Building services in the metaverse
Nada IssaView bio
Originally published in MEP Middle East in March 2023.
While buildings in their solidity might seem like the complete opposite of the virtual world, there are many ways in which engaging with the cloud-mediated reality of the metaverse can evolve the building services and construction sectors in positive ways. After all, every building begins with ideas – and this is also where the metaverse journey begins.
The metaverse is more than just the internet. It is a cyber reality where humans can interact with objects and experiences in real-time. In the metaverse, we can engage in a spatial dimension that can mimic actual physical space and the processes that happen within it.
Currently, there is a growing interest in the metaverse for property marketing, as virtual reality (VR) enables potential buyers to immerse themselves in the rooms and ‘see’ using VR headsets how a building will be and move around it. Metaverse realities can also show how light will fall, incorporate acoustics and reveal what lies behind walls, floors or ceilings.
This ability to show both the surface and the underlying systems is one of the major benefits the metaverse can have for MEP design teams. Currently we use Revit and other packages to show design in 3D and diagram where building services elements, structure and spatial planning intersect.
As the software available for translating Revit into the metaverse becomes available, adding Augmented Reality (AR) features to those models will unveil new possibilities for improving design as well as understanding the future occupant experience. One software that shows potential is USD (Universal Scene Description) by Pixar, which can be used to convert Revit models into 3D objects and animations that will form part of a digital twin of buildings in the metaverse.
Normally, we would not take an item like an AHU or chiller and put it as an actual digital object in a digital twin – but this could be the future for our industry as it would deliver some meaningful benefits.
For example, if we can use VR to see how an AHU or chiller is going to lifted into position, it is possible to improve safety on site through better planning. We could also train people in the installation techniques for MEP systems including ductwork, AHUs, hydraulics and chillers using VR before they attempt the task on-site, as in the metaverse, human agency can change the immersive reality.
This would be a very low-risk approach for newcomers to the trade to understand how MEP systems are put together and what specific steps are required for safe construction and commissioning of systems. It also reduces the physical effort required for initial training, as just carrying ductwork to a site is usually a two-person job.
To take this one step further, because the metaverse allows us to introduce virtual airflow, there may be the potential in the not-to-distant future to undertake pressure testing to establish that someone has properly sealed ductwork. In real life, you cannot zoom in and spot check where errors are being made, but in the virtual world we could.
It may also be possible to change products or use a different technique for masking and fixing to learn what works most effectively. In the virtual world, large tasks can be converted into smaller processes to enable us to fine-tune methodologies and optimise approaches, and then translate that knowledge and virtual experience to the physical site.
For new techniques or products that have not been used before, the metaverse environment could also enable even experienced engineers and tradespeople to try a ground-breaking system or inventive approach out in the virtual world before committing to it. Alongside this, VR demonstrations can be shared with other individuals in project teams or even the client to reassure them an innovation is fit for purpose.
Where the digital twin is being created concurrently with the project from early design stage, there are major benefits. Spatial constraints not only within the planned structure but also on the site can be better understood.
There are often congestion issues with deliveries of materials coinciding with plant movements – in VR we can test out the schedule and ‘see’ where the issues may occur and make adjustments to arrival times, lay-down and set-down space allocations, or even staging, to minimise disruptions and trim waiting times. All of these small gains can improve efficiency over the life of a project and also save on costs where a plant is costed by the hour.
There are two major challenges ahead. The first is the initial investment and cost of VR equipment and the software and hardware required to make it functional for our purposes. There is also no industry-wide and easily available solution. There are many players developing their own headsets and versions of the metaverse, and I believe at some point everyone will need to work together to enable the whole industry to reap the enormous benefits.
The other challenge is the cost of the VR room set-up, but here I see another benefit that brings us back full circle to the current property market interest in the metaverse. If a VR room was built on-site as part of early works in the basement, then it could be retained as a value-add for future occupants and for the future facilities manager, as it can be linked to the Building Management System (BMS).
In this way, the metaverse could act as an interactive VR system unlocking project continuity from early design through to operations – connecting both the physical and virtual dots for buildings.