The Samsung Gear VR headset is strapped on and the inside of VIMtrek founder and CEO Arol Wolford’s corner office in Norcross transforms into a magnetic resonance imaging lab in a hospital – one still on a computer-assisted drawing board.
The VIMtrek software powering this architectural software demonstration kicks into its augmented reality feature by focusing on a light fixture in the lab and tapping on the side of the Gear headset. A box with specifications and price options for the fixture opens up on the screen. Another feature gives you an environmental scorecard for the room’s building materials. But Wolford, a grandfatherly type who has been an influence in architectural software for more than three decades, says it’s VIMtrek’s virtual reality technology that steals the show for doctors who have seen the demo.
“Put VIMtrek on the Samsung phone, and you get to walk through the rooms, and the doctors are all of a sudden a lot more empowered,” Wolford said. “Instead of looking at 2D plans or a (costly) Hollywood-style setup, they experience it.”
Rather than discovering too late that the MRI machine is set too close to the wall, making maintenance difficult, doctors can request that design change early in the construction process. That’s one result of the gaming technology serving as the foundation of VIMtrek: More input means fewer cost overruns. The software’s VIMnotes feature lets building owners, subcontractors and materials providers make suggestions that show up on the screen. Architectural and engineering design changes are rendered ultra-fast by VIMtrek’s Unity gaming engine. “From three days to less than an hour,” Wolford said. Results are sent back and forth via VIMtrek’s cloud.
That process promises to reduce both change order costs and a building’s energy and CO2 impact. It also opens up the collaborative process in the architecture, engineering and construction industries.
The VIM in VIMtrek stands for “visual information model,” a take on the current BIM (“building information model”) standards represented by Autodesk’s Revit software, the industry leader. “To take it to the next step, one needs to go from BIM to VIM,” Wolford said. “VIM democratizes things. It allows ubiquity, it allows an easy-to-use thing like a gaming engine to get in front of the subcontractors and the building product manufacturing reps. These people with VIMtrek are getting to see the buildings, for once, not in a 2D set of drawings, but in 3D.”
All kinds of tech trends are colliding within VIMtrek – virtual reality, gaming technology, computer assisted drawing, big data, collaboration. It’s not just good business sense that allows VIMtrek to integrate with Revit and other popular architectural software. He’s had a hand in building out this industry since 1982.
That was when Wolford, then a 29-year-old escapee from his Silicon Valley roots, established his first company, Construction Market Data (CMD), in Atlanta. The same factors leading many now to make the journey to the Southeast from Northern California’s expensive suburbs drove him back then. “I looked at Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. I loved San Francisco, but the homes there for a regular person in the 1980s were $500,000. Here, $100,000 got you a better home.”
CMD quickly grew to dominate the then-nascent building information technology business. Five employees morphed into 1500 staffing 85 offices around the country, along with outposts in Canada and Asia. “We had a good company together,” he recalled. “It’s one of those deals where it really was the people, and me stepping aside and letting them go. Maybe I had the vision, but they made it happen.”
Wolford sold CMD in 2000 for $300 million, but he wasn’t done with this industry. A chance meeting in Boston with Leonid Raiz led to the latter entrepreneur founding Revit with the desire to construct buildings in the same way that Boeing makes its 777 passenger jet, “which is designed, built and flown all on the computer” before it rolls out of a hangar. “Why can’t we do that with buildings?”
Wolford invested some of his CMD winnings and joined its board, and enough tantalizing technology was in place to attract Autodesk, which bought Revit for $133 million. Thanks to that sale, Autodesk Revit’s influence has grown so much that it is now mandated in the United Kingdom and China for large-scale construction projects.A few years later, Chuck Eastman of Georgia Tech’s Digital Building Lab, another key figure in building information modeling, pointed Wolford in the direction of gaming engines. While Revit was great software, Eastman told Wolford that “it’s like a Ferrari. It’s fast. But there’s only one seat next to the architect. We need a bus,” he told Wolford, referring to the collaborative capabilities a gaming engine would bring to the mix.
Wolford started VIMtrek in 2011 with investments from “friends and family,” but he wouldn’t discount venture capital in the future. He has aggressive 2016 plans to grow beyond 25 employees, including opening an office in London. “Lowering our price is allowing us to gain greater traction, and we’re able to do that now because we’re more automated.”