The use and application of 4 Dimensional Computer Aided Design (4D CAD) is growing within the construction industry. 4D approaches have been the focus of many research efforts within the last decade and several commercial tools now exist for the creation of construction simulations using 4D approaches. However, there are several key limitations to the current approaches. For example, 4D models are normally developed after the initial planning of a project has taken place using more traditional techniques such as Critical Path Method (CPM). Furthermore, mainstream methodologies for planning are based on individual facets of the construction process developed by discrete contractors or sub-contractors. Any 4D models generated from these data are often used to verify work flows and identify problems that may arise, either in terms of work methods or sequencing issues. Subsequently, it is perceived that current 4D CAD approaches provide a planning review mechanism rather than a platform for a novel integrated approach to construction planning. The work undertaken in this study seeks to address these issues through the application of a distributed virtual reality (VR) environment for collaborative 4D based construction planning. The key advances lie in catering for geographically dispersed planning by discrete construction teams. By leveraging networked 4D-VR based technologies, multidisciplinary planners, in different places, can be connected to collaboratively perform planning and create an integrated and robust construction schedule leading to a complete 4D CAD simulation. Establishing such a complex environment faces both technological and social challenges. Technological challenges arise from the integration of traditional and recent 4D approaches for construction planning with an ad hoc application platform of VR linked through networked computing. Social challenges arise from social dynamics and human behaviours when utilizing VR-based applications for collaborative work. An appropriate 4D-based planning method in a networked VR based environment is the key to gaining a technical advancement and this approach to distributed collaborative planning tends to promote computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW). Subsequently, probing suitable CSCW design and user interface/interaction (UI) design are imperative for solutions to achieve successful applicability. Based on the foregoing, this study developed a novel robust 4D planning approach for networked construction planning. The new method of interactive definition was devised through theoretical analysis of human-computer interaction (HCI) studies, a comparison of existing 4D CAD creation, and 3D model based construction planning. It was created to support not only individual planners’ work but multidisciplinary planners’ collaboration, and lead to interactive and dynamic development of a 4D simulation. From a social perspective, the method clarified and highlighted relevant CSCW design to enhance collaboration. Applying this rationale, the study specified and implemented a distributed groupware solution for collaborative 4D construction planning. Based on a developed system architecture, application mode and dataflow, as well as a real-time data exchange protocol, a prototype system entitled ‘4DX’ was implemented which provides a platform for distributed multidisciplinary planners to perform real-time collaborative 4D construction planning. The implemented toolkit targeted a semi-immersive VR platform for enhanced usability with compatibility of desktop VR. For the purpose of obtaining optimal UI design of this kind of VR solution, the research implemented a new user-centred design (UCD) framework of Taguchi-Compliant User-Centred Design (TC-UCD) by adapting and adopting the Taguchi philosophy and current UCD framework. As a result, a series of UIs of the VR-based solution for multifactor usability evaluation and optimization were developed leading to a VR-based solution with optimal UIs. The final distributed VR solution was validated in a truly geographically dispersed condition. Findings from the verification testing, the validation, and the feedback from construction professionals proved positive in addition to providing constructive suggestions to further reinforce the applicability of the approach in the future.
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