Buildings. Ships. Lorries. These are the types of things Ryan Peterson talks to me about. In a warehouse on the outskirts of Vancouver, the Finger Food Studios CEO lays out his vision of how augmented reality (AR) can be applied to industry. Wearing a Microsoft HoloLens, he clicks his fingers and a mirage appears in front of his feet.
“The real magic of AR is you're able to see the same thing,” he tells me. “Say there's a hole in the floor, there's no disagreement that there's a hole in the floor. It's so simple, but think about that simple problem and expand it to 2,000 people working for you. If you can all visualise the same problem, then you can focus to come up with a solution.”
There’s no hole in the floor of the warehouse, but there is an enormous truck. Only the cab is physically there; the bonnet has been stripped off. The rest is an illusion, projected around the real vehicle using HoloLens’ spatial technology. I’m wearing a headset and, walking around the warehouse, we can inspect the virtual model as if it’s a real, life-sized object. Peterson tells me to select a floating menu option. Touching my forefinger to thumb to select a new design, the part-hologram, part-metal lorry changes shape in front of my eyes.
To do this with a clay model, let alone a full prototype, would be a long and labour-intensive process, he tells me. Therein lies the benefit for using this type of technology for big objects such as trucks, ships and buildings; things that take a lot of time and money to mock up. With the help of augmented reality, Peterson and I can switch through designs as if we’re browsing character outfits in a video game. And we can do all this at the same time, looking at the same virtual vehicle in the same warehouse.
“Do you remember Battlefield 1942, when they released the demo?” he asks me. “I made video games at the time; I was out in Silicon Valley. The whole company just stopped, and we played it solidly for a week. The reason we did that was it was the first game of that scale where you were able to collaborate, in the same battlefield, seeing the same thing at the same time.”
The way he weaves it, Peterson’s progression from video games to industrial design isn’t a career blip. He tells me he worked for a company called Blue Shift in the early 2000s. “We made baseball games. We were taking reality into the computer; now my job is to take the computer world out into reality. This is the pivot point where I'm like, oh, now I'm pushing the computer out into the world.”
I tell him he should make a baseball app for the HoloLens, to bring things full circle, and he bursts out laughing. “The stuff we're doing is fucking hard. You can quote that. It's fucking hard. But that's what gets us excited. I think that's what video game developers have; that we've always enjoyed tackling new problems, inventing new experiences and creating worlds. For me personally, we can now take that energy and apply it to much more meaningful problem solving.”
As well as knowledge of working with platforms liable to change every few years, Peterson says game developers also have a sense of spatial design that’s crucial to AR design. In a HoloLens demo for an AR building plan, for example, he shows me that much of the model is based around optical slights of hand, such as a person’s inability to properly gauge depth of field for objects that are far away. These are tricks that developers have been using for decades, as ways to fit expansive worlds into limited file sizes.
It’s perhaps telling that Finger Food Studios has a developer wing, working on games and apps under the same company moniker that makes industrial augmented reality. Aside from the office walls that separate the teams, the lines between the two areas seem to be increasingly porous. “I think the video game sector has really helped to hone the skills [of developers] to go into these big companies and crack problems for them,” Peterson enthuses.
Tilt Brush for architects
On the other side of Vancouver there’s another company developing virtual- and augmented-reality technology for industry, all while pushing games for entertainment. Archiact has a team of developers making VR games, including episodic adventure Hidden Fortune and penguin-based puzzler Waddle Home. Other teams in the same studio are working on business-focused apps. This side of the company is still in its nascent stages, but Archiact’s co-founder Derek Chen tells me an architecture tool is close to reaching beta.
“We worked on a few real-estate-related projects before, and I saw a complete vacuum space for commercial architectural tools for VR,” he says. “The initial impulse was inspired by the demo architectural VR tool built by Frederick Brooks, the legendary computer architect, back in the 1970s.
“There are a few pain points of current architecture design,” Chen adds. “One of them is the lack of true sense of scale, and communication of scale from architects to untrained stakeholders. Scale is one of the most important aspect of architecture. The other pain point is no way to ‘live’ in the design to identify flaws and problems early before the structure is built. VR/AR is the perfect technology platform to solve these problems.”
The idea for the tool, currently unnamed and built using Unity, is for it to work something like an architectural version of Google’s Tilt Brush art app. That app lets users “paint” in 3D while immersed in VR, which is great fun for designers and artists, but less useful if you want to mock up detailed blueprints of a housing complex. Chen tells me Archiact’s tool will allow users to “construct the entire architectural structure intuitively in VR, like Tilt Brush but much better, as no architect wants to paint a building.” There will also be a desktop version of the app, so users can flip in and out of VR when deciding where to put their walls and ceilings.
Like Peterson, Chen’s emphasis on scale points to the benefits of VR and AR when it comes to the manufacture of big objects. Buildings. Ships. Lorries. Being able to mimic a sense of size without having to lay a single foundation can give those without architectural training a sense of space that might be missing from 2D artist impressions. It’s also an emphasis that Chen, like Peterson, connects back to game design. He tells me that there’s a lot of overlap between the two fields in terms of development, if not for the end-users.
“Creating games is about creating virtual worlds and environments that people believe in,” he says. “Architecture in VR is similar, in terms of creating a virtual world. What I mean by overlap is in terms of the tool’s development, not the users that will use the tool. We definitely don’t require architects to have game design experience in order to use it.”
Architects might not yet need to be trained in DOOM as well as CAD, but the meeting point between game design and architectural design does raise a few questions about the types of buildings that will be conceived using these new technologies. That includes VR, not to mention AI and 3D printing. Virtual and augmented reality might have a convincing use for aiding the creation of big, unwieldy objects such as tower blocks and trucks, but could it also change the way these things are thought of? Could it blur the lines between “real” and “virtual” objects, outside of nondescript Vancouver warehouses?
Chen, at least, can see a time when augmented reality will become more prominent in our lives. “As the world moves forward, as larger social platforms support VR and build metaverses, we’ll start to enter an era that virtual space is as important as physical space,” he tells me. “Maybe in certain areas, where people have less space to live as the population grows, they’ll use virtual space to augment their limited condo...People making a living in virtual space isn’t going to be as crazy as it sounds today.”
“It still sounds crazy to the majority,” he admits.
Images: Finger Food Studios