How Is Virtual Reality Shaping Architecture Practice?

“At its very core, Virtual reality is being freed from the limitations of the actual reality”

-John Carmack

If Architecture was really ‘Frozen Music’ as described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe then Virtual reality is the acoustically precise concert hall, fusing the minds of the creator and the audience.  In any creative professional arena, be it architecture, design or planning, the prime challenge is to communicate their design ideas holistically to the client. Most often, there is a major chance of a great idea being rejected solely because, the idea was not delivered in the right intended sense to the client or the end-user. However efficient the designer is, it takes an ample amount of imagination from the client to understand and visualize the conventional 2D and 3D design renderings, which is a lot to expect from a design novice person’s perspective.  This is where Virtual Reality acts as a middle ground and provides clarity to the whole perception of a design idea.

Any idea is perceived as it is presented.  If problem solving was the soul of architecture, then presentation is its crown. It gives the creator that extra brownie points which sometimes makes all the difference. Virtual Reality provides them with that advantage making the potential clients to kinetic clients (pun definitely intended). Right from the initial design concepts, to final finishing touches, Virtual reality has a great potential to turn a project from good to great.

As Milton Glaser said, “There are three responses to a design, Yes, no and Wow. Wow is the one to aim for”, VR gives any design that ‘wow’ factor to get it going (provided the design was good).  As the size of the project increases, there will be more stakeholders involved thinning the probability of the design being accepted. There will be multiple people who will evaluate the design or the idea in multiple states and the chances of them not perceiving the idea as it is supposed to be is very high. Also, the people involved in the project can be from various parts of the world and getting all of them into a single room every time to explain the idea in first person will be time consuming and nearly impossible.

Conventional presentation techniques like Floor plans, 3d image rendering and models can be used to explain a design idea, as being done for hundreds of years. But there is high chance of misinterpretation and confusion. The clients and stakeholders might not have the technical know-how to understand a building blueprint and the 3d renderings have become an “exercise in deception” rather than “exercise in persuasion”.  VR, will transport the users into a fully interactive 3D environment, providing them an opportunity to completely explore a space, design or even the materials and color palette of a part or the whole of a building. It will allow them to relate to the scale and proportions of a space and the feel that it will emit.  Sometimes, it is even difficult for an architect to relate to the scale of a space and in reality, it might be much bigger or smaller than imagined. Thus, it is not reasonable to ask for a client to imagine them with just the conventional representations and jump into a project with nothing but blind trust.

The VR technology must not only be visual experience, but also be an interactive activity. It must allow the user to interact with the space and must be able to utilize and change the space, furniture, the lighting and be able to move from place to place inside the building.  This level of detailing is necessary for a complete clarity and to get ‘productive’ inputs right at the earlier stages of the design.  The scale can vary from a small room to a big urban city.

It is not only incredibly credible in terms of presentations, but also for technical aspects of a design. An architect and a civil consultant can find and solve any construct issues in a building that would arise, even before laying the foundation. It is easier to convert a 3D cad model or a SketchUp or Revit model into a VR model, with few basic changes in the materials and the design choices. The models can be so detailed that they can add the tiniest elements like a photo frame or flower vase, presenting the whole depth of a space.  Or this can be completely devoid of the details, providing the client with “Spatial realism rather than photorealism”. Now a days the architects are uploading the BIM models into VR software to know about the structural detailing of the building. These innovations were not thought through before, and further more ideas can evolve with the development and wide spread usage of the technology

Though Virtual reality have been used from the 90s, it is only now that this technology is being fully considered by the architectural and designing firms as a constant and reliable tool for idea representation. Thanks to the technological advancement and the devil in our hands- smartphones, which are comfortably powerful enough to support VR- quality graphics, and the built-in accelerometers will be able to detect the movement as the client navigated their way through the virtual world. It might be difficult for them to move around with HMDs the possibility of getting hurt, or they might be shy to try it on in front of the whole office set up. So, in those case, a closed set up, or augmented reality ore mixed reality can be a good replacement.

The initial investments for this include a higher-end VR Head mounted Displays (HMDs), such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, where the wearer is instantly immersed into to a hyper realistic three-dimensional environment (I would like to call it my personal matrix!).  If it is not possible to invest much on high end software, there are several other VR applications which can be developed to be easily downloaded and installed into a client’s phone. A cheaper HMD like Google cardboard will be a very wise investment.

Google Cardboard – The pocket friendly HMD

Conventional architecture firms can find it difficult to adapt to the new technologies, but with more softwares like Symmetery, Fuzor, Unity, it is much easier and convenient to make the transition. It is much similar to the design visualization era where Photoshop was used to create the reality that we intend it to be. Design is very like evolution; the strength of the creator depends on his ability to adapt.

VR is the Hero that we all deserve and need in this design world. But there are a lot of counter arguments which put forth the matter of concerns about the design quality and authenticity. With more tools being developed for representations, it is possible to drift towards representations more than the actual design and its technicalities.  The question we must ask ourselves is, is man as good as his tools? Or as good as his ability to know how and when to use them?

Akshaya Murali

Akshaya Murali, an architect thriving to share her stories and thoughts, one article at a time.

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