Have you ever had trouble understanding the manufacturing process of a material, or the details of steel or wood joinery? Isn’t it frustrating to explain the working of your product or a particular design element to a client or a professor with just plans, elevations, sections and views? Wouldn’t it be easier if there was a more interactive way to show your thought process and understand if your intervention is useful for the user? Now imagine watching an actual expert working on a steel joist in front of you, in your classroom. Imagine walking within your design proposal with your client and helping them experience your design first hand. Cool, right? Architecture is a graphic science. If it was a coin, then design and technology would be its two sides. The techniques to visualize a space and the features that enclose it has gone through a topsy-turvy journey. Classical architects were artists who made detailed drawings and sketches of working details to come up with magnificent buildings. With the advent of the internet and computer technology, in the 80s Computer-Aided Design software (AutoCAD) began to emerge to make the process of making complicated technical drawings easier. Along with this, Adobe began developing their creative suite (Photoshop, Illustrator) so that artists could draw and paint on programs like they did on paper. In 1997, the first 3D printer Z402 was marketed by Z Corporation. Lumion, Max, and V-Ray were 3D rendering and visualization tools later added to this arsenal. The next step of this evolution was the BIM software for building and the application of extended reality to envision a space in real-time. This combination of building and visualizing tools could potentially change the way architects and designers work.
Extended Reality or Cross Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that is used to define all real and virtual environments. It has three main components: Augmented Reality (AR) AR is an interactive platform that consists of computer-generated graphics overlaid on a physical object, typically used with mobiles and tablets through their cameras.
Virtual Reality (VR) VR is a multisensory, immersive experience of an artificially simulated 360-degree-view reality presented through a headset. Mixed Reality (MR) MR is a hybrid of AR and VR. It gives a seamless real-time interaction between the real and virtual worlds.
XR has immense scope in the field of architecture. But this technology requires hardware like headsets to be experienced and is yet to be completely accessible to the common man. VR is of two types, namely 3-axis and 6-axis. The former employs movement along the X, Y, Z axes and is relatively simple to develop. The more complicated 6-axis experience can allow virtual movement and interaction through spaces. AR, on the other hand, can be accessed from personal devices, and it has the potential to revolutionize the way we experience the real world. This technology can bring maps to life, ensuring that we will never again be lost inside a building, or in the middle of the busiest cities. One of the more recent discussions featuring VR happened in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire when French company Targo released an 8-minute 360-degree documentary that could be viewed on various VR platforms. Such is the power of technology, for it can help us reconnect with our environment in a way that was unimaginable just 10 years ago! Like all emerging technology, XR also has a very reluctant audience right now- especially among architect professionals in India who still haven’t completely mastered BIM software. The regular student passing out of college in India today has only an average understanding of BIM software, and in most colleges throughout the country teaching, BIM software is not even part of the curriculum. All 3D modeling and rendering software today (Revit, Grasshopper, Lumion, V-ray, Twinmotion) have plug-ins for VR development and architects around the world are using this technology to showcase their portfolios to potential clients. Back in the day, even AutoCAD was looked at with a lot of scepticism, and the debate of hand-drawn sketches versus computer-produced drawings is still one of the raging arguments in the architectural community. But this advancement is important, for the more tools we have, the lesser chance there is of our design imagination being inhibited by technology. XR tools can be one of the best ways to explain the thought process and narrative that goes in the conception of a design to all users from all walks of life. It can bridge the obvious gap between architects and the people they design for; especially in the public sphere. The scope of using BIM with XR can ensure better dialogue between all parties involved in the creation of new structures, irrespective of the scale. Designs can be made using BIM and visualized with AR and VR by people in different parts of the world at the same moment. This can make the process of discussion and interpretation of working drawings among architects and contractors simpler. (You can check out this video to know more) With this technology, the architect can not only give his client a realistic experience of the proposed unbuilt spaces but also make immediate changes according to the client’s review and suggestions. Incorporating XR into the process of design and building can remove room for errors and miscommunication, and also give the client greater knowledge and control of his project.
The field of extended reality visualization is progressing rapidly, and also being made more and more accessible to the general public. Where AR visuals were once available with a select few applications like Pokémon Go and Snapchat, in just a couple of years it will become the norm for navigation and entertainment applications. The hardware technology is also being made cheaper so that it can be marketed to a wider range of people. Holographic projections and discrete means of mixed reality interactions with the outside world will soon be an actuality, given the rate at which devices like Oculus Rift have developed. On the design front, applications like MindVR, Fologram, and Shapediver for Rhinoceros and Project Shark for Grasshopper can make the virtual experience and user-specific modification a reality. Tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Apple are also working on developing their own devices for making the VR experience affordable and accessible for the general populace. The future will be an exciting place to live in because our experiences will only be limited by our imagination.
Praneet Mathur is an architect, interaction designer, and a technology enthusiast. A former intern at rat[LAB] he is currently working in GMETRI, Bangalore. His dream is to make interaction technology capable enough to bring the most vividly imaginative scenarios to life.