Timeline: 6 Months
Hardware: Desktop VR & Standalone Desktop
Industry: Construction, AEC & STEM
Services: Bespoke Development
CONVERT is an immersive learning programme funded by the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and comes under CITB’s Future Skills Strategy. The project aimed to reduce dangerous accidents and errors that could be life-threatening in the construction industry while also using immersive learning (IL) and innovative technologies to provide an engaging and safe learning environment, both in education and at the workplace.
The project targets more than 8000 beneficiaries – making it the largest immersive project in the construction industry. The main goal of CONVERT is to widen participation and educate young people about career opportunities and what these might look like in a future that considers sustainability as a key priority.
Getting on-the-job practice in high-risk sectors, such as the construction industry, is expensive and dangerous, especially when it involves heavy equipment or travelling to sites that are distant or hard to access. This is an issue not only for the industrial companies delivering training to apprentices or employees, but it’s also an environmental concern. In fact, travelling is among the highest carbon footprint activities.
Also, traditional training for construction workers allows little room for mistakes, which can put trainees at risk. As a result, this can have financial consequences down the line (e.g. misusing machinery, making the wrong choices during the building process and wasting time and materials) and a safety concern (e.g. life-threatening mistakes, fatal injuries).
A post-pandemic world also means training solutions need to comply with new remote working policies while maintaining a sustainable workflow, minimising loss in productivity.
Working with the Scottish consortium, we took ownership of the Virtual Building Element Environment (VBEE) strand focusing on three modern construction standards, including the RIBA Plan of Work. The VBEE application was developed in conjunction with Construction Wales Innovation Centre (CWIC) and BE-ST (formerly known as Construction Scotland Innovation Centre).
The VBEE was our virtual reality (VR) solution to reduce carbon footprint in new builds, allowing remote interaction and digital learning in both VR and as a standalone desktop application. This aimed to complement traditional classroom-based delivery and to enable learners to contextualise construction technology theory.
In order to help the construction industry address issues related to carbon emissions and long-term sustainability, we proposed the use of virtual reality (VR) technology. In fact, VR allows employees to practice real-life scenarios in a safe simulated environment. Since VR is both digital and immersive in its nature, it offers several benefits that can help accelerate various sectors towards industrial net-zero. Another advantage of VR is that it allows a safe introduction to the construction sector to younger learners, widening their skills and careers’ prospects, providing them with the tools to practice and make mistakes safely in VR.
Learners navigate a virtual construction site that is generated using custom graphical assets from established BIM libraries. Users are set a task to build a house, an industrial unit or an offsite modular building, and then are presented with a range of building scenarios to choose from. Within the simulated environment, users can trial different layering techniques and materials from foundation to finish. Then, once they are satisfied with their build, they can witness it being built on a 1–to–1 scale and their selections being tested against four categories: 1. Sustainability, 2. Durability, 3. Comfort and Cost.
In this sense, the VBEE application learning content highlights the net-zero potential of VR by educating the users on how to make more sustainable building choices and enabling them to see how their choices resulted in saving money on bills and energy for the homeowners.
Also, the fact that these learning scenarios are simulated in VR instead of practised in real life, eliminates the use of fuel for travelling to numerous building sites, wasting precious resources and energy.
To maximise learning outcomes, we created C.R.A.I.G. (Construction Realtime Artificial Intelligence Guide). C.R.AI.G. guides the learners throughout the experience with directions and assistance. We also added a hint of humour to our AI guide: users can interact with it (including getting snappy responses back if objects were thrown at it!), making the experience memorable and so, the learning more productive.
COVID-19 hindered the delivery of the VR training. To solve this issue, we have converted the application into a desktop/mouse experience to be distributed at scale. Remote, digital and involving no carbon footprint, this solution allowed for the immersive learning to be completed while also guaranteeing sustainability at its core.
Another challenge encountered, especially in the development process, was the number of possibilities the simulation ended up having. Compliant with two methods of building – i.e. Timber Frame (Scotland) and Standard Brick and Block Frame (England) – and the RIBA Plan of Work, each section with average of 42 questions and 3 possible answers, the total of possibilities added up to…
Over one hundred quintillion possibilities. And this big number is just for one out of three sites in total! So, we had to outline and plan the modules (and our time) efficiently while still making sure learners felt challenged by the experience. In fact, a common mistake in immersive learning is putting too much text in the simulation. It’s known among VR professionals that text is difficult to read in VR. A solution to this problem was focusing on improving the experience with more active physical interaction (e.g. grab, build, construct elements) rather than passive learning (e.g. reading, selecting right answers, watching the building being built on the spot).
We created custom environments and hundreds of interchangeable assets to allow the user to build compliant buildings with typical materials. In addition, we fed the experience into our Learning Records Service (LRS). In addition to that, we processed anonymous xAPI statements to control the delivery and the learning of the experience.
We created a custom PDF report to go alongside the experience, allowing users to easily gain access to their results. This last feature also outlined all the details of the building process, so that learners can understand their mistakes or keep a record of their successes.
Our VR project within CONVERT is currently being tested by Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and Construction Wales Innovation Centre (CWIC), and will be distributed in the upcoming months to universities and innovation centres with the intention of instating the VR version when possible.