Microsoft explores new uses for HoloLens and mixed reality in the construction industry

In November, Microsoft announced the launch of Trimble's SketchUp Viewer for its HoloLens headset, bringing holographic mixed reality tools to professionals in the architecture, engineering, construction and operations (AECO) industries. While SketchUp has provided tools for those professionals to design in 3D for some time, the new Viewer software brings those designs to life in the real world, as 3D models that can be easily manipulated and explored in detail.

Since then, Microsoft has continued its collaboration with Trimble, as well as working with the Construction Information Technology Lab at the world-renowned University of Cambridge, to explore new ways of applying mixed reality technology in AECO industries. Today, it announced details of two new trials that it hopes will deliver new efficiencies and greater productivity.

An essential function of AECO industries is maintenance, but even the process of carrying out detailed inspections of structures can be a lengthy and labor-intensive one - and one that can also be subject to human error. The new Automated Progress Monitoring trial aims to address these problems:

The process is currently conducted through visual inspections, form filling and report writing, and is made particularly painstaking by the need to extract information from different drawings and databases. The new trial revolutionises the process by presenting all physical and digital information through HoloLens, allowing inspectors to check, cross-reference and report on inspections very quickly, and collaborate with site representatives.

The second trial focuses on a similarly important area of the engineering industry: Automated Bridge Damage Detection.

Rather than sending structural engineers to each bridge as part of its inspection routine, through discoveries generated via the collaboration, high-resolution images can be taken by local teams and sent to inspection engineers. These are then automatically mapped onto 3D models of the respective bridge.

Structural engineers can then review the integrity of a bridge in mixed reality using HoloLens, making recommendations for repairs or other preventative measures. This reduces costs and is more efficient, making sure bridges do not enter their ‘failure zone’, leading to major road closures and disruption.

These are early days in the exploration of how HoloLens and similar mixed reality technologies might be used to transform the way that industries such as AECO work. Microsoft has been working closely with several key partners in other major market sectors too, including the elevator industry, which alone is worth around $44 billion a year worldwide.

HoloLens has also been put to use by Japan Airlines, to consider ways of improving its fleet engineering processes; Swedish automotive giant Volvo, to explore new ways to enhance the experience of buying a car; and even NASA, in developing its new Mars rover, and using the headset aboard the International Space Station. There has even been interest in HoloLens in the defense sector.

Microsoft said that its trials with Trimble and the University of Cambridge, are "set to bring productivity and sustainability gains for the [construction] sector across the world," although there is clearly much work to do before mixed reality usage becomes commonplace across AECO, or indeed in other industries.

Trimble's Aviad Almagor said that it had been "a fascinating experience to partner with the university and Microsoft, using HoloLens to envision the future of the AECO industry", adding:

This initiative has helped us to inform the next frontier of technology within the sector - especially in areas such as construction, where IT has traditionally been underutilised. At Trimble, we’re excited about the potential mixed reality has to transform this industry, and partnering with Cambridge and Microsoft is just the beginning.”

You can find out more about what it's like to use the mixed reality headset in our feature article, Microsoft HoloLens: The future starts here.

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