In advance of WDBE 2021, we sat down to talk with Rune Huse Karlstad, the Business Developer for AEC, Oil and Gas with Varjo Technologies. Our discussion focused on the current state of VR/AR technology, the practical role it plays in securing quality client feedback, and the importance of implementing the new in the modern built environment.
Rune, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Could you just tell our readers a little bit about your career to date and what projects you and your team are currently working on?
Of course – today, I’m working at Varjo Technologies. But before that, I had ten years of experience in the AEC industry after starting as a skilled worker in concrete and reinforcement. After a couple of years working outside in the rain, I went to BIM technical school here in Norway. I had a couple of years in Ramboll as a BIM Technician for the structural department before joining AF Gruppen where I worked as a BIM Manager, doing and managing implementations on a couple of cool projects before joining D10. That was recently bought by Varjo, and I work for the VR start-up company based in Oslo here in Norway. Over the last year, we’ve been working with new and potential clients on how best to implement and use virtual and augmented reality in their companies.
This year’s theme is Urban Super sensing. Does that play a role in your daily work?
When it comes to the sensoring part, we develop and create our own VR headsets. This includes sensors that let us undertake physical scans around us but also different types of sensors for motion tracking, hand tracking, facial recognition, eye tracking, and more to enable good collaboration.
Given your background in BIM and current work with VR, can you tell us how both are used in your daily work?
Or course – I’ve been working with BIM tools for almost eight years now at various levels. I’d say the last two, two-and-a-half years have seen significant growth in understanding what can be released. I think people once thought it was ‘just 3D’ and didn’t understand what the tool and processes is about. For us, it’s fun now to see people put more effort into planning, implementation, and processes, and not just looking at the tools. It’s about getting humans involved, and it’s actually helping us get a good grasp in the processes, especially in Northern Europe, thanks to the capacity for open and remote collaboration.
Has tackling UX and UI issues helped improve adoption? Are there any common obstacles that you face?
Absolutely. If we look at VR AR – it’s still quite a new technology for many people. It’s not like the everyday Joe would use it as it is for now. But if we look into the new generations coming to market across the next few years, it’s becoming easier and easier to use. I think that’s a result of the systems being easy to use as the hardware, but also as the technology itself gets more mature. It’s easier for people to get the hang of it. Take, for example, some of the clients and customers we have at Dimension10. We may be putting a VR headset on someone’s face that’s never held a PlayStation controller in your hand. It’s pretty terrifying for a few people to have something virtual in front of their eyes and something completely different in their hands. Sometimes you can see them take to it quickly, and others may just stop in their tracks [laughs]. So what we discovered early on in the development of Dimension10 was that having an interface menu and UX similar to what humans are used to was essential. That means having a tablet or menu is that enables a touch functionality so you can actually use your fingers to control it, and that makes it significantly easier for ordinary people to use instead of having all these buttons on the controllers to click around on.
Do you feel there are any significant benefits to adding VR/AR functionality to BIM?
I think people underestimate the potential of actually experiencing your models in 3D. Look at how things are done today – it’s 3D models on a 2D plane, just a computer screen. That can make it hard to understand the design layout fully and for clients to engage with. It’s often difficult for them to relate that to a drawing or understand the space they’re given when starting to work on a project. Using 3D models and virtual reality allows us to experience the models one-to-one scale as they would if the building were finished. It’s a hugebenefit, especially when it comes to the time it takes for everyone to understand the basics and get feedback. People can lose days looking at paper drawings and not fully grasp what you’re building or what you’re getting—but being inside VR? It’s much more efficient.
Could you give us an example of how this feedback process works for you?
Sure. So, I’ll use as an example of one of our clients. They were carrying out refurbishments on one of the public schools here in Norway. On an earlier project with them, they were regularly bringing people in to look over renderings, pictures, photos, materials, stuff like that. They would usually get perhaps one or two comments from the building owners or the users of the building. But when we set up a VR station for everyone to come in and look at their site, we got at least 10 – 15 quality comments from each individual. It’s fun for them to see, but it also helps them meaningfully understand. That brings a lot more questions, and that’s a good thing because it enhances the design. You can bring experts on site together with you in an XR environment that would be much more efficient and productive than a normal call, for example. While it’s hard to tell, I think the technology gives us a completely different way to look at information and to display it in our professional and everyday lives.
Did the disruption around Covid highlight any current challenges to you, or did your teams gather any learning from the process?
At the time, we thought that we had one of the solutions in the marketplace that would help the AEC industry – particularly when it came to collaboration and especially in a work-from-home scenario as we had. But what we saw was that people were still trying to learn how to use the basic technologies. That’s platforms like Microsoft Teams, Share Point, all the basics. It was just a bit too big of a step for many people looking to get into VR. There was also the practical problem of the hardware needed to run VR meetings. It’s possible to run Microsoft Teams on quite a small laptop. But running high-end VR meetings requires a higher-end computer and VR glasses to set up. There’s just not that many people that are that deep into the technology, never mind connecting the required cables, sensors, and stuff like that for themselves. Also, budgets got tight over the period because of fears about the damages COVID could bring to their earnings and practice.
Is this kind of technical integration a concern for you and your teams? Are there issues that you find when it comes to managing workflows, or are there challenges that you can see on the horizon?
A common challenge we meet is when we try to use a new tool, but you’re trying to fit it into an old process. Most often, people just try to force it in and then tend to underestimate how huge an impact a lack of care has on the workflow. As far as future challenges go, it’s always tough to predict, but I think what we see as AR, VR, MR today – it will sometime in the future get better mixed together. That’s going to be very interesting.
Finally, could you just tell us a little bit about what you’re planning to cover for your talk for WDB 2021?
Of course – I’m going to be sharing some of my experiences coming from AF Gruppen, the general contractor where I implemented VR as a tool in an infrastructure project. And alongside with that, I wrote a VDC certification for Stanford University, where I researched the benefits VR could bring to the project and how that brought benefits and impacted earnings. Then I will also talk a little bit about how VR collaboration enables much greater collaboration and what type of features the Varjo reality cloud will bring in the future.