(Nov 13): A t the Harbourfront office of ID Architects, virtual reality head Gerard Teo is showing off the company’s “VR cave”: two huge screens and a 25 sq m space surrounded by warm orange spotlights. Slipping on a HTC Vive headset, Teo is transported to a virtual mock-up of Kallang Riverside — a 30-storey mixed-use condominium development designed by his company.
Within this environment, he can perform a range of tasks: measure the height of a wall, determine which angle a door should swing at and leave annotations for his colleagues. The system also allows multiple users to inspect the VR building simultaneously, similar to a multi-player computer game.
The key benefit for architects, Teo says, is getting a realistic sense of the building’s proportions and pre-empting design flaws before on-site construction. “It’s almost like you are in the building before it’s built. If you look down from one of the high floors, you can even feel a sense of vertigo.”
The software powering ID Architects’ cave was developed by VRCollab, a local start-up that provides VR solutions for architecture and construction companies. Besides ID Architects, the one-year-old start-up counts Sembcorp Architects & Engineers, LAUD Architects and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Academy among its early clients.
VRCollab was co-founded by computer science graduate Gong Yiwei, 23, and former software engineer Tee Jia Hen, 28. The duo met last year through the start-up accelerator Entrepreneur First, which has provided $25,000 in pre-seed funding to VRCollab. The start-up received a further $42,500 from SparkLabs Global Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and $50,000 from SGInnovate, which invests in deep-tech start-ups.
Gong says VRCollab’s multi-user interface takes inspiration from multi-player computer games. “I was planning to build a multi-player game using VR. I never thought that I would be doing VR in the construction industry,” he says. “But it has turned out to be very exciting.”
Tee says the building industry is an untapped “gold mine” for VR players. Traditionally, architects and contractors have relied on 2D drawings of building prototypes. Adjustments for clashes in design are generally done on-site, resulting in added costs for abortive works. “For people who are collaborating on a construction project, it’s more useful to move around in a 3D VR space. Then you get the exact viewpoint, and can communicate more easily. Through VRCollab, we are essentially trying to solve the communication problem in this industry,” Tee says. “We are quite lucky that we have one foot in already.”
Building industry goes virtual
As the building industry adopts new digital practices, VRCollab could see increased demand for its software. One trend that is catching on fast is Building Information Modelling (BIM), which involves simulating the construction of an entire project in 3D on a computer before any on-site work commences. This allows architects and contractors to better estimate the time frame and costs involved in a project.
VRCollab’s software can convert a 3D BIM layout into VR in under 10 minutes. The software is priced at an annual subscription fee of $3,000. It would take a VR artist about a month to manually construct a VR landscape based on a 3D model. Even then, such a model would be useful only for visualising the prototype. VRCollab’s software, on the other hand, allows users to inspect building elements and add annotations.
While BIM and VR technologies have been around for about a decade, their adoption in Singapore has gathered momentum only recently. “This could be attributed to the fact that Singapore’s construction sector is fragmented and dominated by small-scale firms that compete mainly for local contracts, which are decided predominantly by price,” says Mukund Sridhar, a partner at McKinsey & Co Singapore who leads the infrastructure practice in Southeast Asia. “As a result, these small firms have low profit margins and little incentive to invest in technology.”
In the past few years, however, the government has increasingly made technologies such as BIM a requirement among contractors bidding for public projects under the Government Land Sales scheme. This move has caused more industry players to explore the technology. Jin Sung, executive director of ID Architects, says: “We started using BIM in 2010 but, over time, we wanted to add more interactive elements to it that could give our collaborators a good sense of the building. Younger architects also find the work process more exciting with VR.”
Dean Freeman, research vice-president of Gartner, says adding VR to BIM is “a powerful tool” for builders to improve productivity. “VR brings great advantages to BIM. In the old days, you had building blueprints in 2D,” he says. “Now, with VR and BIM, I can put on a set of goggles and visualise what my building is going to look like and know what the dimensions are. I can virtually walk into rooms and know what it’s going to look like if I move a wall five feet back. So, there are a lot of creative, innovative things you can see [and do] with VR and 3D capabilities.”
Freeman says VR start-ups in the building industry have significant potential to grow, especially since many incumbents in this “old-school business” tend not to innovate, leaving market gaps for young and agile companies to fill. He adds, however, that it may take at least five years for technologies such as VR to catch on in the sector. “It’s like when the smartphone first came out: Younger people started to buy and use it, whereas some older people still used a Blackberry.”
McKinsey’s Sridhar echoes this sentiment: “Given the dominance of [small and medium-sized enterprises] in Singapore’s construction space and the domestic nature of their operations, investing in enterprise-level technologies and platforms has been a challenge.”
VRCollab’s co-founders Tee and Gong are undaunted. In fact, they take pride in being one of the few start-ups in the local construction space. Many VR entrepreneurs concentrate on the “sexier” industries, such as gaming and e-commerce, Tee says.
VRCollab has already set its sights on overseas expansion: It has secured a reseller in Brazil — engineering and infrastructure management firm Construtivo. It is also in talks with an architectural firm in Wuhan, China and with government officials in Andhra Pradesh, India. The latter relationship was facilitated by BCA and International Enterprise Singapore. Having a working relationship with government agencies could ease the process of entering these large Asian markets, Tee says. Closer to home, the company is looking to secure more clients in the Philippines. It is in talks with Visionary Architecture, a Filipino architecture firm, and ESCA, a civil engineering and construction management company.
Tee expects VRCollab to begin to face competition from other start-ups in the near future. The construction industry is standardised worldwide, using the same jargon and building methods everywhere, which makes it a highly scalable industry. “In other industries, you don’t get this flexibility. In aerodynamics or automotives, it’s impossible because every company has its own knowledge base and they don’t share it with each other. [On the other hand,] in the building industry, you can jump between countries and all the technology is the same,” he says.
To fund VRCollab’s growth, Tee and Gong are working towards securing a BCA grant by year-end and are in talks with investors from China and Singapore. With the funds raised, VRCollab aims to add to its product line-up as well as win over more clients.
The company is working on developing more construction solutions in the augmented reality sphere, which could include AR glasses that a construction worker would put on to find out the specifications of a particular wall, for instance. VRCollab also hopes to differentiate itself by ramping up its capabilities for long-distance collaboration. For instance, ID Architects has used VRCollab to enable collaborators in both Singapore and Japan to virtually enter the same VR prototype simultaneously. “We have not heard of other VR companies providing long-distance collaboration, so that’s one area in which we think we can stand out,” says Gong.
Teo and Gong aim to secure 60 clients by 2019 — comprising about 40 architecture firms and 20 construction and engineering companies. “As a start-up in Singapore, we are in the right place at the right time to work on these technologies. And we see a role for ourselves in this bigger narrative of technology shifts in architecture and construction,” Tee says. “We can’t predict what the future will be like, but we try to be the first mover and be ready as new technologies come along.”