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Architecture's New Realities in a Virtual World

The Virtual Reality revolution we were promised in the early 1990s is happening now. Image © Gensler

If you're old enough to remember when Tadao Ando won the Pritzker and grunge upended pop music, then you likely remember when Virtual Reality (VR) was the future-tech just around the corner. Films, television shows, and literature promised we would soon be experiencing digital spaces through three-dimensional headsets. We would play video games, navigate file systems, and visualize things impossible in the "real world." Unfortunately, that promise was never fulfilled, and VR was relegated to the graveyard of undelivered technology promises, mocked as “vaporware.”

The tech just couldn’t keep up with the vision, and a generation of tech acolytes saw their wildest dreams crash and burn. In the coming years, the tech world would shift its attention to the World Wide Web, portable music players, and phones that double as mini-computers. VR was all but forgotten.

That has finally changed.

Today, advances in technology and graphics processing have caught up to the visions of yesteryear, and contemporary visionaries are reopening the door to the virtual world. Tech leaders like Sony and Valve have VR hardware and media in the works. They are following the lead of pioneer Oculus (owned by Facebook), whose Rift headset truly reawakened this dormant technology. While the gaming industry will likely be the initial profit center that drives development, immersive VR has vast implications for industries ranging from medical treatment to occupational training, and obviously to the visioning of space and design.

A New Way to Tell an Old Story

The most obvious implementation of VR for architects and designers is as a presentation device. We employ a wide range of representational tools to help clients better understand the spaces we're designing. We use hand-rendered elevations to suggest scale and material, but there is often a greater responsiveness and understanding when stakeholders see models and computer renderings.

Simply put, a person better understands space when it is represented in a three-dimensional format. VR gives us the opportunity to render ultra-realistic environments which a client can not only view, but stand in and walk through, before construction begins. It gives clients invaluable insight into what the final product is slated to look like when we’re still early in the design process and concepts are still gestating. Not only does this tech open the chance to better convey a sense of space, it is allowing us to more intimately involve our clients in the design conversation and process of iteration.

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This is just a taste of what it's like to experience a space through virtual reality. Media © Gensler. Note: This player cannot be viewed using Internet Explorer. Please open this post with Firefox, Safari, or Chrome.

For Your Eyes Only

A less obvious use for VR is strictly as an internal design and discussion tool in the studio. Our research is proving time and again that when we put on a VR headset to examine projects, designers discover conflicts and opportunities that we never realized existed. These aspects remain subtly buried under the rudimentary interface of our computer screens and flat drawings, and only become clear when we immerse ourselves in the virtual environment.

Designers are already modeling projects for the purposes of building information modelling (BIM), so the use of VR as a design tool is a ready and streamlined workflow. Just as rapid prototyping and 3D printing are allowing designers to quickly generate scale models to study design options, BIM and VR are allowing us to quickly iterate spaces and step inside them. The VR world does not have to be the more time-intensive, hyper-realistic rendering used to communicate with clients. It can be the quick studies—the equivalent of a line drawing or shaded rendering that one can step inside.

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

VR gives us the opportunity to stand inside a concept diagram or walk through a drawing. We can rapidly export an all-white model to study form and space, or use wireframe views to see forms beyond a wall or coordinate vertical elements with a floor below.

Another Brick in the Wall

Architects and designers work in an ethereal place, where we are tasked with envisioning and representing that which is immaterial: space. In contemporary times, we are even fully divorced from the physical acts of making that space take form: fabrication and construction. As a result, our careers operate almost entirely around the challenge of envisioning intangible and nonexistent place. Our mandate is to help others join us in that ethereal place and see constructs and experiences they haven't yet had.

As such, the practice of design has continued to develop tools which allow us to better fulfill that mandate. Drawing was likely the earliest tool, but designers continue to fill their toolbox with other methods like physical models, full-scale mockups, computer aided design (CAD), and computer rendering. VR is an inevitable device for studying and representing designs, both to improve our own work and to convey it to others. But this is the most nascent of periods for VR, like the arrival of the first horse-drawn vacuum which couldn't fit through a door, or the emergence of the Altair 8800 kit as the first realistic personal computer. VR is truly in its infancy, the timely synergy of computing power and rich 3D model-based design, and we're left to question the opportunities which lie before us.

Designs begin on computers, get experienced through VR devices, and then come to fruition in the real world. Image © Gensler

New Ways of Seeing

Can designers be more efficient by utilizing the same tool to build consensus and stoke client passion, as we do to communicate design intent and construction direction? While we currently flatten projects into drab black and white working drawings and specifications to affect construction, we use entirely other methods like models, renderings, and VR to capture the experience for our clients. In some manner, BIM has bridged that gap by leading us to build 3D models that can be used to make renderings and construction documents. But if the job of architects is to accurately convey design intent, and less so to impart construction/fabrication direction, then perhaps VR will be a device that more closely achieves that synergy between the presentation tools used to communicate with both clients and contractors.

What’s Next

So let’s take a moment to project even further.

Envision a future where VR equipment with gloves or bodysuits provide haptic feedback, allowing a client not only walk around their future space but grip the handrails, open the drawers, and touch the countertops. Imagine a future where an owner and team members located in different spots around the globe meet within the virtual space of an unbuilt project, and simultaneously evaluate issues and experience space years before completion. Imagine a future where tracking points or holographic emitters are routinely distributed around a construction site so that builders can see the unrealized building elements in their final location, selectively turning them off as the real-world equivalents are erected.

We can only imagine a fraction of where virtual reality will take the design process in the next 50 years. But as designers with a mandate to capture the immaterial and visualize the unrealized, we will embrace VR and future tools and harness them to envision tomorrow today.

Noah is a Harvard-trained architect focused on simple and elegant design solutions. A design leader in Gensler’s Tampa offices, Noah brings an extremely detail-oriented approach to relationships, which he views as symbiotic partnerships in problem solving. Noah is also the proud parent of two precocious cats, Inara-Khan and Gozer. Contact him at noah_rollins@gensler.com.
Higor believes that technology can immensely enhance the design process. His curiosity to experiment with new tools and presentation techniques has helped Gensler office to push the boundaries when it comes to client deliverables. Contact him at higor_arruda@gensler.com.

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