Access to BIM on the job site has certainly evolved over the years. Early on, workers could only look at the 3-D models on bulky PCs in project offices or trailers, then they graduated to portable laptops, and these days BIM is finding its way onto mobile devices. But, there remains a fundamental disconnect between the digital models and the physical, tangible site, making precise comparisons between them difficult. Tony Ragucci and Victor Palmer, of Pericept, have a solution.
Their product, BIMtrace, allows a worker to snap a photo on the job site and link it directly to a BIM model by matching a few of the lines in the picture to those in the model. The worker can then double-check measurements and the placement and look of certain installations in the physical space against those in the model and make notes regarding any discrepancies or issues.
“[It’s] the first tool that I’m aware of that actually bridges that gap, where you’re not accessing the model on site and you’re not looking at photos; you’re actually bringing the site to the model,” says Ragucci, Pericept’s president and CEO.
He and Palmer, vice president of product development, recently sat down—along with one of their clients, Kevin Bredeson, of Suffolk Construction—to discuss their move from tech into construction, how their product is making BIM more accessible and impacting workflow, and why they chose to self-fund their endeavor.
Tony, both you and Victor come from fairly accomplished tech backgrounds, but I also know you have some early roots in construction. Can you trace the path that led to your return to the construction industry?
TR: I’ve always loved building and creating, since I was a kid. My grandfather was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker in Chicago—he worked on the Willis Tower, actually—and my father was a residential real estate developer. I grew up working for my dad, and I learned carpentry, electrical, plumbing, framing, drywall, and other trades, and then later design and construction management.
Later on, while I was getting my PhD in physics at Ohio State, I had to design a low-temperature physics laboratory and a semiconductor cleanroom. I designed everything in AutoCAD and managed the construction, but it turned out to be a very frustrating process. The plans were correct, but there were a lot of delays due to the rework we had to do, and I really didn’t have any way to show the contractors how the installations should look on-site, and they had no way to check the positions of the services they were actually installing. We weren’t using laser scanning, so I often couldn’t tell if something was placed incorrectly.
After my PhD, I became a research scientist at Lynntech and invented and developed sensing and measurement technologies for NASA and DHS and other government organizations, like an infrared system for Airborne Search & Rescue. That’s where Victor Palmer and I met, as part of an R&D team I created there.
Then, in 2015, I wanted to get back to construction. It’s the world I grew up in, and I recognized at that point that Victor and I could make a positive contribution to some of the frustrations that I ran into in graduate school. So, we started Pericept.
Victor, was it just from working with Tony that you wound up in construction?
VP: Yeah, my background is probably more on the tech side. I’m actually a mathematician by pure training. That’s what my undergrad was in, and then I did some work in physics and then got my PhD in computer science, which is just where I ended up. I’ve done a lot of work with graphics. I’ve done a lot of work with scientific computing, managing large data sets, visualization—a bunch of different areas. My passion is for solving interesting problems that actually make a difference. In the tech world, there are a lot of problems that you can solve that either no one cares about or that are arcane.
I saw that you’ve done some work for Electronic Arts, too. Do you think there’s a nexus to be found between BIM and gaming technology?
VP: Yeah, I think one of the biggest ones is the accessibility of the technology. If you look at the evolution of gaming, at one point people would go to the arcades and play Galaga at the machine there. That was the only way. Then, as technology advanced, you had the era of the home consoles, where people actually had their Nintendos there and were playing on their television. It’s more accessible, and it opens new avenues, but you still need a TV, and you still need some equipment. Then, most recently you have the mobile game explosion, so now you don’t need the 60-inch TV, you don’t need your PS4. You can have this gaming experience on your cell phone, and it’s become completely ubiquitous.
I see something similar in BIM, specifically in the realm of reality capture, which is where BIMtrace is leaning. You’ve got tools like laser scanning, which are absolutely incredible but require some hardware. It’s increasingly becoming more and more accessible. More and more BIM is available on mobile devices, and with BIMtrace, we’re doing reality capture, and the required hardware is just a mobile phone or a tablet camera. You could almost think of BIMtrace as casual reality capture.
Talk a little bit more about the basic capabilities of BIMtrace. What’s the elevator pitch you give to help people understand it?
TR: BIMtrace is quantitative lightweight reality capture. It’s the first of its kind in that way. You can take a picture on-site, then import that to Autodesk Navisworks to compare the site to the model. You indicate four or more edges in the model, then trace the corresponding lines of the photo to align with BIM. The match between the photo and the model is pixel-level accurate and incredibly powerful. You can leverage the fact that the site is supposed to look like the model, then just use the photo to capture the differences. So, it democratizes BIM without added expenditures for new equipment, and because the outputs are JPEG photographs, they’re easy to move around and attach to issues and observations if you use construction-management software. And, you can also use common cloud services or even e-mail, if you want.
There are kind of huge implications for coordination and documentation and quality assurance. For instance, all the measurement data supporting cost-change events is already attached to the issue. And, of course, during construction you can quickly compare the site to the BIM, which is great for checking any key installations. Really, it’s the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to do reality capture today.
It seems like BIMtrace has some AR potential. Have you already begun work to demo it through Hololens or any other sort of headset device?
TR: We originally considered an AR approach and realized that actually wasn’t the best match for what the industry needed and wanted at this point in time. BIMtrace has actually simplified since its inception, to the point where it is today, and it seems to be much more practical—also because it integrates with the existing workflow. Hololens, DAQRI, or Meta 2, we’re really excited about that stuff, as everybody else is. We do think, down the road, that’s probably where things are going, but all these iPads and iPhones are already out there. We’re trying to leverage what’s already existing and what people are comfortable using so that they can actually do this in a practical way today.
Kevin, when did you and Suffolk first encounter BIMtrace?
KB: My relationship with Tony and Victor goes back to fall of 2015. I was involved very early on in the trials and Tony and Victor configuring the product and going through the beta stage. Once Tony described what his vision was and what he was building, I was like, “If you can pull that off, that’ll be something that definitely fills a gap.” There was not a product out there that did what he was suggesting.
What sort of work is it helping Suffolk Construction accomplish?
KB: It’s really going to enhance our quality process and our quality assurance and control process. That’s where we see a huge benefit. We have 3-D models on all of our jobs, and being able to take them and do that overlay, that’s always been a gap that I’ve identified, a gap of, “OK, we model it, we coordinate it, we essentially perfect it so that it’s ready to build, but how do we actually verify what got built?” That’s why I was attracted to this tool. We’re doing a $50 million expansion on our headquarters, and we’re using the product right now to validate a lot of the in-progress work or constructed installations.
What would your process have looked like before BIMtrace?
KB: A lot of going through, looking at plans and other kinds of reference information, performing a lot of checks. We had incorporated some laser-scanning techniques, but the laser scanning takes time, not only to collect that information but to process it. We were looking for something that was very iterative and something that we could process very quickly.
Are there particular aspects of your workflow that BIMtrace has changed or improved?
KB: Rework. We want to be able to validate that things are installed where they’re supposed to be so that we don’t have to go back. If something is installed in the wrong place, you might have that trickle-down effect, where that installation then affects another, which affects another. Ultimately, for us, it’s risk management. This is a risk-management tool.
Tony, how do you distinguish your product from similar-seeming BIM measurement and reporting products such as Holobuilder, FieldLens, and Autodesk BIM 360?
TR: The biggest differentiator is that BIMtrace is a quantitative reality-capture tool. Holobuilder is a great way to capture spherical photos on-site, and it gives you that 360-degree coverage the way laser scanning does, but it doesn’t provide photogrammetric accuracy. You can’t take a photo and directly compare it to a model.
With FieldLens and BIM 360, they’re really more construction-management applications. They’re providing access to data in the field, and they’re enabling recording, tracking issues, and so on, but they’re not doing measurements on the site itself. But, the construction-management applications are an important complement to BIMtrace because we’re providing the reality capture and they’re tracking the workflow, which is a powerful combination. In fact, we integrate directly with BIM 360 Field, and we’ll release a Procore integration soon. You can bring those BIMtrace notes directly into Navisworks from providers and then push notes back to issues.
You guys have so far been self-funded. Is there a reason you’ve chosen to go that route?
TR: Self-funding was a carefully considered choice we made early on. Victor and I have been involved in technology development for many years, and we know how significantly funding influences development, not always to the benefit of the technology or the end users. As a small business or as a developer, you need to be able to pivot very quickly and say, “OK, we need to go in this direction. This is where the market is telling us we need to go.” That’s sometimes harder to do when you’re trying to keep investors or lenders happy. So, we realized we could probably put money up ourselves and be very fast and direct in our development.
I think it would have been difficult for us to develop BIMtrace as it is today as quickly as we did if we’d had a lot of additional overhead reporting requirements and pitching we’d had to do along the way.
Do you hope to seek outside funding anytime in the near future?
TR: Now that we have an established, stable commercial product that’s out there, we’re in a more comfortable position to accept outside funding. We also recognize that if exponential adoption continues, we’re going to need funds sooner to scale Pericept. But, we wanted to get through the development phase on our own without having to keep other people happy.