Virtual Reality and Architecture: A New Point of View

The Rise of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) had a great year in 2016 with the release of the Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony's PlayStation VR headset in October. Additionally, Google, whose Cardboard VR viewer had previously been available through third-party vendors only, made their pre-manufactured version available in February of this year. It's clear that as VR becomes more innovative, its developers are aiming to make it more and more accessible, which is great news for buyers who are willing to invest in some very cool technology.

While virtual reality has primarily carved out a market in the entertainment industry, it has also found its way into the professional realm—specifically the A/E/C industry. Many architecture firms, for example, already offer services such as 3D visualization, which allows a client to "walk" or "fly" through a virtual rendering of his or her building on a computer screen during the design phase. Now, some of those same firms are experimenting with this year’s new VR releases as an added component to those services, and clients seem to be excited about it, too.

Testing Virtual Reality in the Studio

Here at TurnerBatson, we've also begun experimenting with VR as a way for our clients to take the next step in truly experiencing their projects in the design phase. Last month, we invited one of our clients, Enrique Carlo (Steel City Emergency Vets), to the studio to go over the design and finishes for a new emergency veterinarian clinic. In preparation for the meeting, we set up a VR demonstration with 360-degree views of various areas within the clinic, including the lobby and waiting area, an exam room, and the main treatment area. The renderings were created with SketchUp 3D modeling software using the SU Podium plugin for SketchUp (below is a fixed-perspective capture of the lobby and waiting area).

Virtual Reality - TurnerBatson Architects

Senior Project Architect Michael Mann and Interior Designer Anne-Marie Gianoudis facilitated the meeting, which was held in our Pub Room in order to display the images on our TV screen. Our BIM Director, Steven Sanchez, provided and set up the Sony PlayStation VR platform, which included the PS4 console, VR headset, and motion camera for tracking Enrique's movements while wearing the headset.

Once his headset was on, Enrique was able to step into the world of his new building. It was his first time experiencing a VR demonstration like this, but it didn't take long for him to adjust to the 3D world inside the headset. Right away, he was impressed with the quality and vividness of the rendering.

Virtual Reality - TurnerBatson Architects

"That's fantastic," he said as he got familiar with the virtual space of his new clinic. At first, Enrique kept his feet in place to get his bearings while wearing the headset, which is normal for most first-time users—after all, it's a new experience trying to balance navigating within a virtual 3D world with the constraints of a physical room or office. As he continued to share his vision for the building, however, he became more relaxed with the headset and was able to move around more freely to point out specific walls, pieces of furniture, and other finishes in the VR model, which Michael and Anne-Marie could see on the TV screen. This resulted in a seamless discussion between the client and the designers, who were all able to experience the project at the same time.

Virtual Reality - TurnerBatson Architects

Initial Benefits

Enrique pointed out that one of the advantages of virtual reality was being able to better understand the spacing of design components, such as hallways or tables in the treatment area.

"Are the walls in the right place? To me, that's the most important thing," he said.

He also valued being able to make more informed choices about the space.

"I can confidently say, 'This is what I want.' There's more certainty in your decisions, and from a certain perspective, the dimensions. It's pretty dramatic to surround yourself with all of the spacing and dimensions, and then of course everything else—the interior design components and how it's all put together. Being able to look up and down [using the VR headset] is really helpful, as well."

Virtual Reality - TurnerBatson Architects

Looking Ahead

Despite this year’s virtual reality boom and the push to make it more available to consumers, many architecture firms will be hesitant to jump right into the world of VR, and rightly so. VR won't always be the right fit for every firm, and designers should ask questions about how it will best serve their brand before going out and buying a headset for the studio. Additionally, VR shouldn't replace drawings, sketches, or the standard methods and software utilized during the design process. However, the future for VR is wide open for firms willing to give it a try, as it can complement and enhance those methods with the continued aim of giving clients the best experience and delivering the best project possible.

From a marketing point of view, virtual reality certainly has the potential to set a firm apart from the competition.

"I definitely think it's a really useful tool," Enrique said after the demo. "It's a value thing. VR is going to attract way more people than the traditional route. A lot of people invest a lot in the architecture side—they don't have to think about that when they're wearing the headset."

Special thanks to Enrique Carlo for participating in our virtual reality demo and our talented staff for putting it together!

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