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Inhabiting Unbuilt Spaces—Conveying Design Through Virtual Reality 

How we used to work Source: www.plmworld.org

Do you remember a time when workplace computers were rarely used pieces of equipment housed in dedicated rooms that no one ever entered? I don't, but, if I wanted to, I could just watch a YouTube clip from that era to better understand the time when workers spent their days unplugged. Over the last two-and-a-half decades, the proliferation of technology in the workplace has increased at an unprecedented rate. You need only walk into any workplace project we've recently designed to see computer screens at every desk. And most of them are supplemented with a tablet and/or smartphone.

Today, technology is everywhere. Social media informs us of events in other people's lives on the other side of the world, with live updates occurring in real-time. Headphones drown out people’s surroundings. E-books transport readers into another time and place in a story other than their own. We're no longer living in the here and now; we're living in the there, then, and beyond. Instead of perceiving this negatively, however, we can take advantage of this new reality and better utilise new technologies to augment the spaces we design.

One way technology benefits design is by allowing designers to quickly and easily test concepts using three dimensional simulations. Doing so improves accuracy. Designers can make rapid changes to a model or blueprint without having to recreate an entire image or floorplan, and the arrival of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has enabled information to be shared between different people and practices at the click of a button.

Despite these advances, experiencing design through a screen does create a degree of separation. It’s a vicarious experience, like viewing a scene through a window. For example, when you look at a photo of the interior of the Duomo in Milan, you do not experience it in the same way as you would by actually being there. Religion aside, there is a spirituality that comes from understanding how truly small you are in relation to the building, from seeing the light filtering through the stained-glass windows and hearing the quiet whispers and soft reverberations of footsteps echoing throughout the grand hall. These experiences do not translate through a photograph or drawing.

One possible solution for circumventing this problem lies in the still-developing field of virtual reality (VR). The gaming industry has long been focused on developing VR to its fullest potential. The concept of VR arguably traces back to circa 1860 and the idea of 360 degree panoramic murals. Although VR has come a long way since then, the headsets required to create the experience are still somewhat expensive. The Oculus Rift, SteamVR and Project Morpheus are perfect examples of VR sets that provide a comprehensive experience at a steep price. Conversely, you have Google Cardboard, a low-tech solution which involves creating a cardboard headset that can be inserted into a phone, through specifically developed apps, to create a VR experience.

The Google Cardboard ©Google

When designing spaces, we can create photo-realistic visuals to convey the design intent, but doing so relies solely on the sense of sight. Clients then make decisions based upon the way those visuals look. But if we were to utilise VR technology to create truly immersive experiences for our clients, experiences that would allow them feel as though they were actually within the space and could understand its full scale and volume, we would help our clients make better informed decisions. We could even supplement such experiences with audio, changes in temperature, and illustrations of the use of textures. We could recreate haptic feedback like the vibrations of footsteps on a stone floor. Would the user not feel as though they were truly there?

The physical spaces we inhabit and the experiences they create are a result of myriad factors, many of which go far beyond the things we are able to see on a screen or a piece of paper. VR headsets are not a substitute for those physical spaces, but they could better represent final spaces than drawings alone can. They could incorporate the other senses into the experience of testing a design. As architects and designers, our experience and vision often help us appreciate the difference between the visuals we present and the final built result, and we sometimes take this capacity for granted and assume our clients can do the same. We need to better utilise emerging technologies to help clients understand the difference between image and the reality. Just imagine the ways VR could help us bridge that gap.

Chris is the workplace Regional Practice Area Leader for Media. He specialises in intelligently creative projects for a variety of media companies where the workplace becomes the physical manifestation of their brand. Chris believes user experience, efficiency and well-being are key design drivers of every project to invaluably enhance the productivity of the workforce. With a passion for cutting edge design, he incorporates influences from fashion, art, design, pop-culture, literature, film and music into three dimensional spaces. Contact him at christopher_crawford@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)

thanks for the nice information in the post
Perspectives are nice moments of a space. Moving through these spaces is what we call experiences and VR is the answer. Nice post !
06.21.2015 | Unregistered CommenterAriel Casia
Great insights Christopher, and glad to see the interest in new tech to represent/study spatial experience. Kudos and keep up the exploration!
06.22.2015 | Unregistered CommenterNoah A. Rollins

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