Virtual Reality How VR leads to better design

By: Manho Lam

The environment we live in is three dimensional, and in recent years more and more design software and tools are available for architects to design in three dimensions. Yet, the first time an architect steps into the space they designed, the final result still does not quite feel the same as what they had envisioned. Traditionally we can output renderings, animations, and scale models from the 3D model we create in our programs, but it is still difficult to translate the design in terms of the sense of scale. That is something you just need to be able to walk into the space to get the feel for it. Enter Virtual Reality.

Virtual Reality(VR) such as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and/or Augmented Reality(AR) such as the Microsoft Halo glasses are tools that are better links between the 3D model and the architect. A complete VR setup encompasses a head-mounted display, sensors that track the movement of the head-mounted display, and controllers to navigate and interact with objects within the virtual world. The experience of VR with a head-mounted display can give the user a better feel of space and with the controller, you are able to interact with objects inside the space. The experience can be quite realistic. I once saw a demo at a convention where the user was having a difficult time leaping off a ledge in the VR environment though they knew perfectly well that they were standing in the middle of a convention hall.

Up until recently, it was still difficult to utilize VR in everyday workflow because the computer hardware requirement necessary to drive the head-mounted displays are quite demanding. Also, cables connecting the head-mounted displays to the computer also make things a bit cumbersome. The release of the wireless head-mounted display and a computer powerful enough to drive the entire system now fit into a backpack which dramatically increases the usability of VR. Even though the cost of all of this equipment, at this time, can be a bit difficult to justify, the increasing adaptation of this technology should help make it more approachable in the future.

HTC VIVE head mounted display with the wireless module/battery pack on top(left).
HP Z VR backpack G1 Workstation(right).

With the hardware issue resolved, designers are beginning to figure out some of the best practice for utilizing this technology. One company was determining the best escape path off of a 5 level industrial platform using VR. The user within the VR froze going down the escape ladder because of a fear of heights. The issue was quickly resolved by adding a safety cage around the escape ladder in the VR environment. It is the minor details on how to best use this technology that is still being worked on every day.

The next progression of the VR is to be able to design in the VR environment. The manipulation of the 3D model in the VR environment can pass back to the design software. Even better, the design software will have a VR mode that one can just design within the Virtual world. Instead of having people tell you to move the window 4 inches over, 3 inches back than 9 inches over again. They can just put on the VR controller and move it to wherever they want and it will reflect in the model. A once multiple step process done now in one step!

We are still a few years off from fully utilizing VR in our everyday workflow. One thing for sure is that it is going to have a big impact on the design industry. Architects will be able to experience the space and how it functions as they design, all while testing out various design ideas. As for the clients, VR is a way for them to better understand the space and the architect’s design intent to ensure the design matches their needs and desires. A win-win scenario.

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