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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

AECCafe Special Report: Reality Capture to Reality Modeling

February 29th, 2016 by Susan Smith

Over the past few years reality capture has taken the AEC world by storm, with ever increasing attention to being able to collect, process and import data more efficiently and accurately. New technologies and the cloud have created the opportunity to use reality capture more affordably and efficiently, so that many more users can take advantage of the data collected. This technology is considered disruptive because in many cases it displaces previously used technologies and processes, that were more laborious, costly and less efficient.

Vectoworks point cloud

Vectorworks point cloud

What do we use to achieve this? How accurate do we need to have the data in the environment? There’s also time of collection, cost of equipment to consider.

ARC Document Solutions, Inc., a document and information management solutions provider for the AEC industry, recently announced the results of an industry survey that reveal participants’ views on emerging technologies. The top prediction, named by 65.3 percent of respondents, is that virtual reality applications will be used much more in the future to experience a building’s design before it is built.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard

Used in the construction industry, the new virtual reality or reality capture technologies can be used for detecting clashes before the construction starts, for design workflow sequencing and for interfacing with the client. The top benefits of virtual reality cited were:

  • Projects will be easier to visualize (51.9%)
  • Projects will be completed faster (48.3%)
  • Projects will require fewer workers (42.2%)
  • Projects will require less material (40.8%)

Another top technology trend, identified by 61.9 percent of the respondents, is the growing use of drones for surveying and for photo and video documentation. More than 60 percent (60.5 percent, specifically) recognized drones’ ability to support mapping and surveying, inspection, and creating image-based records. Close to half (49.7 percent) of the participants named improved surveillance and safety as the top benefit of drone use by AEC professionals.

It takes more time and expertise to collect 3D laser scanning data and laser scanners cost significantly more. Versus Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) photogrammetry, where it is easier to fly, process the data, cheaper, yes, but we lose accuracies. Where the laser scanning is typically around 3 millimeters of accuracy range, UAVs will be up there with mobile LiDAR where those accuracy ranges are going to be within an inch.

Other ways of collecting and managing data include gathering real time information from photogrammetric software using simple cameras and smartphones. Data can be viewed and interacted with via headsets, so that stakeholders can get an interactive idea of what a building and the surrounds will look like once built.

In this article we will explore how a number of AEC vendors are approaching the reality capture challenge.  Various vendors name the technology different things: reality capture, virtual reality, and reality modeling and 3D laser scanning  are some of the ways it is described.


Dominique Poulique, senior manager, ReCap Business Development, and UAV Initiative Coordinator for Autodesk, joined Autodesk through the acquisition of REALVIZ in May 2008, a company that Poulique co-founded in March 1998 from a technology transfer with INRIA (National Research Institute for Computer Sciences and Automatics).

 Integrating reality data into your infrastructure project begins with capturing the real world with standard Lidar systems (laser scanner mounted on a vehicle or an aircraft). ReCap will make this real world scans usable by the Autodesk portfolio.

Integrating reality data into your infrastructure project begins with capturing the real world with standard Lidar systems (laser scanner mounted on a vehicle or an aircraft). ReCap will make this real world scans usable by the Autodesk portfolio.

“Laser scanning remains the mandatory solution for everything indoor and everything engineering grade,” said Poulique.  “Laser scanning is a trustful and deterministic source of information. Most of the scanning work happens indoor for building renovation, factory retrofit, … UAV photogrammetry applies to outdoor mapping and monitoring. The main focus with UAV workflow is to gather 2D and 3D data quickly and in a cheaper way, compared to traditional surveying methods. When it comes to accuracy, it really depends on the use case, the device used, the quality of the camera on-board the UAV… So, a much less deterministic solution than laser scanning. When using the right equipment and when taking the right photos with the good flight path, comparable measurement information to laser data can be obtained with UAV photos. For terrain mapping, accuracy down to 1 or 2 cm in X and Y, and a to 5 cm in Z (altitude) can be obtained with UAV photos.”

Apple building in Cupertino

Apple building in Cupertino

Poulique said reality capture is key for a lot of their customers who deal with building renovation, construction monitoring, factory or plant retrofit, mapping sites, etc. In most cases, the as-built does not conform exactly to the original design intent, or plans are not up to date or are missing. So, instead of starting a work from a blank sheet of paper or from wrong or inaccurate information, reality capture technologies enable bringing the digitized reality into the design process. “We have developed the ReCap platform to handle those cases. ReCap bridges the gap between the reality capture devices (laser scanners, handheld scanners, UAV / drones) and the Autodesk portfolio (AutoCAD, Revit, Inventor, Navisworks, Infraworks, BIM 360,…).”

It is important to understand the end deliverables: up to date floor plan, updated 3D model of the site, clearance information for a factory retrofit, volumetric measurements, actual terrain data, road profile… Then Poulique said they can advise which scanning device can be used and which Autodesk software will be needed.

Dan Chapek, director of Reality Capture of IMAGINiT, a consultancy within the reality capture space, offers full solutions from their partnerships with Pix4D, Leica Geosystems, and Autodesk.  They provide in-depth project realistic Proof-of-Concept services as well as customized training and strategic business planning to ensure that investments made in the reality capture areas are the right ones and clients can mitigate as much risk as possible in implementing this disruptive technology.

Their proof-of-concept service is a multi-day paid engagement that proves how hardware and software perform in a true environment. During a proof-of-concept, customers get an insight into the capabilities of a reality capture hardware and software, as well as what workflows are necessary to efficiently transform a point cloud into a finished digital model. This is vital to ensuring less risk with technology before making a purchase.

Bentley Systems offers “advancing Reality Modeling for infrastructure project delivery and operations.”

For the art museum image: The models produced by ContextCapture, in a format called a reality mesh, can be integrated seamlessly into engineering workflows to serve as precise environmental context for design work.

The models produced by ContextCapture, in a format called a reality mesh, can be integrated seamlessly into engineering workflows to serve as precise environmental context for design work.

Senior marketing manager, Reality Modeling, David Huie, said that before any infrastructure project can begin, a survey of the existing conditions needs to be completed to provide the critical inputs to the decision-making process—to understand the environment within which the asset will be designed, built and operated.  Depending on the complexity of the project and the existing project site, the level of detail required for this survey data varies significantly.

The technologies and processes to capture and visualize real world conditions have evolved beyond the use of levels and tape measures, thanks to innovations like Total Stations, aerial and ground-based laser scanners and advanced photogrammetry.  Each has advantages and disadvantages with wide ranges in the time, cost, and effort required to perform data capture, processing time, the completeness, quality and precision of the data, and the ease with which it can be integrated into engineering workflows.

The use of laser scanners for data acquisition has grown in recent years because it is fast, versatile and can generate up to millimeter accuracy. Laser scanners are still relatively expensive devices (about $30K for less expensive ones) and the technology requires highly skilled, well-trained individuals in order to obtain a virtual 3D representation of the real world.  Nevertheless, it remains an invaluable Reality Modeling technology for many applications, particularly considering the level of accuracy it can capture

New technologies allow the production of accurate 3D models of existing conditions using photogrammetry, such as photogrammetric software like Bentley’s ContextCapture.

The technologies and processes available to capture and visualize real world conditions have evolved beyond levels and tape measures to technologies such as Total Stations, aerial and ground-based laser scanners, and digital photogrammetry, according to senior marketing manager, Reality Modeling, David Huie. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Factors to consider are processing time, the quality and precision of the data, the cost of acquisition and processing, and the capability to support engineering workflows.

The use of laser scanners for data acquisition has grown in recent years because it is versatile and is accurate within millimeters. However, laser scanners are still expensive (about $30K for less expensive models), and the technology requires highly skilled, well-trained individuals.

Bentley, however, has introduced new technology that takes data capture out of the hands of specialists and makes it accessible to everyone. This innovation greatly simplifies the capture of existing conditions since it only requires standard photography captured from any digital camera, whether mounted on UAVs or hand-held. Once the imagery is captured, it is processed photogrammetrically with Bentley’s ContextCapture to produce a highly accurate 3D mesh, what Bentley refers to as a Reality Mesh. The accuracy of the Reality Mesh is only limited by the resolution of the source photography.

Precise 3D models of virtually any scale can be produced from ordinary digital photographs using ContextCapture—in this case, the entire downtown area of Philadelphia.   For the art museum image: The models produced by  ContextCapture, in a format called a reality mesh, can be integrated seamlessly into engineering workflows to serve as precise environmental context for design work.

Precise 3D models of virtually any scale can be produced from ordinary digital photographs using ContextCapture—in this case, the entire downtown area of Philadelphia. 

Francois Valois, director of product management at Bentley Systems states that, “The Reality Mesh is highly accurate 3D geometry, with the precision to allow any engineering project to be done completely in context. The imagery can be textured to the Reality Mesh, of course, which results in a 3D model that is so very photorealistic that folks have to be reminded of the underlying accuracy inherent with the Reality Mesh.”

Users of ContextCapture have the flexibility to incrementally improve the model at any time by capturing additional images and reprocessing the data. This capability enables continuous surveying over the entire asset lifecycle, from conceptual design to operations, progressively updating the existing, as-built and as-operated condition.

“In the past, these technologies were complex enough that only a handful of highly trained visualization specialists could produce compelling results,” said Huie. “but Bentley has extended the realism and ease-of-use and seamless integration within AECO workflows to make it ubiquitously accessible to everyone who wants to be able to better communicate their ideas.”

Steve Johnson, senior manager, user interaction and research, at Vectorworks, Inc. said that laser scanned point cloud data can be embedded in the latest software release of Vectorworks 2016. “Our users can use this data to inform their design or redesign process,” said Johnson. “Additionally, we added support in Vectorworks 2016 for large meshes. These meshes are how data from photogrammetry can be revealed in the CAD platform. We now support large mesh data and import (.obj) in this version.

Now with affordable scanning services and equipment from companies like Trimble MEP, it’s easier than ever to use 3D scanning technology for capturing existing conditions. For architects, in particular, you can very easily import registered point clouds in software, such as Vectorworks Architect, giving the ability to accurately model from existing conditions. In the past year in particular, the technology has reached a stage where it’s best practice to use point clouds within your CAD software, and it’s only going to continue to get better.

“For those who are already using these services, the single biggest piece of advice we give is to not over scan and not over model,” cautioned Johnson. “3D scanning can give amazing accuracy well beyond what is needed by most architects.”

One firm found that the support for such point cloud data was extremely helpful when working with an extremely complex space of an old amphitheater. They were able to import the point cloud data directly into Vectorworks software for accurate documentation of existing conditions that are nearly inaccessible. They were also able to use the data to help inform design studies for the reuse project they have undertaken.

“A major pro of this exciting new direction of reality capture is that we are able to inject a new kind of data into the design process,” said Johnson. “While the data is getting more and more accessible, it’s not quite at the stage where it is easily retrievable by all interested parties. Technology is rapidly changing to make this data more accessible. And as this data becomes more accessible, we at Vectorworks are ready for you to integrate it into the design process.”

Bob Mayer, president of IMSI/Design, said that they will soon be releasing an application product line, DroneScout, which will allow users to use drones to capture visual and location data in the field, enhance it with meta-data, and associate/incorporate it with existing CAD projects.

When advising clients, Mayer said, that they focus on time and cost advantages. “We present the improvement to project management and implementation which can be derived from the richer data environments that are now available. Additionally, this enhanced data value is available not only during the project lifecycle, but in the post-project domain of site management and maintenance.”

Pros and Cons of Reality Capture

What are the pros and cons of this exciting new direction?

Pros of using reality capture are the obvious time and money costs for the overall project. Accuracy is another huge plus, and the advantage to the design process of in context reporting of existing and surrounding conditions, as well as clash detection.

According to IMAGINiT, cons of reality capture can be complicated: it isn’t a single technology but is instead accomplished with several different technologies. The nature of the project will dictate whether to use 3D laser scanning, photogrammetry, ground penetrating radar, aerial LiDAR, mobile LiDAR or sonar mapping.

Choosing a way to implement the technology that you have determined is the right one for the job, is then going to require looking at the adoption curve. Do you go with outsourcing reality capture to outside service providers? Rent reality capture hardware and software? Conduct reality capture in-house and become a full service provider? Each of those will require some research to determine which approach will be best suited for your firm.

Poulique lists these pros and cons of reality capture:


–          Saves time over and costs on the overall project (see this example:

–          Make retrofit operations possible by detecting clashes in advance

–          Comply to regulation (such as monitoring queries and measuring stock piles with UAVs for example)


–          Requires a capture device and the associated expertise

–          Requires up to date software and expertise to know how to consume the reality data and extract meaningful information and deliverables.

Customer Stories

Samiotes Consultants offer civil engineering and land surveying services throughout New England. The firm wanted to continue to invest in technology and training and thought 3D laser scanning was a next step in their growth process. They hired the IMAGINiT team to help them come up with a long-term vision of expanding their services using a Leica high-definition scanner.

Samiotes found that work that previously took three days in the field is now reduced to one day with the 3D scanner. The output from 3D scanners aligns with what clients need for BIM models. Sometimes clients decide to expand the work scope over the course of a project. For those cases, the information needed for expansion is already captured in the 3D scan.

Hypersonic Facilities Complex, originally named the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, was the NACA’s earliest installation with multiple Hypersonic wind tunnels. The various tunnels utilized air and, later, specific gasses, particularly helium and nitrogen, to investigate aerodynamic and aerothermodynamic problems in flight regimes above the speed range of Mach 5. The facility’s core tunnels have been blowdown-type tunnels powered by common differential-pressure systems.


  • Accurately captured the as-built of complex 1247
  • Dramatically reduced total workflow from 16 weeks to 4 weeks
  • Target-less onsite registration conducted during scanning made it quick and easy
  • Undesirable points were “cleaned” from scan
  • Produced deliverables to be used in downstream workflows

Achieved with

  • Faro Focus 3D Laser Scanner
  • Autodesk ReCap Pro
  • Autodesk Revit
  • Process Steps
    • 1,544 laser scans
    • Targetless
    • Modeling of steel structure and other architectural elements in Revit
  • Deliverables: Files for downstream workflow

Turner Fleischer Architects Inc.) is a firm that focuses on the design and building of residential projects. “Reality Capture with Revit yields a 325% ROI for every $1 spent on reality capture, we saved $3.25 in project budget.,” said Viorel Iosif, Associate, Environmental Replication, Turner Fleischer Associates.

Many Bentley users have utilized laser scanning in their projects across a variety of asset types. Check out this project for a compressor station on an oil and gas project, where the intended use was planning maintenance and operations (Booster Compressor Station on the Yurharovskoye Oil Field by Giprotyumenneftegaz).  Or, view this rail project assessing tunnel conditions and requirements for electrification of existing lines (see Cascade Tunnel study by J.L. Patterson & Associates).

Perhaps no Bentley project better exemplifies the potential for Reality Modeling to become an enabling mainstream technology than the planning for the Pope’s recent visit to the city of Philadelphia. The entire downtown core of Philadelphia was modeled, along with the interior of several buildings including the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and used extensively to plan the event.

Watch this inspiring video to see how Reality Modeling has now become accessible to everyone.

(see Successful “Engineering” of Philadelphia Papal Visit).

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Categories: 2D, 3D, AEC, AECCafe, Archicad, AutoCAD, AutoCAD for Mac 2015, Autodesk, BIM, building information modeling, Cloud, IMAGINiT, IMSI/Design, infrastructure, integrated project delivery, Trimble, Vectorworks, video, virtual reality, visualization

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