Reality real estate

Houston-area construction team utilizes technology to solve problems

The majority of McCarthy Building Companies' projects now include some sort of virtual or augmented reality technology. Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

In recent years, the construction industry has begun embraced advancements in reality technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. While it has yet to reach critical mass in the industry, several contracting companies in the Houston region like McCarthy Building Companies are embracing the technology and blazing the trail for the construction industry.

Chris Patton, virtual design and construction manager for McCarthy's southern region, says many construction companies are consistently looking for ways to improve processes and procedures through reality technology.

"We really saw the potential and use cases for [VR] really early on, and it was really just a matter of the hardware and the software catching up to being something usable, consumable, deployable and cost effective on our projects," Patton says. "We were sitting there waiting for it and ready to go when it was."

Patton says these visualization tools have changed the way contractors display projects and have helped the partners on these projects — such as the design team, building owner and subcontractors — make better informed decisions earlier, more quickly and sometimes at a cheaper price point.

Before AR and VR technology entered the construction industry, companies either had to work with two-dimensional construction drawings or build very expensive, three-dimensional models, or mock ups, of construction sites that allowed clients to physically walk through a building space to interact with its features. Patton says the entire mock-up building process used to cost roughly $1 million — depending on the project size.

However, now this costly and time-consuming process is a thing of the past, as construction companies have found a way to utilize AR and VR technology to bring clients into a computer-generated environment. By putting on an AR or VR helmet, clients can immerse themselves and engage in a virtual environment that shows them all of the project's details and allows them to move about a virtual construction site the same way they would in a 3D model.

McCarthy's Houston division began utilizing reality technology in early 2015, with some of its other markets integrating the technology into their practices in late 2014. Since then, the company's use of AR and VR technology has grown exponentially, Patton says.

"When we first started evaluating and looking at virtual reality and augmented reality, [we] might have [used it on] one or two projects a year, and that was probably three years ago," Patton says. "Today, I'd say almost 60-75 percent of our projects—at some point in design or construction — utilize virtual reality or augmented reality or a combination of both."

Although McCarthy has been around since 1864, the general contracting company made its Texas debut in Dallas in 1981. Since then McCarthy expanded to create a Houston office in 2011, building a portfolio of renowned Houston clients such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas Children's Hospital as well as the recent completion of Houston ISD's Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

A notable project McCarthy's Houston Division took on was phase one the MFAH's master plan that included building The Glassell School of Art. The company also continues its work on phase two, which includes new developments for the MFAH for which McCarthy's virtual design and construction group created VR and AR models for the museum.

By using software like HoloLive and Fuzor for AR technology and Fuzor for VR technology, McCarthy's VDC group can visualize and combine digital creations with the real world, Patton says. With the growing number of projects utilizing the technology, Patton says McCarthy has invested greatly in personnel who will help grow the VDC group and continue to look for advancements in the construction industry.

"Some of the folks that we have those [VDC] positions in our company, some of them come from construction technology backgrounds and construction management backgrounds but others come from graphical design and have like a gaming background, some come from architectural backgrounds," Patton says. "[Reality technology] really kind of opened the door to a new opportunity for people to get engaged with the construction industry that we hadn't seen in the past."

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs