Adrenaline is running high as you snake your way through the top-secret research facility. At the end of a long corridor, you duck into a lab filled with black-topped tables. Something isn’t right, but you aren’t sure what it is. You take a moment to look around and notice that half the room is missing air hoods. You look up, hit a button on your game controller, and the ceiling peels away as if it were the skin of an onion. Someone forgot to add several key parts of the mechanical system into the model.

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This scenario is but one of many that a design or construction professional might encounter while using a video game to experience a virtual construction project. The operative word here is “experience.” The construction industry has widely adopted 3D tools such as building-information models, but BIMs are still experienced in a flat, 2D environment when rendered on a screen or a piece of paper. Video games are taking these models to a new level of immersion.

The first-person shooter games of the 1990s that parents, politicians and social activists came to despise—such as Doom, Half-Life and Quake—made way for more sophisticated games that serve as the backbone of virtual-reality design and construction tools. And the unruly hooligans who played them when they should have been studying? Many are now hacking into their childhood toys to make the construction industry a better and more exciting place to work.

Driven by so-called video-game “engines,” or the software that runs in the background, the setup usually includes a map of the project model, with textures and visual elements that render and update in real time as you “walk” through the scene. Clash detection, which helps construction teams identify potential problems before work is executed in the real world, is a feature already built into most video-game engines.

Skilled gamers and attention to detail are often required to make this possible, but the learning curve is  flattening daily. A user might start by exporting a Revit model into Autodesk Maya to enhance the 3D look and then add rich textures created in Photoshop. Then, the file might run through the Unreal or Unity game engines. Instead of carrying sawed-off shotguns and searching for bad guys to blow up, the design and construction user is armed with visual tools that allow her to experience the model as a virtual, physical mock-up.

The time needed to render is no longer a limiting factor. “We can pump out a two-minute animation probably in a couple of hours,” says Lucas Richmond, senior creative studio manager for Gilbane Building Co. “The traditional way [took] two to three days.” Portability is also not a problem. Perhaps the best part? The costs are insanely inexpensive. When we caught up with Richmond at the ENR FutureTech conference last fall in New York City, he demonstrated projects on an Alienware laptop. With a price tag of up to $4,000, that’s the most expensive piece of the puzzle.