An Avatar on a Mission

The Immersive Construction Lab (ICon Lab for short) at Penn State’s University Park campus looks deceptively simple.

A three-paneled screen faces a room of lined-up tables. The lights dim and a computer whirs to life, projecting an image of an avatar onto the screen—a girl with dark hair standing on grass in front of a two-story brick building. With a click of the mouse, she starts to walk and explores the building room by room—and she’s taking everyone in the ICon Lab with her. 

“Here, put these on,” said John Messner, professor of architectural engineering and manager of the ICon Lab. “They let the tracking system follow whoever’s wearing them.”

He’s holding a pair of 3-D glasses with a few additions—poking out from the frames are several short black spokes with small white spheres at the end. They make the wearer look decidedly bug-like, but they also make the ICon Lab even more immersive. While wearing the special glasses, users can directly interact with the simulation, taking the experience from a 3-D video to interactive virtual reality. They can lean over railings or bend to peer under a table, and the sensor will pick up the movements, adjusting the view on the screens accordingly.

Messner is virtually exploring a model of the Center for Building Energy Science and Engineering located almost 200 miles away in The Navy Yard in Philadelphia. The avatar follows his directions as he leads her up the stairs and into a virtual conference room.

The building was built in 1942 as a recreation facility for the young sailors headed to World War II, but is now being retrofitted to become the headquarters for the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation (CBEI). The consortium comprises 14 organizations, including Penn State, that are striving to transform the energy efficiency market for small- and medium-sized commercial buildings. Penn State leads CBEI, and the partner organizations are helping the University conduct research.

“The ICon Lab presents the opportunity to get a really immersive experience.”—John Messner

An innovative transformation

The Center for Building Energy Science and Engineering is being transformed into a tech-savvy, best practice model that will showcase the energy-efficient innovations made possible through retrofit technologies. 

Additional roofing insulation was added to increase thermal resistance—keeping warm air from escaping in the winter or coming in during the summer. Special attention was also paid to “daylight harvesting,” which means daylight sensors are used to automatically dim or turn off lights when natural light is available. 

To further reduce electricity use, rooms were strategically placed according to their lighting needs. Offices, for example, were put on higher floors where natural light is more abundant, while restrooms and The Navy Yard’s own ICon Lab (a sister lab to the one at University Park that will be moved to the completed building) were placed in areas without a lot of light. 

Both the University Park and The Navy Yard labs were used in the design process for the Center for Building Energy Science and Engineering.

“The ICon Lab presents the opportunity to get a really immersive experience,” says Messner. “Instead of looking at a simple floor plan, you can get the team really engaged in the design, and the more you get everyone engaged, the better feedback you can get.”

The two labs can be synced so people at each location can view the same model at the same time. Throughout the design process, the ICon labs at both locations were used to display interactive, navigable models for team members to review. Craig Dubler, building information modeling (BIM) manager at Penn State, said the lab was invaluable during the Center for Building Energy Science and Engineering’s design process.

“I’m based here at University Park, so I couldn’t physically be in Philadelphia during design reviews. I used the ICon Lab here to dial into the one in The Navy Yard and was able to see everything they were in real-time,” says Dubler.

“It’s the same amount of collaboration while saving a lot of time and travel dollars.”

—Craig Dubler

How it all works

The ICon Lab works by projecting BIM files from a computer onto the screen in 3-D. A BIM file is a digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a place, often a building. Dubler describes BIM files as “geometry combined with information”—not only can you virtually explore the building, you can also click on, say, a electrical switchgear and get the specific dimensions and instructions for construction. 

“Virtually walking through the models with the ICon Lab lets us fix problems before they’re actually made,” said Dubler. “If we’re exploring the model and see that the cabinets are in the wrong place, we can move them before they’re built. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to fix these problems before the construction process.”

In addition to CBEI in Philadelphia, the University Park ICon Lab has had a wide influence at University Park. It’s been involved in creating the Stuckeman Family Building, the new Health and Human Development Building and the Millennium Science Complex, and architectural engineering students use it to build their own projects.

Photos: CIC Research Program