From the Lower Manhattan offices of New York architecture firm SHoP, you can explore buildings around the world—including ones that don’t yet exist. You can walk along the edges of an under-construction building in Botswana, then toggle over to the torpedo hold of the USS Intrepid on Manhattan’s West Side. But be careful, when you reach out to touch a missile you might just poke an architect, standing just beyond you and your VR goggles.
This year, the commercial release of powerful, PC-driven headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive pushed consumer virtual reality to an inflection point. And the world of architecture has noticed. In VR architecture, the difference between real and unreal is fluid and, to a large extent, unimportant. What is important, and potentially revolutionary, is VR’s ability to draw designers and their clients into a visceral world of dimension, scale, and feeling, removing the unfortunate schism between a built environment that exists in three dimensions and a visualization of it that has until now existed in two.
“You can’t help but say wow,” says George Valdes, VP of technology at Iris VR, one of several software companies that have popped up to facilitate such scenarios— viewed on hardware like Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift or HTC Vibe —for firms large and small. “It happens every time a client or an architect jumps into a project for the first time. You can literally bring them into the project, and that makes design a more human experience.”
A user tries out the light cycle tool inside a virtual space created by Iris VR.IRIS VR
Iris says it has 15,000 customers, with 75 percent of them in the architecture, engineering, and construction fields. When inside a virtual building, you can look in all directions, walk, climb stairs, and even beam (via hand control) to any part of the structure, inside or out. You can also change the sun’s position, photograph details, add layers, and sketch three-dimensional notes and drawings. It’s both exhilarating and practical at the same time.
Similar programs and apps—which import architects’ digital files like Revit and Rhino and transform them into VR— are often powered by game engines like UnrealEngine and Unity, while architects also work within the engines themselves, a process that takes more time, but often produces more realistic results. Some firms, like VRtisan, employ a team of artists to create custom VR environments, and others, like Visual Vocal, specialize in “immersive conversations,” in which multiple clients or designers can virtually explore a project at once and comment and even vote on their favorite versions.
It’s a great tool for communicating to everybody, whether they understand architectural drawings or not.
No matter what the process, all are fundamentally changing a field that has long suffered from outmoded visualization methods. Most are still in the early stages of development and will inevitably improve things like speed, graphics, and their ability to let designers alter schemes in real time. Already they’re changing not just how architects share their work with clients, but how they accurately picture projects as they themselves design.
“It’s getting there,” said Bob Frederick, an architect at Los Angeles firm Rios Clementi Hale, who still worries about unexpected consequences, like more legal accountability or clients having too much information about a project before it’s fully baked. “You have to choose the right time to do it,” echoes his colleague Cory Seeger. But they both agree that VR is always impressive to clients and designers alike, who aren’t yet jaded by what could someday become VR fatigue. After experiencing their work in VR, designers sometimes find themselves radically rethinking a building’s scale and materials, and clients elect to change plans, green lighting ideas they once regarded as too costly.
A virtual depiction of Ennead Architects’ Shanghai Planetarium uses a range of colors to show where the sun will land.ENNEAD ARCHITECTS
New York-based Ennead Architects has used VR to help users visualize not just space but data in three dimensions. Various colored blocks, for instance, display which parts of their future Shanghai Planetarium will get hit with the most light. (Redder blocks signify more light exposure.) Another outfit, Portland-based ZGF Architects, has used Iris on more than 50 projects since first using it late last year, says Simon Manning, the firm’s VR specialist and model shop director. Design principals give feedback on projects while in VR, with staff making changes to the original designs in real time, altering, for instance, lighting and ceiling heights.
They also used VR to help designers and clients visualize options—including subtle finishes of wood, stone, marble, and bronze—for the lobby of the Mark, a 44-story tower in downtown Seattle. (The final design ended up using mostly marble.) “We needed a way to make quick, informed decisions between the architects, interior designers, all the way to the head of security, who would be posted in the lobby,” Manning says. “It’s a great tool for communicating to everybody, whether they understand architectural drawings or not.”
That’s the whole idea. Practically nobody can understand architectural drawings, and even 3D visualizations are a stretch for most. But everybody gets VR instinctively. “You can get to the point very quickly. It either sells or kills the project right away,” says Daniel Cashen, a senior designer at architecture firm SOM, who started using VR software in early 2015 and now uses it regularly. John Cerone, director of Virtual Design and Construction at SHoP, has an entire job built around it. He’s gotten his firm members excited, but says the biggest challenge is getting them to wear the devices and use them on a regular basis. They may be cumbersome and dorky, but they’re set to change how designers see and share their world.