SMEC is collaborating with frontier technology company Snobal, to transform design, enrich stakeholder engagement and deliver innovative solutions for our clients.

Everyone has heard about Virtual Reality (VR).  We tend to think of it as something for the gaming community or reserved for the narrative of futuristic films. But VR has many applications aside from the typical consumer, entertainment or gaming applications we read about in the media. The emergence of VR for business applications has seen increasing focus over the last few months by some of the global technology players.

Recently in my role as Manager Transport Advisory I was given an opportunity to see first-hand how VR is being used effectively and efficiently to transform design and enrich stakeholder engagement in the preparation of SMEC’s Concept and Detailed Engineering Designs for the Streamlining Hoddle Street Project for VicRoads.

VicRoads stated in their brief that they were looking for demonstrable innovation in their engineering partner.  We saw their clear brief as an opportunity to give them what they wanted whilst simultaneously expanding our own knowledge and experience base.

We became aware of award winning Melbourne based frontier technology company Snobal and their innovative software solution. Snobal creates smart VR tools to allow designers, engineers and city planners to collaborate on design in VR. Their technology helps communities to enrich their understanding of complex designs before they are physically built.

Currently Hoddle Street is a bit of a ‘traffic sewer’. Traffic is slow, it’s difficult for pedestrians to get from one side to another and the environment is not inviting. The Streamlining Hoddle Street Project aims to improve the journey along, and across, Hoddle Street for all road users. It also wants to introduce innovative intelligent transport systems and urban design initiatives.

Instead of asking people to imagine what their environment might look like, we wanted to let them experience the design and potential build in-situ.

Community and stakeholder engagement was a critical part of this project. Instead of asking people to imagine what their environment might look like, we wanted to let them experience the design and potential build in-situ.

Our aim was to make our design concepts safer, more enjoyable and more convenient for people to use.

That’s where Snobal came in. I asked Ann Nolan, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Snobal to talk through some key questions around VR and its applications for the architecture, engineering and construction industry.

Q: How does Snobal’s technology differ to traditional methodologies used in stakeholder engagement?
As a frontier technology company we believe VR provides massive potential to really transform how we plan, design and build the cities of the future.

We built our Artificial Intelligence assisted (AI) Virtual Reality (VR) software specifically for those working in architecture, engineering or construction.

Our Analytics Suite was created to enable engineering design companies, urban designers, planners, developers and government to facilitate engaged citizens and stakeholders to be fully immersed in a design – before it’s physically built.

…our software enabled SMEC and VicRoads to provide the public with an immersive experience of what the intersection will look like when physically built from the perspective of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

So, with the Hoddle Street Streamlining for example our software enabled SMEC and VicRoads to provide the public with an immersive experience of what the intersection will look like when physically built from the perspective of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

Instead of trying to get stakeholders or the public on the same page regarding design with focus groups, fly throughs, videos, artistic representations or even architectural drawing instead you can now put people in the virtual space all before it’s physically built.

And how does your technology enhance design?
Our Collaborative Design Suite was created to enable designers to move away from designing solely using flat 2D screens to designing in an interactive, immersive and collaborative virtual environment.

Designers and cross functional teams in different locations can now undertake rapid prototyping, testing and improvement, thereby avoiding costly rework and achieving significant ROI.  You can measure, change, save, place objects, markup, specify site location, time of day lighting (day or night), weather variations, share pictures and video all from within the virtual environment.

Q: What type of data can be captured?
Our Analytics Suite captures user data from the virtual environment and processes it through a machine learning to rapidly report user (engagement or design effectiveness) to a web dashboard. It captures not only where users or stakeholders move, spend time, and what they look at, but also how they feel about specifics in a virtual environment via AI analysis of voice recordings and a user ‘rating’ tool.

We start to understand in an honest fashion what people like and don’t like about a built environment – before it’s physically built and to make changes based on those learnings.

Q: What was it like working with us at SMEC?
The SMEC team brought a lot to the project in terms of not only contextual knowledge but a willingness and openness to explore how to do what they were currently doing – but better.  As a company SMEC have been incredibly innovative and open to how they can best utilise a frontier technology to add value to their offering and to their clients.

An Australian first
While VICRoads had requested demonstrable innovation in their engineering partner for Hoddle Street Streamlining, the proposal to incorporate VR was initially met with some reluctance. Was the technology ready? Would it really add business value and ROI?

Using VR for traffic design and a traffic safety audit had never been done in Australia – indeed globally as far as we know.

One first we are particularly proud of is that we’re the first engineering design company in Australia to conduct a comprehensive road safety audit using virtual reality. We invited a safety auditor to test our design by stepping into the environment to see how it worked.

In some ways, it was surprising what we had to change after the audit.  We thought ‘we’ve done our due diligence and all that we could’ but the officer found four to five items that we wouldn’t have identified until build-stage. If we didn’t identify these changes, there would have been an additional cost of at least $80k to iron out the kinks. VR saved us time, saved us money, and it’s made the concept safer.  It’s assisted with stakeholder engagement and expanded the knowledge of our people.

I predict that VR will become the standard for design and engagement during the planning, design and build of major projects.  People will come to expect it. They will ask ‘where’s the VR environment’

Luckily, we’ve taken the leap and are now far ahead of the pack. Are you ready to adapt to the change?

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Author Daniel Gregor

Dan Gregor is Manager Transport Advisory, Leader Strategy & Growth based in SMEC’s Melbourne office. Dan plays an integral role on the Streamlining Hoddle Street Project and shares his thoughts on the use of Virtual Reality to create business and project efficiencies and engage communities.

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