Using XR to See Underground: Interview with Arcadis’ Allison Yanites

Before EWTS 2019 went down last month, I had the chance to interview one of the event’s thought leaders. Check out our interview with Allison Yanites, Immersive Technology Lead at Arcadis, the global natural and built asset consulting firm.

Emily (BrainXchange): To begin, could you provide our readers with a little background on yourself and what you do at Arcadis? Also, when did you first encounter AR/VR?

Allison: I am the Immersive Technology Lead at Arcadis North America. I am currently working to find different ways that augmented reality, virtual reality and other related technologies can improve customer experience, health and safety, and quality of life. Before this role at Arcadis, I worked as a geologist on environmental remediation projects: understanding subsurface conditions such as layers of soil and rock, if any groundwater or soil contamination is present, and if impacts are static or still moving below ground.A big piece of that work was creating 3D visualizations of subsurface data to help our clients and stakeholders better understand the full picture of what is happening below ground and help determine the next steps to clean up any contamination.

A few years ago, our team developed a mixed reality visualization of one of these environmental sites, where our stakeholders could see and interact with a holographic image of the groundwater contamination of the site. That was my first real experience with immersive technology as an industry application, and it was a gamechanger for me. Working with our digital team at Arcadis, I wanted to look beyond just holographic visualizations of environmental models and see how much we can do with AR/VR across all of the types of programs Arcadis is involved with, how we can use immersive and 360 technology for design, engineering, project and management services across all markets.


E: So, you really start at the beginning of a project, with touring a site? 

A: It depends. On some projects, a lot of data has already been collected, such as sites that have been monitored for decades; on other projects we are collecting data in an area for the first time. Either way, we are taking a large collection of data and trying to understand the complex geological and chemical patterns underground, and ultimately, determine the best ways to remove chemical impacts at the site.


E: Can you speak a little more about Arcadis’ business and its customers (who they are)?

A: Arcadis is a natural and built asset consulting firm. We work in partnership with our clients to deliver sustainable outcomes throughout the lifecycle of their natural and built assets. We have 27,000 people in over 70 countries with expertise in design, consulting, engineering, project and management services, and we work with a wide range of markets and industries, including oil and gas, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure and municipal water.

At Arcadis, our mission is to improve quality of life in the communities we serve. Whether that is by ensuring the environmental health of communities or reducing the amount of time people spend in traffic, we develop our solutions with our client’s end-users in mind. To design the most impactful solutions, Arcadis has committed to digitally transforming our business at every level of our organization. That includes training our staff on new digital capabilities, using cutting-edge technologies and then applying our subject matter expertise. We then use these tools and skills to better understand, and address, our client’s needs.


E: How is Arcadis using augmented and virtual reality? What pain points does AR/VR address?

A: Arcadis is using augmented and virtual reality in different ways across a variety of projects. Our immersive technology practice includes on-site visualization with different types of headsets, 360-degree photos, video and virtual tours, and remote assistance with AR capabilities. Generally, immersive technology is addressing four main pain points. The first is increased safety — for example, we can share access to difficult-to-reach sites with 360-degree imagery or livestream video, and bring additional staff or clients to the site virtually. Ultimately, we must keep people safe while still collecting as much data as possible. The second is speed of decision making for example, using AR to overlay a 3D design over an active construction site helps quickly identify any differences between the plan and the current project status. The third is cost reduction — for example, we can now virtually connect project teams and clients to remote sites. This reduces travel and helps reduce the costs associated with delayed communication or unplanned rework. And the fourth is enhancing stakeholder communication and collaboration — for example, virtual 360-degree site tours and remote assistance are virtually bringing staff, clients, and stakeholders to the site where they can participate in discussions about site conditions or questions on certain issues. AR/VR visualizations also greatly improve our communication of design plans or subsurface data visualization.


E: I imagine there are a lot of new demands for the built environment, especially with climate change. Do you think that AR/VR are unleashing more creativity, enabling designers to do things they’ve never done before?

A: Absolutely. There is a lot of power in using AR/VR to understand how the environment is changing, and how to prepare communities and businesses accordingly. AR and VR visualizations can communicate designs to stakeholders that address sustainability needs or flood and storm resilience. AR/VR technology also gives designers the flexibility to share their designs with stakeholders more clearly and effectively, with a greater level of detail, than ever before. When you use AR/VR to see first-hand how a flood level impacts homes and businesses, it takes on a greater urgency than it may have before. We are also using AR/VR technology for training situations, and many training scenarios are relevant to our changing environment and being prepared for the future.


E: How have customers received the technology? Was it easy for them to use? Have any clients adopted AR/VR for themselves?

A: We have had success applying immersive technology services, and it’s exciting to see this technology expand and scale in our industry. At the same time, we are continually working to apply the right technologies for the right projects, and find new ways to solve problems for clients. These technologies are a moving target; they evolve so quickly. It seems like every few weeks there is a new product, software/hardware capability, or integration that opens new opportunities for how AR/VR can be applied. In addition to gaining traction and adoption with the services and capabilities we have established, we are constantly evaluating how we can solve emerging client challenges with new and immersive technology.


E: What was piloting like? Was there an actual test period and were there any major challenges to using the technology at Arcadis?

A: Several years ago, we started with a few different pilots and tested different AR glasses, VR headsets, 360-degree cameras and various software programs to develop content. Each of the solutions or services that we have explored has been rigorously tested, and if appropriate is then developed internally or in partnership with our clients. We are still doing pilots because the space is evolving. With one particular workflow there might be an update in either the hardware or the software that offers a new opportunity, so we’ll go in and test that. The pilots are really tied to the problems we can solve and the solutions we can bring to our clients, working with them to customize what we do with these different tools.


E: Where does the content come from?

A: So far, we have developed everything on our own. We use plugins and software to create content, but the content is coming from our own project locations and 3D designs, like wastewater treatment plant designs, environmental remediation sites or highway infrastructure designs. We already work in those spaces so we have the data sets, which we can use to create the AR/VR visualizations. Through our FieldNow™ program, we have also committed to collecting data 100 percent digitally, which means we can now apply this technology to more projects than ever before.


E: How do you measure the ROI of AR/VR at Arcadis?

A: ROI varies from project to project, but does generally come back to the four KPIs: Increased safety, speed of decision making, cost reduction, and enhanced stakeholder communication and collaboration.


E: How has Arcadis handled the security part of adoption?

A: Arcadis takes data security very seriously. Our group works with our IT department to thoroughly vet each technology against industry security standards. Additionally, our use of each of these technologies is also typically evaluated by our clients to make sure it is compliant with their security protocols. Security is always a leading factor in any new technology we adopt.


E: Are there any applications you’re hoping to test in the future at Arcadis?

A: We are constantly evaluating what we can do to exceed our client’s changing expectations. As new applications and technologies become more accessible, we want to make sure we are equipped to address both traditional and emerging client challenges.

Beyond finding new ways to integrate software platforms, we are starting to leverage the internet of things and wearable technologies more frequently. As a large company that is involved in many different industries, Arcadis uses a lot of different software programs. For each software program (3D design visualization, data analytics, program management system, etc.), we develop unique workflows to create AR/VR and 360 visualizations and/or integrate with a program management system. We are always looking for new software products or software updates that make it easier to integrate AR/VR into our daily routines.


E: With sensors in the environment and wearables, I assume you’re gathering new kinds of information for these models?

A: Absolutely. We are using sensor data, which provides real-time results that can be fed into our data analytics platforms and visualized in different ways. We are also excited about platforms that can house data and be updated in a seamless way, so a whole project team across the globe has access to one central data set.


E: What are your greatest hopes for this technology?

A: As immersive technology becomes more mainstream and awareness keeps spreading about its value for industry, it is exciting to see how many ways immersive technology is adopted and applied. This technology is still so new, I am excited to follow its evolution and see what will be possible in five, 10 and even 30 years. My hope is that as the technology starts to deliver more and more value to businesses, we also see increasingly creative ways to improve quality of life in communities around the world.

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