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Is Virtual Reality Training a Turning Point for the Construction Industry?

There’s some pretty exciting news about the future of training in the construction industry, $750,000 worth of news to be exact. Towards the end of March, it was announced that the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to Florida International University (FIU) for a project called “Intelligent Immersive Environments for Learning Robotics.” The FIU project’s expressed purpose is to develop virtual reality games to better train workers on robotic construction techniques. But the growth of virtual and augmented reality training could spread across the construction industry. And for an industry plagued with labor shortages, an uptick in tragic onsite accidents, and outdated training videos, this could mean a dramatic transformation in the way workers build buildings.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a long history of funding research projects. The NSF was established in 1950 as an independent agency of the U.S. government with the mission to promote the progress of science, advance national health, prosperity, and welfare, and secure national defense. Since then, it has been a major source of funding for research and education across a broad range of scientific and engineering disciplines. At the moment, the NSF seems to be particularly interested in funding projects that could improve safety on construction. 

Safety first 

Workforce training is essential for ensuring workforce safety in any industry, and is one of the pain points plaguing the construction industry. If VR training catches on it could make training videos obsolete. Explainer videos have been a staple of construction worker training for many years, and even though these videos are intended to be used in conjunction with hands-on training on the work site, they leave a lot to be desired.

When I brought up the subject of training videos to Alex Lambertson, an OSHA-certified construction laborer himself, he immediately rolled his eyes. “I understand why they are important to watch because they show how to avoid dangerous situations on the job site,” Lambertson began, “but every video I had to sit through was outdated and corny, and they really didn’t go into much detail.”

That lack of detail can come from the video’s limited perspective. Videos often provide a narrow view of the job site or task being performed, which can make it difficult for workers to fully understand the physical environment and potential hazards that may be present. In Lambertson’s experience, the limited scope of these training videos can cause more harm than good when it comes to preventing workplace accidents.

Another limitation of training videos is their passive nature. Workers are not able to interact with the video or ask questions, which can limit their engagement and reduce their ability to fully understand the information presented. This can be especially challenging for workers who learn best through hands-on experiences or who require additional guidance to fully comprehend new concepts. 

Researchers at FIU will use their NSF grant to develop a virtual platform that will better instruct construction professionals and students on how to use industrial robots. The researchers plan to build this platform around the use of virtual and artificial reality enabled games. These tools provide a more immersive and interactive learning experience, allowing workers to engage with simulated job sites and tasks in a more realistic way. Virtual reality technology, for example, can create realistic simulations of hazardous scenarios on construction sites that may be difficult or dangerous to replicate in the real world. AI-enabled games can track workers’ responses and progress, providing personalized feedback and recommendations for areas where additional training may be needed. 

Means of construction

The vision for the FIU project, so far, paints a picture of an interface where users (construction workers) will perform a series of work-related tasks in a VR setting. But as workers complete their activities in the system they will be prompted to explain their choices. The user will subsequently be given recommendations for particular classes based on the AI’s analysis of their responses to determine which topics they are understanding. The system will refer back to the user’s words and actions to offer the most pertinent lesson if a participant is struggling with a particular component of their training.

Lambertson was intrigued by the development of a new and innovative approach to training, especially for younger workers that the industry so desperately needs. “I think you’ll see more enthusiasm from young workers about joining the construction trade if that kind of tech is involved,” he told me. “I know I definitely would’ve been more engaged in my training had that technology been made available to me.” 

The industry’s labor shortage, especially for younger builders like himself, is a problem that’s only getting worse. A recent report from U.S. trade association Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents the non-union members of the construction industry, indicated that the construction industry will need 546,000 new workers on top of the industry’s normal pace of hiring for this year in order to meet projected demand for labor. As you can imagine, a shortage of this magnitude is causing project delays, increased costs, and reduced economic growth.

The report cites several factors contributing to the workforce shortage, including the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing supply chain delays. But one of the main factors contributing to the construction labor shortage is the aging workforce. Many workers in the industry are approaching retirement age, and there are not enough workers to replace them. Despite the labor shortage, the construction industry is struggling to attract young workers to fill the gap. There are several reasons for this, including the perception that construction jobs are low-paying and low-skilled, a lack of awareness about the opportunities available in the industry, and a negative perception of the industry as dirty and dangerous. 

But will leveraging VR and AI-enabled training games with industrial robots really move the labor shortage needle? Well, René Morkos, Founder and CEO of construction platform Alice Technologies, seems to think so. “In today’s construction environment, cutting-edge technology can be leveraged to make the most of available labor while potentially improving the work environment,” wrote Morkos in a recent article. “Automation can maximize the existing workforce.” 

The use of VR, AI, and industrial robots in training can appeal to younger workers that are looking for interesting and innovative careers. Attracting workers to the industry and dispelling any misconceptions they may have about opportunities for growth or advancement will be a huge hurdle for the construction industry as older generations age out of the workforce. 

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence-enabled games can offer a more immersive and interactive learning experience, which will engage workers (especially younger ones) and help them better understand the physical environment and potential hazards that may be present. Though the FIU project is still in its early stages, in light of the industry’s history of relying on training videos which aren’t always effective, the pivot to VR and AI will likely make training more effective and efficient. Ultimately, the project has the potential to bridge the construction worker shortage gap and improve the industry as a whole, but only time will tell if “Intelligent Immersive Environments for Learning Robotics” proves fruitful.

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