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The construction industry is a world apart from the computer games business, but that could be about to change: planners, designers and builders will be able to work together using the same kind of ‘virtual environment’ in which internet gamers compete against each other in cyberspace.

Bricks and ClicksResearchers are combining game and CAD (computer-aided design) technology to create three-dimensional environments in which professionals, working in real time, will be able to explore and test ideas for new buildings.

This ‘Virtual Worlds’ project is being undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Construction Innovation, involving CSIRO’s Division of Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology (CMIT). The CRC for Construction Innovation is a national research, development and implementation centre focussed on the needs of the Australian property, design, construction and facility management industry. It undertakes applied research on behalf of its partners and the whole industry.

“The goal of the Virtual Worlds project is to use game technology to visualise construction projects in the form of an interactive 3D environment,” says Professor Keith Hampson, chief executive officer of the CRC for Construction Innovation.

CMIT’s Stephen Egan says many scenarios would benefit from this novel approach, such as urban planners being able to visualise every aspect of an entire development: “The associated plans could be studied interactively by planners, builders, suppliers, residents, even traffic authorities or environmentalists. Collaboratively, they can use the latest software to optimise the quality and functionality of the development, or the sustainability and its lifecycle performance.”

The Virtual Worlds project is headed by Professor Mary Lou Maher of the University of Sydney, who has studied how people behave in virtual environments.

She says groups working virtually do not suffer the same inertia as committees, and will produce better built environments. “Research shows that people actually brainstorm significantly better when working collaboratively in cyberspace,” she says. And helping people with diverse viewpoints to get along is no mean feat.

She says there is a loss of hierarchy among collaborators and an increase in ‘open space’ creativity. “Factors such as accents or reluctance to speak up disappear, ensuring more ideas are expressed. Best of all, verbose individuals can’t stall proceedings with their prolonged soliloquies.”

Parallel streams of ideas are standard in these environments as are video-stream records of proceedings.

Normally, concepts such as meshing CAD tools and construction assessment software with virtual environment technology and collaborative theory would be considered far-fetched, or at least something for the distant future. However, Australia just happens to have the scientists who are at the vanguard of this work.

Australia leads international efforts to establish standardised data structures to promote interoperability; the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) already developed have allowed a CSIRO Future Cities team led by Robin Drogemuller to generate a suite of software packages that are pushing the limits on design science.

To realise the scenarios sketched out by CSIRO’s Stephen Egan, the researchers really only need to develop a way to import existing software models as IFC files into the Virtual Worlds format. Then the whole suite of applications – such as ArchiCAD and the CRC’s LCADesign – will come on line in 3D splendour. The research is still in the experimental stages but, significantly, it is working.

Objects that mean different things to the architect, builder, supplier, resident, neighbour and city planner can be visualised within the same easily accessed space. Collaborative brainstorming is then further aided by Australian software that can assess different designs relative to the lifecycle performance of buildings or infrastructure.

Being able to visualise answers can transform the impossible into the plausible, the preferred and the actualised.

The researchers working on this believe they are on the threshold of major gains in data visualisation technology, leading to a step-change in the visionary capabilities of human ingenuity.

Taj Housing has been at the forefront of developing a construction network for use by engineers. Laptops equipped with GPRS communication capabilities keep engineers in constant touch with the helpdesk and allow us to make sure the right person with the right skills is available to customers at the right time.

The technology also allows customers to order and track jobs on-line through a secure internet connection. It provides valuable management information allowing customers to generate reports on performance. We also use this information to identify and implement improvements to our service.

Remote diagnostics and engineering systems, coupled with advanced building management, help us develop strategies to reduce customers' energy consumption and overall business costs. Problems can even be identified and cured without the need to despatch an engineer to site, saving both time and money.

  Taj Housing Architect Limited, Registered office 434, Laxmi Plaza, Laxmi Industrial Estate, New Link Road, Andheri (w), Mumbai - 400053.