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Reality Capture – What is it and what will it mean for achitects, engineers & planners?

Reality Capture
29th Apr

​Reality Capture – what it is and what impact it is about to have on surveying and construction.

Reality Capture hits the small screen

If you were lucky enough recently to catch the excellent BBC series Italy’s Invisible Cities, you would have seen some outstanding 3D visualisations. Those 3D scenes were captured using the same laser scanners that we use to carry out your surveys. The scanners send out hundreds of thousands of laser beams every second which capture every historical detail and create an accurate 3D point cloud. As entertaining and informative looking at point clouds can be for TV viewers, this 3D data has many practical applications and, with some exciting new advances, is having a significant impact on the design and construction world.

Laser scanning technology is now merging with new camera systems and measurement sensors to create something that’s being called Reality Capture. It’s a fascinating subject that is about to bring about huge changes for those involved in surveying, design and construction.

So, what is Reality Capture and how is it going to affect our workflows and businesses?

Reality Capture is, in a nutshell, the process of getting the real world into a computer so it can be viewed and manipulated in 3D. Depending on the technology used to capture it, that representation of the real world will usually take the form of a point cloud or a textured mesh surface – very often with some form of integration with 360-degree photography or video.

The oldest known map was painted around 8500 years ago on a wall at Çatalhöyükin Turkey. In all that time, when you really think about it, very little has changed when it comes to how we have recorded the world around us. People have always observed what’s there and then made some sort of pictorial representations of it – be that a map or a plan. Those representations of the world used to be made on ancient stone walls, or possibly a piece of parchment; more recently they have been turned into CAD drawings or 3D Building Information Models – but whatever form it has taken, that representation has always been a human being’s interpretation of what he or she has seen and decided to record.

Reality Capture changes all that. It is the modern-day 3D equivalent of shift from portrait painting to photography. There is no longer any need for human interpretation; what’s inside the computer is the same as what’s on the outside. Of course, human beings still must decide what to capture, but the process of interpolation – turning that data capture into a graphical representation of what’s actually there – is largely removed.

What affect will Reality Capture have on surveys?

This all means that when it comes to understanding a potential development site or an existing building, we don’t necessarily need to get hold of a topographical survey or a set of as-built drawings anymore – we can just capture what’s there and work with that captured reality instead. This workflow shift doesn’t necessarily mean the imminent demise of surveying, but it will soon have a profound effect for all producers and users of spatial information. Topographical surveys and measured building surveys in CAD and BIM formats will continue to be vital, but maybe we shouldn’t always remain so attached to them in all circumstances as technology advances.

Yes, drawings and models are indispensable at the detailing stage of a project, but the possibilities of Reality Capture should make us start questioning how we’re working much of the time. We should ask:

  • Is the cost of producing drawings and models always justifiable when a project is only at the feasibility study stage?
  • Can truly useful information be supplied much more quickly?
  • Can we use Reality Capture now and then get drawings or a model created from the data when the project is more advanced?
  • Do we really need to draw or model everything all the time?
  • Are there now ways of making working in 3D cost effective even on very small projects?
  • Why produce detailed drawings of everything surrounding a site when it’s not going to change?

A lower costs solution that could help the skills shortage

Away from the surveying side of things, Reality Capture will certainly help alleviate skills shortages and speed up many construction processes. Building things in the correct place, to the correct size and within the correct time frame is never easy. New Reality Capture technology is emerging at a price point that will make it cost effective for sensors to be placed all over a site which are to be left there for the duration of a project – constantly streaming data to the cloud to check every stage of the construction process. The advantages of this live monitoring are obvious – being able to instantly compare captured reality with the design model will eliminate many costly errors while overcoming the problems of the lack of availability of skilled site staff. Reality Capture feeding into the cloud really does now make it possible for a technician sat somewhere in front of a computer to efficiently monitor construction processes on a number of sites that could be a few miles down the road or scattered across several continents. Both the advantages and the implications of this are immense.

Reality Capture is here and it will become mainstream very quickly – it really is time to fully exploit its potential. Autodesk and other software providers are banking heavily on it. It will change the way we work and what we provide to clients – those who chose to ignore it, particularly members of the in the geospatial industry, do so at their peril. We all have to be aware that some clients will soon demand Reality Capture for their projects as a supplement to, or instead of receiving survey drawings and models. It’s an exciting technology that will give the client more and save them money, but it will mean many service providers will have to adjust their business models to deal with a fundamental change in what they deliver.