Calum Sinclair is standing at the edge of the motorway, cars speeding by. When he spots a gap in the traffic, he runs out, snatches a piece of construction debris and races back to the safety of the hard shoulder. He’s learning to do a “dash and grab”, a dangerous manoeuvre that he’s never done before. Then he makes a fatal misjudgement.
If this was real life, Sinclair would probably be dead. Fortunately, he’s safely seated in his office wearing a VR headset, shocked but unharmed. Being run over in virtual reality is a deliberately overwhelming experience: “The camera really shakes so it makes you feel a bit bizarre,” says Sinclair. “It’s something you’re going to remember, and it needs to be. Before it would have been ‘read this four-page document about how to collect something from the middle of the road’. This is a lot more engaging.”
Sinclair is not a highway engineer, he’s a specialist in immersive technologies and he joined WSP after a degree in visual effects and a masters in “serious games” — the application of gaming technologies to real-life problems. He never expected to be working in the built environment, but it’s a career trajectory that’s set to become more common. An industry long derided as Luddite is beginning to adopt a range of powerful tools from the gaming and entertainment sectors, while technology firms seize on the wider potential applications for their inventions. Rapid advances in digital modelling and visualization, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), big data and 3D printing, are transforming everything from on-site training to city planning. They enable forms that could never have been conceived of or built, internal environments that respond intuitively to users, and an unprecedented degree of analysis of design, construction and performance. Together they hold the promise of better designed, more efficient, more pleasant buildings and cities.