The Metaverse Could Be A/E/C's New Reality

MPM deputy director Ahmad Hadavi is passionate about how disruptive technologies can change construction. He recently shared his thoughts about the potential for the metaverse in the A/E/C industry and what obstacles face the virtual world.

Professor Ahmad HadaviImagine project stakeholders located all over the world schedule a meeting to discuss the status of a new building set to be built, resolve any issues, and coordinate next steps. When the meeting begins, everyone puts on a virtual reality headset and is transported to a virtual conference table, where digital clones of themselves are looking at a Building Information Modeling (BIM) virtual rendering of the finished project.

During the meeting, they have questions about a specific area of the building and zoom in on the hologram of the structure to take a closer look. A set of 360-degree cameras allows the virtual attendees to do a walk-through site visit of the actual project. Afterward, attendees take off their virtual headsets and return to the real world.

Does that scenario sound like something only possible in the distant future? Ahmad Hadavi, deputy director of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Project Management (MPM) program, thinks it may be closer than we realize, thanks to the metaverse.

Hadavi describes the metaverse as a collection of immersive virtual worlds that are parallel to the real world, where a person can participate in a variety of different activities. Someone who is passionate about how disruptive technologies can change construction, Hadavi recently sat down to talk about the potential for the metaverse in the A/E/C industry and what obstacles may face this new reality.

Why is it important for leaders in the A/E/C industry to begin considering the metaverse and its impact on their company and profession?

In general, the A/E/C industry operates in the global economy on a much lower profit margin than most, if not all, other industrial sectors, so it is crucial that it uses every appropriate technological innovation at its disposal to improve its productivity. Other industries usually have higher productivity rates due to their implementation of artificial intelligence, smart automation, and robotics. In my opinion, the metaverse will provide a more productive environment for collaboration on projects. 

What obstacles do A/E/C companies and the industry overall have to consider and overcome before being able to realistically consider the metaverse as an option?

The industry is slow to adopt new technologies. The A/E/C industry has typically been a follower and only adopted technologies that have already demonstrated clear value in other environments. For example, even though modern drone technology and equipment have been in development and use since the 1980s, the use of drones on construction sites for data collection is a relatively new trend in the last few years.  

Although there are several reasons for the slow pace, perhaps the major impediment is that the process of adapting and implementing new technologies is usually costly and risky. Since the profit margin for the construction companies is relatively low, a poorly implemented or inappropriate new technology may result in a major financial set-back or even bankruptcy for the company.  This is especially true because there are many small players in the A/E/C industry that do not have financial resources to adopt new technologies. 

What other concerns should A/E/C companies consider when discussing the metaverse?

Some concerns are privacy risks, meeting security and recording, bullying and harassment in cyberspace, and interoperability of different platforms, headsets, and software. I believe the big tech companies will find solutions for these concerns. A major challenge for the A/E/C industry will be a legal framework for the verifiability of the agreements in the virtual world and dispute resolution practices. It might take many years to enact legislation at the federal and state levels. 

In what ways could the government help support metaverse adoption by A/E/C companies?

In the past, some federal government agencies and some large private owner organizations have pushed contractors to adopt new technologies, such as the submission of digital 3D designs using BIM. I believe that providing financial incentives, perhaps as grants, to encourage the adoption of new technologies might enable small contractors to acquire the necessary hardware, software, and training to successfully implement a new technology.  However, such an approach will require a well-conceived pilot plan for use on a few federally-funded projects and an evaluation of the resulting impacts on productivity, cost, and schedule. 

How is MPM preparing students to begin thinking about incorporating the metaverse into their professional careers?

In both MPM and Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program, we are adapting the curriculum to introduce and incorporate some of these new technologies so students are prepared for and knowledgeable about the latest technical innovations facing the industry.

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