How Mixed Reality Will Change the AEC Industry


    Recently released mixed-reality technology — such as Microsoft’s HoloLens — blends virtual models with the real, physical world. This powerful combination of future and existing states is creating a unique environment where owners, designers, construction professionals, and operators can collaborate to create efficient and inspiring infrastructure projects. This will have a huge impact on our industry and radically change the way we deliver infrastructure projects.

    At CDM Smith, we’re harnessing this technology throughout the project life cycle. We have partnered with the HoloLens startup Object Theory to define AEC use cases and test actual models in the HoloLens environment. We have also been investigating opportunities to leverage mixed reality for facility operations to reduce the life cycle cost of projects for our clients. We are excited to use this technology to deliver value to our clients at different project phases.

    During planning, HoloLens is an excellent tool to consider different design options and discuss implications to any existing site structures. In our industry, projects often happen within existing operating facilities. We are designing and building plant upgrades or expansion projects that need to fit within an already defined physical space. With mixed reality, we are able to visualize how our projects fit into an existing physical space and the implications new pipes or pumps will have on the space.

    We’ve developed a method for bringing our 3D designs into the physical realm using HoloLens. Being able to visualize and review options with the team, no matter where they are, significantly reduces the time and effort to review options and increases the time to explore innovations. Collaboration through mixed reality can enable our teams to engage all the stakeholders quickly, give them visual access to the site, and understand the implications of various options within the physical context of the project.

    Holograms can be “blown apart” to see intricate design details.

    During design, the team can continue to apply mixed-reality tools to enable decision making and experience the design in a whole new way. Designers, construction professionals, and operators can walk through the final project and experience the project as holographs within the physical environment of the existing site. All team members are then enabled to give feedback on the project before any ground is broken. The team can notice how the windows cast light in the room or realize that a door would be better positioned differently. Mixed reality enables the team to experience texture and space, features that are nearly impossible to pick up on a 2D computer screen.

    Via this technology, safety professionals can review the project to proactively design spaces to prevent incidents; operators can review the layout to increase ease of operation; essentially all stakeholders can be engaged to obtain buy-in at an early stage. Through holographic mixed-reality modeling, the project is truly brought to life and the entire project team can have input during design.

    During construction, the models can be used onsite to verify that the project is being built correctly and to quickly and efficiently resolve any issues that arise. For example, if equipment is delivered that does not match the size specifications of the designs, the design team can be consulted quickly from a remote location. Using mixed reality, the entire team can quickly see the impact of an off-spec piece of equipment and consider options collectively. This could eliminate travel and site visits and drastically reduce schedule impacts on the project.

    Once the project is complete, the value of the holographic model does not end. Operating the infrastructure assets efficiently and effectively is just as important. Facility owners can continue to use the models developed to collect and manage operations data, as well as manage the site remotely.

    At CDM Smith, we recognize the power of tools such as mixed reality, and we’re excited to start applying them to add value to our clients and projects. With increased collaboration and efficiency through the project life cycle, tools like the HoloLens are driving improvements to our delivery process. We are excited to help define the future of infrastructure project delivery with virtual design and construction enabled by mixed reality.

    David Neitz joined CDM Smith ( as the CIO in 2014. He has more than 20 years of experience in IT for professional services firms. Neitz was honored in May with the MIT 2016 CIO Leadership Award, was chosen as one of Computerworld Magazine’s 2011 Premier 100 IT Leaders for delivering innovative technology solutions that support business outcomes, and won CIO Magazine’s “Ones to Watch” Award and Standout Award for Change Leadership for his proven ability to lead teams, drive innovation, and deliver value to the business.