Real-time 3D technology in AEC, explained

Discover how architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) companies are harnessing real-time 3D to change the way buildings are designed, created, and operated.

How industry leaders use real-time 3D technology

Before we tell you what real-time 3D is, let’s show you how your peers are applying it across their businesses. 

Real-time 3D’s utility has led thousands of companies across a range of industries to embrace the technology, including in architecture, engineering, construction, energy, government, healthcare, transportation, and more.

What’s different about real-time 3D?

Real-time 3D (RT3D) is a computer graphics technology that generates interactive content faster than human perception. Check out this page for a deeper dive into how this technology works.  

Interactivity is at the core of real-time 3D. Unlike movies for example, which create the perception of motion but offer the same passive experience to the audience – real-time 3D immerses people in a digital reality that feels authentic, while giving them control over their experience, much like a video game.

Real-time 3D experiences are fundamentally both:

  • Immersive, because the digital representation of reality approaches the authenticity of our analog experience of reality, and
  • Interactive, because users have precise control over their experience and vantage point.

While there are many ways to leverage this technology, the core use case of real-time 3D among these companies is to create and deploy digital representations of their buildings, combined with information from data sources such as metadata and sensors. Also referred to as digital twins, these representations look and behave like the physical product and can be experienced on mobile devices, computers, augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) headsets, and other platforms.

Check out a real-time 3D experience

Now that you have a sense of what real-time 3D is, take a walk through this real-time 3D London office – created in Unity. 

You may need to wait a couple of minutes for it to load, but we promise it’s worth the wait. In the meantime, you can continue reading and check back soon.

Once you’re in, walk around the office, adjust the time of day, and change design aspects.

The business impact of real-time 3D

AEC companies face constant challenges when it comes to productivity and efficiency. Rework caused by fractured workflows and inefficiency cost the construction industry $450 billion a year. According to a McKinsey & Company report, 20% of construction projects run over schedule and 80% are over budget. Under the pandemic conditions of 2020, these difficulties are exacerbated.

Companies using real-time 3D can better navigate these challenges. Research shows real-time 3D unlocks the following benefits:

  • Cost savings from catching design and engineering flaws earlier and using construction sequencing to keep projects on schedule.
  • Winning more projects by presenting buildings to clients in VR and creating leave-behind AR applications.
  • Faster time to market by enabling collaboration and communication between trades and federating data from different software (e.g., Revit, Navisworks, Rhino, etc.) into one model.

Higher employee retention rate by increasing workforce productivity and safety through interactive VR and AR experiences.

Top use cases of real-time 3D

Applications for real-time 3D technology run the gamut, from design to preconstruction to the job site and beyond. AEC companies that have adopted real-time 3D use the technology across their building lifecycle for, on average, more than four use cases, according to a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Unity, published in March 2020.

Some examples across the building lifecycle include:

Design and engineering
Common use cases: Immersive design reviews, experience-based design, design visualization, structural engineering, review project status, gather stakeholder feedback, etc.

Real-world examples of real-time 3D: SHoP Architects streamlined creation of real-time 3D experiences and reduced the time it takes to optimize large design models from days to minutes.

Construction planning and simulation
Common use cases: Job site coordination, construction sequencing, clash detection, 1:1 AR onsite, quantity takeoffs, BIM coordination, field guidance, QA/QC, documentation, etc.

Real-world examples of real-time 3D: Mortenson empowered medical stakeholders to simulate hospital designs in VR to streamline patient care, make staff more efficient, and lower costs.

Training and operations
Common use cases: VR-based safety training, AR-based guidance, remote maintenance, real-time digital twins, data visualization, etc.

Real-world examples of real-time 3D: Skanska boosted its construction-site safety by implementing a Unity-based VR experience into its standard worker-safety training program.

Sales and marketing
Common use cases: Virtual events, photorealistic renderings, sizzle videos, immersive real estate purchase, mixed reality real estate experiences, etc.

Real-world examples of real-time 3D: SmartPixel created an interactive application for Maestria Condominiums to enable potential buyers to explore the future towers.

The value of extending real-time 3D across the business

Real-time 3D addresses challenges across the entire lifecycle, ensuring buildings are better designed, created, and operated. The study by Forrester Consulting found that:

Most adopters are already using real-time 3D across multiple touchpoints in the business … [They] find that the more places … they implement real-time 3D, the more seamlessly these processes are integrated as it provides a more interactive medium for collaboration and communication.

Indeed, 90% of companies using real-time 3D find it valuable for supporting interdepartmental collaboration. There’s a reason for that: Once models exist in a virtual environment, they can be extended for any use case across the business.

That means virtual models used during the design phase can also be used by the construction team to create onsite 1:1 scale AR experiences, as well as by the operations team to create high-fidelity, interactive applications for maintenance. These synergies speed up the building lifecycle and reduce inefficiencies that cause construction projects to take longer and cost more than planned.


Bringing real-time 3D experiences to life

Companies can harness the power of real-time 3D with software like Unity, the leading real-time 3D development platform. Sometimes referred to as game engines because of the technology’s origins in video game development, these platforms offer robust capabilities to both create interactive digital content and deploy it to run on various platforms, such as mobile devices, computers, and head-mounted displays. 

Let’s dive into how real-time 3D content is created and consumed.

Who creates real-time 3D experiences?

Today, the primary creators of real-time 3D experiences have technical backgrounds, such as software engineers or AR/VR developers. This is because the vast majority of enterprise applications built on this technology require custom development and programming expertise. (Unity uses C#.)

The pool of real-time 3D users is expanding, however, as Unity and other companies make real-time 3D accessible to nonprogrammers, in turn making it easier to scale custom development. 

Here are some ways barriers to real-time 3D are being lowered for nonprogrammers:

  • Visual scripting: Visual, node-based interfaces like Bolt enable nontechnical users to create logic for applications without writing code.
  • Product innovation: New products such as Unity Reflect condense the process for bringing 3D models into real-time environments into a few clicks.
  • Out-of-the-box solutions: As demand for immersive, interactive experiences has increased, many independent software vendors have leveraged this technology to build solutions for specific use cases while removing the need for coding and scripting. For instance, Interact is a powerful platform that makes it easy to create advanced VR applications from your CAD models.

Service delivery: Custom solutions can be created that accommodate nonprogrammers and the way they work. For instance, the extensibility of platforms like Unity enables companies to tailor Unity’s user interface so that nontechnical users such as designers or marketers can harness the power of real-time 3D without having to code.

How are real-time 3D experiences created?

A typical real-time 3D AEC workflow starts by ingesting existing content. Imported 3D geometry and metadata can come in many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Computer-aided design (CAD) models from applications such as AutoCAD, Alias, VRED, CATIA, Creo, and Siemens PLM Software
  • Meshes from 3D modeling and visualization applications like Autodesk 3ds Max, Rhino, SketchUp, and Blender
  • Reality capture data of products or locations from point clouds, photogrammetry, and LiDAR scanning
  • Building information modeling (BIM) data from programs like Autodesk Revit and Navisworks
  • Materials from BIM software like Autodesk Revit

To achieve the best performance and visual quality when deploying to various platforms, real-time 3D content typically needs to be optimized. The optimization process ensures complex models become lightweight representations that are compatible for real-time development and can properly support interactivity on devices like phones and VR headsets. Companies can use one-click tools like Unity Reflect that automatically prepare data for real-time consumption, or take full control of that process with purpose-built tools like Pixyz.

Once assets are ready for real-time 3D, development can begin. Users can accelerate scene creation with 3D models, objects, environments (i.e., the virtual world), and more from Unity’s Asset Store. Unity lets users iterate rapidly and adjust components like animations, audio and video, cinematics, environments, lighting, user interfaces, visual effects, and more. At any point in development, users enjoy real-time previews of their work – visualization is instant, so there’s no waiting around for the results to render.

For complex enterprise applications, Unity also provides the flexibility to do more with:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI): Unity provides a rich set of machine learning (ML) tools and the ability to integrate with multiple AI and ML frameworks, which is especially helpful for using simulated environments to train and validate intelligent systems.
  • Systems engineering: Prespective, another Unity Verified Solution Partner application, provides a powerful systems engineering framework to connect Unity with external control systems, such as programmable logic controllers or software emulations of control systems, and external math models, such as a functional mock-up unit (FMU) or MATLAB.

Enterprise integrations: Unity’s powerful application programming interface (API), built-in networking capabilities and integrations to third-party network stacks provide a robust and reliable way to extend applications to support remote collaboration, integration with Internet of Things (IoT) systems for digital twins, or almost any networked application you can imagine.


SHoP Architects talk skyscrapers, real-time data and digital twins.

SHoP Architects talk skyscrapers, real-time data and digital twins.

How are real-time 3D experiences shared?

The value of real-time 3D as a medium of consumption is its parallels to reality. Our world is in three dimensions – we move, think and experience in 3D. Compared to static experiences like images and videos, the extended spatial presence that a virtual environment replicates brings numerous benefits, including enhanced problem solving, better knowledge retention, higher levels of engagement and understanding, and much more.

Unity offers a rich set of interaction models so that people can interact in real-time with a “live” application (known as a runtime application) on a mobile device, through a web browser, using AR, in a fully immersed VR experience, and more. Real-time 3D can also be embedded into existing properties, such as a mobile app or e-commerce page. 

Consumers of real-time 3D content can be internal stakeholders, such as an onsite worker receiving a training program to improve project safety from a VR headset, or external audiences, such as potential buyers from anywhere exploring real estate developments before they’re built. It can enable individual experiences, such as an architect conducting real-time design reviews, or shared experiences, such as design and construction teams identifying design concerns before the construction phase to reduce change orders, construction time, and costs.

Dive deeper into real-time 3D

Learn more about real-time 3D technology by checking out our solutions or reading our commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Unity.

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