Remote site viewing

High-tech is employed to assist a low-tech function as Oculo provides immersive off-site construction project viewing

There are numerous devices on the market that allow project managers, contractors, architects and engineers to keep abreast of work being carried out on a building site. None of them, though, replicate the benefits of a simple visual inspection where project teams can jointly tour a project and point out issues that need addressing. Recent restrictions on movement may have cut down the frequency of site visits, but even without the pandemic the need to get the relevant stakeholders to visit a project on a regular basis unnecessarily disrupts the working practices of the people involved and it takes time and effort to visit multiple dispersed projects.

The problem is now very much resolved with a new application developed by Oculo AI, which applies the latest technology to replicate a very simple and familiar process, replacing on-site visits with virtual site walks. It's simple and feels familiar because off-site viewers can take a tour through a building site, stop and look at a section that is causing concern, and make notes that can be shared with contractors, clients or anybody else charged with dealing with a problem.

Oculo AI creates a 3D site view from images taken by a 360-degree camera mounted on a hard hat and worn by an employee when carrying out their usual site walk. No great expertise is required except to tour the site regularly so that successive views are available and progress made between them can be assessed. Site managers, working remotely, can then select and view specific scenes within the historical footage by clicking on the plan location, which allows them to assess whether the issues raised during earlier 'visits' have been resolved. Such issues can, of course, include lapses in Health and Safety, equipment left lying around and other common site problems as well as the more obvious progress assessment.

The company, which was founded by Tom Kotecki and Wojtek Szymczak, has only been operating for twelve months, but it is already being used by several contractors and asset owners. These include Ringway Jacobs on a Transport for London project where there was a need to monitor work remotely as a result of COVID-19 and by Mastercraft at their Claridges Hotel project in Mayfair, London.

Oculo is way more than just a video camera however, as it uses artificial intelligence to stitch together thousands of photos taken by the 360 degree camera and create its own 3D map of the environment, which can then be plotted onto the customer's original 2D or 3D model in order to aid navigation. Crucially, the software doesn't require GPS as it builds its own 3D model from the camera's trajectory through the building, and neither does it require BIM or any other 3D model to work - a PDF of a simple 2D site plan is all that's needed to get started. The output produced is similar to that of Google Street View and as such, the site can be viewed by anyone using a standard browser. Oculo is typically adopted by new users as a project management tool as it enables this visual assessment of construction work, as well as ongoing task management thanks to its collaboration functionality.

The collaboration functionality couldn't be simpler to use, either. If the Site Manager, or any other user sees something that needs attention, they can add a note on screen to draw attention to it. That annotation is then locked to those specific photo frames and will be visible to anyone else viewing the site, who can also add in their own comments or response.

The key points are that Oculo users no longer need to visit a site in person, instead conducting a high proportion of site inspections remotely, which includes triaging issues, assigning tasks and following progress. Observations, notes and actions identified can then be compiled into reports far more easily than they currently are, thus saving project managers huge amounts of time on report creation and documentation.  The ability to walk through a virtual environment, to look around oneself wherever you are in the 3D scene and to zoom in on what you want to see, is much simpler than searching through a selection of photographs which have had to be linked to specific locations or carefully filed for subsequent retrieval. This really underlines the earlier point that high-tech tools are now being used to achieve far more effective low-tech outcomes.

Oculo cites how the software has been used to solve a range of frequently encountered project management problems on construction sites. Aside from the progress monitoring aspect, another important element is the historical record that is naturally captured when using Oculo regularly, as this can play a crucial role in helping management settle claims and disputes that hinge on what work was done, when. Whilst many other digital systems can already be used to do this, none is as simple as reviewing visual site footage from an earlier point in time.

Another benefit is the way Oculo facilitates more collaborative ways of working. Everybody with access to the system can see the same updates and same level of detail via the Oculo platform - even including the client, as we have seen when Ringway Jacobs opened this up to their client TfL. This level of transparency makes it possible for whole teams to triage and resolve issues collectively via a conference call, safe in the knowledge that everyone is seeing the same thing. As a result, unnecessary travel and its costs are eliminated, along with additional delays that might be caused by key personnel having limited opportunity to travel to site. This is especially important during the current COVID-19 crisis, where social distancing rules limit the numbers of people on-site.

The most obvious use cases are for Project Management and digital documentation as already described, but Oculo sees its site view functionality being gainfully employed in many other areas as well. For example in Valuations, where contractors need visible evidence of completed work to facilitate faster payments, and in Health & Safety where the ability to identify issues that might put a worker at risk is crucial for making building sites safer places to work.

Pre-condition surveys is another area where documenting building condition prior to restoration work is necessary but often tricky - or, more critically, for evidence of malpractice or unsafe working practices in the event of a catastrophic fire in buildings undergoing restoration, such as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Glasgow's Mackintosh School of Art.

Oculo, as Tom Kotecki freely admits, is still in development, despite already being used on a daily basis by a variety of clients. There are many features on the roadmap for the next few months that will extend its capabilities and its application even further - months, I am sure, in which the need for remote working will hardly diminish, as COVID-19 endures.

If you want to see Oculo in action the company is holding a webinar on 15th October. You can sign up for it here: