Virtual Reality and its Impact on Design


August 13, 2015   Scott Chatterton

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtual reality was the next big thing. The technology emerged with great promise: a visceral and immersive experience that capitalized on the growing capacity of computer hardware and software. But the experience couldn’t match the expectations, and the costs to the average person were too great. The Internet arrived, absorbing interest and investment, and VR failed to go mainstream.

 But a few years ago, VR began to return to technology circles and then to a wider audience, with improved technology and usability, and lighter, more comfortable headwear. It’s still early days, but from what we have seen so far this improved version of VR is likely to have a big impact on the architecture, engineering and construction industry, enabling architects and designers a new perspective on their work, enabling them to visualize scale and form up close. The ability to digitally explore a building or space can help an architect consider design options and refine the design in areas that would have been difficult to visualize in a more conventional method. It can help construction and engineering professionals view a building as it takes shape, identifying challenges and red flags before any concrete is poured.

How it Works

Virtual reality uses the digital 3D building information model typically created by programs such as Autodesk’s Revit software. The 3D model is brought into VR software and converted into a format that enables the model to be viewed using a VR headset. VR software is similar to that used in the gaming industry; it compresses the file and converts it to stereoscopic images that are viewed using a headset such as the Samsung Gear VR, which provides the fully immersive 3D environment. Using a built-in accelerometer, gyrometer, and geomagnetic and proximity sensors, the headset allows you to move your head to view the digital environment. Movement is controlled by a keyboard or mouse, allowing you to freely explore the space.

 Because these file types are graphically intense, the hardware required to run the VR experience needs to be powerful. Typically a mid-end gaming system with a good graphics card is sufficient, though the experience improves with a better graphics card. Running VR on a lower-end system can lead to latency of movement of the head and the corresponding image. This latency can cause symptoms similar to motion sickness, so performance of the computer has an impact on the user’s experience.

Collaborating with Clients

Virtual reality allows clients to tour a design virtually, to understand the space and design far easier than they could from plan and elevation drawings. The technology allows architects to express their design intent to clients through experience, allowing clients to fully explore the design in ways that were previously impossible. Clients can immerse themselves into the design and take a virtual tour of the building, which can be useful for clarifying the design of functional working spaces such as areas of production that involve complex processes and equipment.

 For healthcare environments, virtual reality may have especially profound benefits. Efficient use of space, minimizing staff travel, improving sightlines from care team desks to patient rooms, and generally maximizing efficiencies through lean process improvement is essential for healthcare facilities. Virtual reality provides architects, equipment makers and healthcare professionals with the visualization tools that enable spaces to become more efficient, and even slight improvements in these areas could lead to better patient care, putting evidence-based design principles into practice.

 VR is already being used during healthcare user group meetings, during which the future users of a space can take a virtual, self-directed walkthrough. Feedback is used to fine-tune the design, such as the placement of equipment, creating a safer and more efficient environment. This type of user experience is critical for designed spaces such as surgical theaters, operating rooms, mechanical areas and public spaces, where it’s essential to have ample zones for traffic flow and clear wayfinding. 

Massive Potential

The uses for VR technology in the AEC industry are endless. It may be possible to have multiple users interact with a model at the same time, allowing them to interact with one another by way of avatars in the digital space, exploring how a group of people interact with one another in the built environment. VR can be used by developers to complement their marketing strategies, allowing potential residents to fully explore the design of a living space without the need to fabricate a display.

 Technology is in development that enables users to download a VR app to your smartphone, which can be inserted into a cardboard or 3D-printed VR case to view a downloaded file of your project. Applications like this will make VR more accessible and affordable for the public, making VR a conventional method to view all types of design, from apartment complexes to single-family houses, home design projects to shopping malls.

 Virtual reality is easily accessible to anyone with minimal investment. This new version of the technology is better and less expensive than it was in the 1990s, and, even more important, society as a whole is much more computer savvy than we were twenty years ago, especially in the design industry. VR is going to continue to evolve and improve, making the opportunities for architects, engineers and the building industry virtually limitless. 

Scott Chatterton is a writer and presenter on BIM, workflow, processes and protocol who has over 25 years of experience in the AEC industry. 

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