Use of Extended Reality (XR) in Teaching Structural Concrete Design

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Link zur deutschen Version: Einsatz Erweiterter Relität (XR) in der Lehre im Stahlbetonwicklung

Advanced analytical thinking and the ability to abstract are indispensable for understanding the content of lectures in structural engineering: real (3D) structures under different loading situations are investigated with support of computational surrogate models for structural analyses as well as the detailing of the reinforcement. Especially for civil engineering students with little professional experience, this abstraction in lectures is a hurdle. In structural concrete, this is aggravated by the fact that the models used abstract reality to a much greater extent than in other construction methods. Students usually only gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter in the course of reflection after the lecture or in subsequent exercises and colloquia. To meet these challenges, we are developing digital demonstrators and tools at our chair to support and improve teaching [1]. The main ideas behind this initiative are: (i) to complement typically paper-based instruction with digital content displayed via smart devices; (ii) to use mobile technologies available to students to support interactive, personalised, and self-motivated learning instead of content- or teacher-centered instruction; (iii) increase student engagement and enthusiasm for the lecture through immersion in the lecture content to promote deeper understanding at the individual level; (iv) modernise and digitise traditional teaching methods in civil engineering. To this end, the authors designed and implemented a mobile augmented or mixed reality tool (Struct-MRT) [4] and evaluated it in field studies among students and teachers.

Methods of extended reality and their use in teaching civil engineering

Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term for all technologies that combine real and virtual environments as well as human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and mobile devices [2,3]. XR technologies create immersive digital environments within the so-called reality-virtuality continuum [2,2] to varying degrees depending on the intent, cf. Figure 1. Augmented reality (AR) is located on the left side of the reality-virtuality continuum in Figure 1, where the real world is augmented with digital content. “Google Glass” or “Bosch Smartglasses Light Drive BML500P” are typical AR devices here. Virtual reality (VR) is on the right side of the continuum, where the user is immersed in a completely digital environment via Facebook’s “Oculus Quest” device, for example, and hides the real world. Mixed reality (MR) lies between the aforementioned extremes and includes all technologies in which computer-generated content is mixed in varying proportions with the individual’s view of the real world. Currently, the most popular device for MR is the “Microsoft HoloLens” headset.

Figure 1: Reality-Virtuality-Continuum, from [2,3].

Currently, there is limited research on the development and integration of XR technologies into civil engineering teaching. However, there is scientific evidence that XR facilitates the learning of abstract and difficult-to-understand topics [4 – 6]. In addition, the global pandemic (COVID-19) that still persists has caused many universities and companies to change the way they work, teach, and learn. In our prototypical studies, content from various reinforced concrete lectures was developed as AR applications for smartphones and tablets, cf. Figure 2, and made available to other teachers as methodological workflows (Struct-MRT), cf. Figure 3.

Figure 2: QR-Codes (left) and impressions (right) of the AR / MR applications: (top) concrete corbel; (bottom) torsion beam.

Modern XR-enabled smartphones and tablets are affordable and widely available among teachers and students, making this type of immersive teaching highly scalable at low cost. In two field studies, Struct-MRT was tested and evaluated with respect to the two examplary applications of a reinforced concrete bracket and a torsion beam in use in real teaching situations, see Figure 2 and [1]. Struct-MRT allows users to navigate interactively through the individual steps of structural analysis, design and reinforcement detailing. In addition to the true-to-scale, three-dimensional representation of the components, supplementary texts and formulas are dynamically displayed to explain the verification process. Thereby, we are transforming traditional paper-based instruction into immersive teaching, where mobile devices provide access to contextual visual information of the subject matter. Complex lecture content and exercises on structural modeling or construction details can be playfully illustrated and experienced in this way, along with structural design that conforms to standards. Finally, Struct-MRT enables a student-centered approach that allows individualised and self-motivated learning.

Struct-MRI workflow of an exercise and application example

User interactions with Struct-MRT applications are shown as a sequence diagram in Figure 3 (left). During a lecture, students can access the additional content of an assignment sheet by scanning a QR code with their mobile device (iPhone/iPad) via the built-in cameras. When they then open the app on their device, computer-generated 3D content including multimedia (e.g., images or formulas) is displayed (see Figures 2 and 3). The views of the developed apps are designed in full-screen mode and support both portrait and landscape orientation. Additional graphical interaction widgets are placed along the 3D content depending on the specifics of the deployment example.

Figure 3: (left) Sequence diagram of the developed Struct-MRT workflow; (middle) available AR applications for the torsion beam example [1]; (right) FEM stresses in AR.

In the past fall semester, an exercise on the design and construction of a torsion beam was enriched with AR apps. In addition to the paper-based documents, the students were able to use six AR apps (cf. Figure 3 (center)) in parallel to obtain spatial impressions regarding the geometry of the beam, modeling with trusses or stress and deformation results of the finite element method and to interact with them in an immersive way. After the exercise, the approximately 40 participants of this field study (panel) were surveyed using a comprehensive questionnaire regarding the following objectives:

  1. Judging the usability, impression, and interactivity.
  2. Determining the potential and acceptance of the use of XR in engineering education and knowledge transfer among the study participants.
  3. Identifying possible deficits and potentials for improvement of MR apps.
  4. Identifying further suitable use cases of the MR apps.

The following hypotheses were tested as part of the survey:

  • H1: The benefits of mixed reality are easy for students to grasp.
  • H2: The use of mixed reality technologies and tools is easy for students to learn.
  • H3: Students recognise the benefits of mixed reality technologies for teaching and learning.
  • H4: Students enjoy working with mixed reality technologies and tools.

Statistical tests show that all four hypotheses can be considered true. These results support the authors’ core assumption for the use of XR in teaching: the presentation of contextual 3D models to illustrate content is a promising approach in teaching.

The study provided further insights into the use cases of XR in civil engineering. The panel clearly saw the greatest benefits of XR applications in structural engineering, followed by construction or infrastructure management. The results suggest that the perception and understanding of particularly complex structural systems with elaborate design and dimensioning tasks can be strongly supported by XR. The panel also provided indications of additional supporting functionality that can be added to future versions of Struct-MRT workflows and applications. Further findings and statistical analyses of this study can be found in [4].

Conclusion and Outlook

In summary, the results of our pilot studies show that augmented reality methods have not yet sufficiently arrived in everyday study and teaching, but the picture of a broad acceptance of this technology among civil engineering students at ETH Zurich is emerging. The developed applications provide better support for the learning process through the interactive workspace and promote student interaction with course content through immersion in multimedia-based learning environments. In addition to the potentially transformative added value of augmented reality in structural concrete teaching, the surveys simultaneously provided insight into the technological, organizational, and cognitive challenges of its use in teaching and learning. The development and implementation of augmented reality applications complements our range of digital learning applications and in particular offers opportunities for immersive learning experiences during lectures and exercises. We would like to invite you to explore our applications yourself via [1].


A big thank you goes to all participants who contributed to the implementation of the applications and of course to all participants of the accompanying field studies.

Project Lead:                                       Prof. Dr. Walter Kaufmann, Dr. Michael A. Kraus

Applications Programming:                   Irfan Čustović

Supervision Tutorials:                           Simon Karrer


Collection of all Concrete Teaching Applications:             



[2] Milgram, P., & Colquhoun, H. (1999). A Taxonomy of Real and Virtual World Display Integration. Mixed Reality, 5–30.

[3] Osorto Carrasco, M. D., & Chen, P. H. (2021). Application of mixed reality for improving architectural design comprehension effectiveness. Automation in Construction, 126(March).

[4] Kraus, M., Custovic, I., & Kaufmann, W. (2021). Struct-MRT: Immersive Learning and Teaching of Design and Verification in Structural Civil Engineering using Mixed Reality. arXiv preprint arXiv:2109.09489.

[5] Sampaio, A. Z., & Martins, O. P. (2014). The application of virtual reality technology in the construction of bridge: The cantilever and incremental launching methods. Automation in Construction, 37, 58–67.

[6] Shirazi, A., & Behzadan, A. H. (2015a). Content delivery using augmented reality to enhance students’ performance in a building design and assembly project. Advances in Engineering Education, 4(3), 1–24.

Michael Anton Kraus

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