Not so long ago, the idea of designing buildings entirely in a digital workspace was unheard of, but today Virtual Reality (VR) for architecture seems like a plausible possibility. Although the technology itself is still developing, its capabilities are improving exponentially.
Now, in the hands of a few architects and designers, VR has the potential to revolutionise the design process. Advances in the technology mean It’s possible to create “worlds” that are more realistic than ever before. Building your own home? Now you can explore it before the construction team has even arrived on site.
Around the world, architecture firms are beginning to incorporate VR into their practices. But, for the VR uninitiated, understanding the technology and what differentiates it from the other technologies that accompany it—like AR (augmented reality) or MR (mixed reality)—can feel overwhelming. Often experts will, confusingly, use these terms interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly. This is due to the nature of the technology. All VR/AR starts at the same place: a model in 3D. VR and AR are both ways of experiencing that model—outside of a screen.
When you use a headset such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive to roam around and interact with a modelled environment, as if you’re inside a video game, that’s VR.
Current Take-Up in the industry
A few firms are now exploring the latent capacity of VR to disrupt the design process itself.
Firms seriously interested in investigating VR have established partnerships with VR software providers or even hired software developers themselves. Some firms think we will revolutionise not only the way we conceptualise designs but also the way our world is physically built and experienced.
Brian Hopkins, Ennead Architects’ director of applied computing, is explains why, just a few months ago, his firm decided to take the leap into VR. “A lot of our competitors, they’re basically taking an architectural space and making it as close to reality as possible, making a photo-real representation of what you can actually experience once the building is finished.”
“We thought we would take another approach: What are all the things that we can’t see when we’re in reality? How can we start to poke the boundary between the real and unreal—the real being the sensorial, or the world of the sensory, and the unreal being that which we can’t see?” It is virtual, because you’re digitising reality, but it’s representative of what’s really there.”
Merging the physical and virtual world
The merger of the physical and virtual worlds is perhaps the most exciting—and revolutionary—possibility for VR/AR technologies in the architecture profession. One day, architects could design entirely in a VR environment; those files could be directly used in digital fabrication; contractors could see the digital and physical side by side to guide the construction; AR avatars could provide insights to make buildings more comfortable for their occupants; and facility managers could cross-reference real data from buildings to keep energy costs down. When that happens, architecture will never be the same again.
What the experts say
Benoit Pagotto is cofounder and brand director of virtual reality (VR) pioneer IVR Nation, which specialises in high-end interactive VR for the architecture, design, hospitality, and luxury industries. When asked by Luxury Defined, what he thought was so great about VR he said:
“It’s a new medium for creation and interaction. When you first try high-end VR, your imagination starts to go crazy―you immediately start to think of all these amazing moments in sci-fi movies or books you used to read, and realise that we’re now living at a time when it’s all becoming a reality.”
“The most exciting thing, however, is that it’s just started. Everyone working in VR right now is a pioneer, and everything we do is new, fresh, and bound to surprise us – and, of course, the user. To be a part of the beginning of a new way of interacting with technology is what makes it so great for me. At IVR, the best thing is seeing the reaction of our clients, and seeing how they use what we build for them. There’s a sense of delight and enthusiasm that’s totally unique”.
When asked about the advantages of working with VR in this way he said:
“You get to visit your project before it’s actually built! And, thanks to the immersive quality of our designs, you truly feel what the finished design will be like. It’s a known fact that most purchase decisions in real estate are emotionally based”.
“With VR, you can truly get a feel for a place, and project yourself into it, before anything physical has been built. VR allows for a more immersive, iterative, and faster design and sales process for architecture―whether it’s a building, an apartment, a shop, or a restaurant. It’s faster and, because it’s interactive, more engaging. It opens up new ways of thinking about and treating renders, and ways of creating. Really, it’s the opportunity to rethink how we design and work together”.
We can’t know for sure how CG and VRI will transform in the future – maybe there will be interactive 3D holograms or something similar – but we believe that both virtual reality and high-quality 3d architectural rendering will be used in conjunction. VR software is expensive, and the price is unlikely to decrease substantially in the near future.
Not every project presentation has to feature VR content. High-quality architectural renderings are often more than enough to convey both information about the building and its ‘feel’. Virtual reality, on the other hand, should be used only for larger more important product launches and even in that case it’s better to start by visualising new ideas as static 3D visualisations to test them out first.