VR is going to be “more powerful than cocaine”
Virtual Reality used to be a futuristic super-technology we goggled over in sci-fi movies like the Matrix and Star Trek. Today though, Virtual Reality (or VR) is actually a real thing, and it’s become a common toy all over the world with the latest introductions of VR headsets for the masses like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Microsoft HoloLens and Google Cardboard. The possibilities for VR, however, extend far outside the realm of just toys and entertainment. In the coming years, we are going to see VR transform the world of design and architecture, and this article is going to discuss the very first glimpses of how we’re seeing VR take off in the industry, and in our very own practice, today.
To see how far we’ve come, you need to look back to where we came from…
From rock to paper to screen to virtual 3D, architects have used the power of technology to communicate their vision and to build our cities.
Most of us are familiar with the evolution of architectural visualization. Almost every architectural office still has a veteran or two who remember hand drafting – or at least they learned it in school. Most architects may still remember hand drawn rendering, and a few real artists among them may still stick to that method religiously. Since the introduction of Computed Aided Drafting though, which in turn led to 3D Building Information Modeling in more recent years, the world of Architectural Visualization has seen more advancements in the last 15 years than it had in the last 1,500! We used to spend hours and hours and HOURS to put together one good hand rendering… Now by taking a 3D model that is already being produced for construction documents anyway, a photo-realistic rendering is only the click of a button and a few processing seconds away.
At NM Architects, the last several years have allowed our company to develop a skill for creating high-enough-quality 3D visualisation that we’ve felt comfortable doing more renderings in house rather than outsourcing them all to rendering studios and freelancers. We created a company committee devoted to visualizations within the office with the goal to further develop our production skills, create redundancy within the office of those skills, and make ourselves an expert in visualizations in our industry. That’s why when VR suddenly entered the picture and became an option, we were eager to hit the ball rolling and start developing that new service for our clients. Did You Know? In actuality, VR is not a new technology. It may surprise some to hear that “virtual reality has been around in some form for decades (with the first head-mounted systems debuting in 1968), but the technology has not been elastic or advanced enough to have widespread application until now. With advances in mobile technology, which placed high-resolution imagery into everyone’s hands, VR has experienced an explosion in the past two years.”
So Why Pair VR and Architecture?Introducing the Client Architect Gap:
Josh Pabst published an article for ArchDaily titled “Virtual Reality: Coming to an Architecture Office Near You” in which he beautifully explained a fundamental shortcoming that architects have always had when it comes to getting their design intentions across to their clients. He wrote:
“In 1890 Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer published “Client and Architect,” writing:
‘ Much of our trouble in the past has come because the public does not understand that it takes an architect’ s eye, or, at least, an experienced eye, to read an architectural drawing rightly […] Even that picture which is called a perspective cannot easily be understood; and a plan, a section, an elevation, are not pictures at all, but signs and symbols, which the novice often misconceives most entirely just when he thinks he has unravelled every knot […] The interests of the client and those of the architect both demand that some competent artist, not himself concerned in the matter, should be asked — and paid — to explain the submitted designs.’
“Renderings, as we think of them today are inherently two dimensional. They are sophisticated perspectives. As mentioned by Van Rensselaer over 100 years ago, even perspective drawings can be misunderstood. A typical rendering of an interior lobby may show the beautiful feature-wall and front desk, for example, but it cannot simultaneously show the touch-down spaces to the north or the vertical circulation to the south. [Pabst] created the space below to illustrate the concept.
A Photo Sphere with the frames of three standard renders superimposed on top. Photo Spheres make clear the relationship between parts of a design in a way that a set of renders cannot. Original Image © Josh Pabst.
“Traditionally, we may have needed to deliver three renderings (illustrated in white) to show the client these design features. Consequently, only a trained eye, using the floor plans as reference, will truly understand the relationship between all the design elements. A well-rendered Photo Sphere in conjunction with a VR headset can allow your client to stand in a photo-realistic environment and look around. Not on a screen, but in exactly the same way they do in the real world. By tilting their head up, they can see the ceiling and lighting design, by looking straight forward, the front desk and feature-wall, to the right the main entrance and canopy, to the left the escalators, and down to the selected flooring.”
That is what VR is and why it is has the architecture world and its clients so excited. It is a fully-immersive, natural feeling experience in which you put on a headset and submerge yourself into a virtual environment. It is helping to bridge the infamous Client Architect Gap.
Thanks to the proliferation of smartphone devices, virtual reality applications can be developed to be easily downloaded and installed onto a client’s phone. This means that, rather than having to spend money on expensive hardware, such as a dedicated VR headset, a cheap VR headset (such as Google Cardboard) could be provided along with the requisite floor plans and diagrams. Image © Google via the Google Cardboard Website.
The Benefits of VR
As you can see, VR is more than just a form of entertainment in the world of Architecture. We’re beginning to see definite benefits and value when it comes to using Virtual Reality on our projects. The main benefits we’ve seen thus far with our VR experience are:
1.Improved spatial awareness (feel the space)
2.Ability to portray ideas better than ever
3.See issues you didn’t notice before
4.Create better marketing materials
1. Feel the Space:
Virtual Reality offers a person a better sense of spatial awareness than any other technology we’ve ever had access to before. Having architect’s brains, most of us at NM Architects have always been able to look at 2D drawings and be able to imagine in our head what that meant in 3D, but going back the Client Architect Gap we discussed before, that is not the case for many people. After using VR for the first time though, even we were BLOWN AWAY by how well you could actually FEEL the space! Being fully immersed in the model, you could feel every inch of it, and what your own place was within it. It was incredible! Thinking about what that must be like for someone who could never imagine those 3D spaces on their own to finally get in there and actually see it around them and be part of the space – before it’s even built – that’s something that gets us excited. It’s truly revolutionary.
A Virtual Tour in the Loft IT. © NM Architects 2017
2. Speed up the Approval Process:
Sometimes an architect or designer has a fantastic idea that is just too difficult for a client to be able to wrap their head around. A rendering can get you most of the way there in communicating an idea, but oftentimes it can take multiple iterations and extra work to be able to get some things approved. Especially if you’re already modeling the whole building for construction documents, going for the home run and showing your client a VR of the entire space is not likely to be a regretted decision! Immersing them in the VR space allows them to experience the feeling of that space. In turn, they are more informed to make decisions and excited for the final product.
3. See Issues You Didn’t Notice Before:
Another great benefit of being able to see a space through Virtual Reality is that it can bring to light to both designers and owners little (or big) issues that otherwise might have been overlooked. These issues can be aesthetic (“I don’t like the way that looks there”) or user-experience related (“That is not a functional setup”). This provides a base on which the design team can work together with the owner to get these things resolved, making the building more user-friendly, and improving the overall satisfaction with the project when everything is completed.
4. Better Marketing Materials:
In projects that require a large amount of marketing materials such as multi-family or public projects, there has never been a better tool than VR to get people excited about your project and set it apart from others like it. With virtual walk-throughs of apartments, a potential tenant can know exactly what that apartment will feel like and how much space it actually has – something that a simple photograph has never had the power to truly convey. With such resources posted online, a potential tenant may feel confident enough having seen the virtual walkthrough that they don’t feel a need to come tour a space in person before signing.
A Virtual Tour in the “Urban Modern Apartment” helps to convey to the client how all the spaces relate to each other in a way that a set of individual renderings wouldn’t be able to. © NM Architects 2017
The Future of VR
We’ve seen some impressive things coming out of this new introduction of VR to the architecture world and it will only continue to develop further. It’s been said that VR can be used in all stages of the design process. While it’s common for it to be a final presentation tool, they’re saying that within a few years designers are going to be using VR to design even in the early stages of the process! They’re saying that you’ll be able to walk around and change components within the model from within the VR gear. Imagine Iron Man designing his suit through the holographic display… We may not be as far away from technology like that as one might think…
A Virtual Tour in the Hotel Room. © NM Architects 2017