The construction and risk management industries are continually searching for new approaches to increase efficiency, achieve better quality and to improve collaborative opportunities. The combining of building information modelling (BIM), construction processes and augmented reality offer the possibility of achieving these gains. Texas based JB Knowledge Technologies Inc. has created the product SmartReality for this purpose. 3D Visualization World interviewed James Benham, President and CEO of the company to learn about SmartReality and other products including SmartBidNet and SmartCompliance for construction and insurance.
3DVW: Can you explain a bit about the history of SmartReality - how it began, what initiated the beginning of the technology? What is the relationship of SmartReality to JBKnowledge?
JB: I’ve always been interested in computer information technology and have been programming since I was eleven years of age. Later I attended Texas A&M University graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting. I then continued my education, pursuing and completing my Master of Science in Management of Information Systems.
In 2001, during my final year at Texas A&M, I started my company JB Knowledge Technologies, Inc.. JBKnowledge builds custom enterprise solutions for companies in the construction and risk management industries. We currently have 6 large insurance industry firms that we build custom applications for and over 450 construction companies using our SmartBidNet software for construction bid management. We also have a web-based software product for the risk management industry that manages insurance certificates called SmartCompliance.
In 2008-09 there was an App in London that I saw called ‘Nearest Tube’ that was an AR app. It turned on a mobile device camera, then overlaid arrows that showed underground stations and where to walk. I thought this was quite interesting. At the same time, I was aware of the growing international work in building information modelling (BIM) that was attempting to connect with augmented reality (AR). I was also aware of some of the work in Finland emanating from the VTT Technical Research Centre that involved AR and BIM – but a commercial product was not yet available. All of these findings are what prompted me to begin working on SmartReality.
3DVW: What is SmartReality?
JB: SmartReality is a product of JBKnowledge. It is a functional mobile application that combines BIM and AR for project plan visualization and collaboration. In effect, it is a 3D BIM rendinering tool with extended AR capabilities. We have designed it to work through a mobile device’s camera, rendering a BIM file on-screen that sits atop paper site plans or maps in the camera’s view, providing interactive layers that users can see in AR.
Although larger companies do have similar kinds of technologies, most of them are closed, highly proprietary and operate within their own companies and projects. By comparison, SmartReality not only does that, but it is designed for mass use and anyone can access it by creating an account and downloading the app.
To use SmartReality, clients will establish an account with us. They then send us their site plan or maps (usually in a PDF file), and they mark the locations where they wish to see AR objects. This information goes to our servers where it is pre-processed for AR additions then we push it back to the customer account. Within 24-72 hours they can see the project in 3D by focusing their mobile device on the paper plan file.
3DVW: What are the advantages of SmartReality and your approach?
JB: We don’t have to modify the plan file that is sent to us. All site plans or plan files can be used as they already exist in 2D. There is no black-box or QR Code markup on the files. Basically they are sending us 2D drawings and getting 3D AR back.
Key to all of this is our ability to combine 3D gaming technology with augmented reality and cloud distribution services. Most AR apps require a black box around objects, ours do not. Clients may crop parts of their processed plan files and use them as long as they contain the targets they are interested in. We provide much more than pictures alone. Our focus is on creating actionable, interactive AR that ties to real, useful data. Customers can manipulate and work with the final product quickly and easily. This is supposed to be more than something that is “cool”, it’s supposed to be something our clients can make and save money with.
3DVW: Can you explain what SmartBidNet and SmartCompliance are?
JB: SmartBidNet is a web-based software for commercial builders that manages invitations to bid, sub-contractor management, project documents and sub-contractor pre-qualifications. We send out millions of plan files per week and over a million emails and faxes with invitations to bid on projects through SmartBidNet. SmartCompliance is another web-based software that helps risk managers in any industry, including construction, ensure vendor compliance through certificate of insurance and contract management.
3DVW: What is the connection between augmented reality, visualization and construction? Are there examples?
JB: There is a huge connection between AR and construction. While Europeans have caught on to this technology earlier and employ it, North America is not far behind.
We’ve has a large medical college recently approach us through their facilities management group. They wish to render the whole campus in AR using our technology. Some cities have also approached us because they have existing 3D city models and wish to turn them into AR visualizations for their employees and tourists. Wherever BIM work is progressing, then the option to create AR projects can also be expedited. Many organizations and cities also have large quantities of 3D GIS data and they are looking to turn this information into AR useable visualizations.
3DVW: Many people in the construction industry transfer data within their projects using different methods, has this been your observation and how can you help to resolve this?
JB: We are in the plan / collaboration business. We begin with the idea of better data collaboration right from the start. I’m also familiar with various kinds of software for performing this kind of work including CAD and GIS, since I am also a Councillor for the City of College Station. We have about 800 employees in a city of 100,000 people. One of our recent projects has involved the mapping of our fiber and conduit within the city.
3DVW: 3D modelling and visualization of these features is becoming more important in many BIM applications. How does SmartReality handle 3D?
JB: The process of moving from 2D to 3D is what SmartReality supports. It expands on this though, since it also provides interactivity with the user and the 3D model. The earliest efforts in Urban Spoon and Yelp, and then the work in Finland all contributed toward growth in 3D AR. However, we think the boundary can be pushed further to include greater interaction with higher detail models for construction and infrastructure.
SmartReality requires a customer’s basic site plan or drawing and the 3D model of the structure that needs to be processed in our system to render the combination in AR. The workflow includes 3d modelling, visualization and AR together. Collectively, the advances in improved collaboration on project plans are the ultimate goal.
3DVW: What do you consider to be the major challenges facing mobility in infrastructure projects and how might SmartReality work on construction projects?
JB: In most cases the file sizes for large projects are pushing the limitations of mobile technologies like iPads. File sizes can be 80-100 MB and we usually strip them down for mobility use. The files are synced in the office upon return, and usually do not operate dynamically which would use up most ISP bandwidth rate plans quickly. Having said that, a file size of up to dozens of MB works for us and will include quite a lot of detail and information.
Security is mentioned by some people as an issue to consider, however, today we can let users decide what information they want available to who and render the models accordingly. Clearly, we don’t want people seeing our classified projects, documents or systems or other sensitive infrastructure, except for our customer - who ultimately decides who will be able to see what.
3DVW: The handoff for large projects is a critical stage and many projects flounder during this process as they move from construction to operational status. How can this be improved?
JB: The real observation that we make in construction is that most people aren’t really that good at interpreting drawings and plans. It is not an intuitive process that comes quickly. Alternatively, being able to transfer what people see to paper is similarly difficult and open to errors.
Many contractors express a desire to connect apps like SmartReality with business development opportunities. They want to show the kinds of structures that they can build and they also want to be able to show the kinds of technologies that will be within these structures. At the same time, they want to be able to place this visualization technology on their sites so operators can use the information and maintain these infrastructures.
For example, in a location where a staircase might go, they only need to place an AR target, then the builders can visualize the staircase on their mobile device, walk around it, interpret it and construct it.
We want to be able to assist builders and buyers before they act. You can probably see the connection to SmartBidNet for us in rendering projects during the bid phase. Suddenly, complex BIM data becomes readily available to everyone. It is natural and intuitive and helps to avoid mistakes and change orders - the major cost impacts to infrastructure projects.
3DVW: How important is education in the augmented reality, mobility and construction fields today? Are we meeting the challenge? If not, what can we do to improve?
JB: AR is about improved collaboration, ease-of-use and the ability to increase efficiency. There is a difference between visualization and 3D data visualization. The latter is more interactive and combines real data into the display for actionable use. Naturally there will be basic architecture, engineering or other kinds of knowledge for building models and creating infrastructure, but from an AR-construction point, anyone will be able to work with this technology without much instruction.
3DVW: So - where is all this heading James?
JB: Well - our SmartReality app was finished 2 weeks ago and you saw our press release yesterday, so we are heading forward! We aim to have a workable, commercial model operating in the next few months based on this work and technology. We’ll release the Beta SmartReality iOS app to iTunes in a few weeks and hope to generate feedback from everyone who tries it out. Ultimately I would like to see every construction project include AR and a set of standards for its use in construction. We see lots of opportunity on the jobsite of the future.
For more information:
Web : JB Knowledge
James Benham is now the President and CEO of JB Knowledge Technologies, Inc., an information technology services provider and maker of the SmartBidNet and SmartCompliance cloud software solutions. JBKnowledge specializes in enterprise application and database development, electronic data interchange, strategy consulting, mobile solutions, and web development, focusing on the construction and insurance industries. The company, and James, are headquartered in Bryan/College Station, TX with offices around the U.S.A. and in Argentina.
With extensive experience in the use of technology to improve efficiency, James is a sought-after speaker across the United States and Canada on business information technology, data security and innovative software tools. In 2013, James will speak at a variety of national events and conferences including: Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) IT Forum, Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) Annual Conference, Construction Financial Management Association Annual (CFMA) Conference, CONSTRUCT 2013, Canadian Construction Association (CCA) Annual Conference, AGC Carolinas Annual Conference, and the Indiana Construction Industry Conference.
James is an active member and supporter of the Construction Open Software Alliance, Risk Management Society, Construction Financial Management Association, Canadian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, Pacific Association of Quantity Surveyors, Associated General Contractors of America, American Society of Professional Estimators and the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets Association. James is Chairman of the ASPE National Speaker’s Bureau. In 2012, James was elected to City Council Place 6 of the City of College Station, Texas, where he serves as Chairman of the Research Valley Technology Council and is on the board of the Brazos Valley Wide Area Communications System.