital assets into an existing physical space.
The science of AR has, in some ways, lagged that of VR, because the requirements are greater: development of an AR project requires spatial data, geospatial data, as-built data, and more. Luckily, much of that data is already contained in our designs created in programs such as AutoCAD, Civil 3D, 3ds Max, and Revit.
AMPing it up
While our Greenlight research and early projects continued in North America, our United Kingdom team was already implementing HoloLens for clients. They were using the devices to create models for a number of private water and wastewater utilities’ facilities as part of the industry’s asset management plans (AMPs) to create, maintain, upgrade, or replace infrastructure. Recently these efforts included a massive 60-metre (196.9-foot) by 20-metre (65.6-foot) by 8-metre (26.2-foot) model of the advanced energy recovery plant room at one of Europe’s largest sewage treatment works.
UK team members have described how our clients walk around the holographic models in the same way they’d walk around actual equipment. And how this, in turn, allows our teams to pick up on visual cues as clients bend their knees or crouch down a little around proposed pieces of machinery. This has helped take our design beyond specification-driven output, and into the areas of ergonomics and functional design to consider what a space will feel like. It’s also allowed our teams to speed the process of customer acceptance, data conversion, and model creation to save our clients time and money.
The future is in your pocket
The Stantec team members are now setting their sights on how the new generation HoloLens 2, expected in early 2019, will integrate into our projects, and expanding applications to serve clients in other industries and sectors. As new AR equipment enters the market, they’re also remaining open-minded. There are already AR applications appearing for use on smart phones, such as one from furniture retailer IKEA that allows you to scan your room and decide how furniture could fit in your space prior to purchase. At the moment, there’s some question as to whether the space-sensing of a smart phone, which is done by the camera, is accurate enough. Nobody knows what future developments may hold.
Could we all have an AR device capable of high-end holograms in our pockets one day? Possibly. Probably. Almost definitely.
“If a phone could achieve the results we needed, we’d use it,” Aubrey says. “We’re not focused on the technology—it’s not about having the latest gadget or gizmo—we’re focused on the outcomes. We want to get the best possible results for our clients.”
As we embrace today's AR gear, we know that tomorrow's is just around the corner. At Stantec, we design with technology in mind.
About Aubrey Tucker
Aubrey Tucker is the innovative technology developer for Stantec. He looks after Building Information Modeling (BIM), data visualization, advanced visualization, and computation across all disciplines. He also represents Stantec’s practice technology skillset in business development activities for major clients, provides education and strategy consulting, starts complex projects, and designs collaborative environments for interdisciplinary teams.
About this article
This article is part of an ongoing series focusing on the value Stantec’s Greenlight program brings to clients, communities, and employees. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests annually to fund employee ideas that benefit our clients, community, and Company. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which celebrates and encourages creativity and innovation at work and in our work. Check back soon for another story in our Greenlight series.