Virtual Reality (VR) as a concept has been around since the 1950s, but it is only recently that computing power has reached the point where it can deliver a convincing experience. First popularised by the Oculus Rift VR headset, and with investment from tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Samsung, consumer grade products are now readily available, rapidly transforming VR from a niche technical hobby into an easily accessible medium.
What does this mean for architects and designers?
As architects, we’ve long understood the value of working in three dimensions; designing only in plan is a common criticism of architectural students. Software tools such as SketchUp and Revit have enabled architects to design more efficiently in 3D, and visualisation tools such as 3D Studio MAX and V-Ray allow us to see the spaces we design before the contractor even sets foot on site. Architects never get to experience their spaces until they are built, relying on extensive experience to understand how those spaces will eventually feel. VR bridges this gap between the design model and the eventual built space, allowing architects to experience their spaces and make changes, before costly building work starts.
VR is unlikely to fundamentally change the way architects themselves work, in much the same way that CAD – and to a lesser extent BIM – haven’t changed what we do at the fundamental level; VR is just another tool in our arsenal. It is in the arena of client engagement where VR truly shines though. Most clients struggle to interpret architectural plans and even traditional 3D visualisations may not fully convey the nuances of a space. VR can place our clients into our designs, providing us with instant feedback about whether or not those spaces are working as intended. For the healthcare and hospitality markets where the creation of full-scale room mock-ups is common practice, VR could circumvent, or at the very least minimise, this requirement by replacing the full-scale mock-up with a virtual room to test.
At present, VR is mostly about visual perception, with some providing auditory simulation as well. As software and hardware advance, the VR experience could become more tactile; the introduction of haptic feedback devices will allow a user to feel the virtual objects they’re touching. Perhaps even the remaining senses, smell and taste, will eventually have VR equivalents.
As VR gains widespread public acceptance, there may even come a time when architects are required to design completely virtual environments. Freed from the constraints of physics and budgets our imaginations can run wild and then what worlds will we create? The sky is no longer the limit.
IBI Group is just beginning its journey into VR. Earlier this year a task force was created to investigate how we can use VR effectively in our design processes and the conclusions of this work were recently published. The Global Visualisation Services team are taking the lead in implementing their recommendations. Extensive trials with 360° images have been undertaken and the team is now investigating the hardware and software tools required for creating VR Presentation Suites across IBI Group, with very promising early results from both Revit and SketchUp.
VR technologies offer both an exciting opportunity for early design investigation and a powerful client presentation tool. Our aspiration is to be at the forefront in the application of these technologies for design and for them to be in widespread use across IBI Group within the next 12 months.
- Matt Clementson
The rising expectations of clients with respect to 3D visualisations is driving significantly improved workflow technology. Photo-realistic visualisations currently offer the best impression of our intended designs, but nevertheless remain a somewhat basic offering. Even animated ’walk-throughs’ offer only a slightly less rigidly defined experience whilst proving a heavy drain on resource.
However, the use of BIM models is now creating the foundations for the implementation of VR, enabling us to move into the next phase of client interaction and presentation. VR also provides the possibility of significant cost savings through the productivity benefits that can arise from enhanced client understanding and speedier approval processes.
Working with a healthcare client in the north west, IBI is experimenting with 360˚ imagery and VR headsets to improve and enhance visual appreciation through a more immersive experience. This approach has accelerated the client team’s understanding of our design proposals and feedback has been very positive – the client being more confident in decision making as well as more excited by the proposed solution.
- Nick Clark