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It’s 2016 and VR is finally upon us. Early first steps are already showing huge potential, but what does it mean for the architecture industry?  Started from the most conservative through to the more speculative, I’m going to run through some of my thoughts on the changes to architecture and the construction industry that we can expect to see in the coming years.

1:  Visualisation

There’s a lot of buzz in the architectural community about using VR to aid in the creation of immersive, high fidelity building visualizations. We’re already seeing this technology being used to sell clients on buildings using big, shiny immersive renders, and we’re seeing applications for property developers using the tools to give people virtual tours of show rooms.

However, producing visualisation of this quality is not trivial. Like creating a high-quality render, the process for creating this kind of model involves exporting to a specialised piece of software (for example, a realtime engine like Unreal or Unity), setting up materials and textures and baking in the lighting. To compound the problem, the geometry exported from CAD software is generally very heavy, requiring a lot of optimisation work and in some cases rebuilding the model from scratch (especially if the target platform is a mobile device). The time and energy required to create this kind of visualisation will relegate this kind of presentation to projects with large budgets and stakeholders to impress.

For VR to really benefit the profession it needs to become an integrated part of the development process, with architects able to quickly throw on a set of VR goggles and evaluate a design decision immediately. Research shows that people judge distances and spatial dimensions in VR as well as they do in the real world, meaning that VR can be useful in allowing architects to judge the size, feel, appropriateness of spaces while they tweak and edit their work. Ideally, the capacity to test out a space in VR would be built into the BIM software itself, but as a stopgap, companies like IrisVR are working on solutions to bake a real-time optimized model given a Revit or Sketchup model, and Flux has released a demo tool that allows a unity project that streams in geometry in real time.

2:  On-Site BIM Visualisation

The goal of VR headsets is to enable users become fully  immersed in a 3D environment, and while this can be a powerful experience, there are some obvious safety concerns that limit the scope of tasks that can be undertaken – dozens of goggle-clad workmen, blindly stumbling around an empty building site clashes somewhat with the futurist vision of BIM. For VR to be truly practical on the building site, we need an augmented reality solution (AR) that is hands free and doesn’t obscure potential hazards.

We’ve already seeing uptake of augmented reality within the construction industry, where various companies are already using tablets and smartphones visualise site data or demo products in real time, but the recently announced Microsoft HoloLens aims to be the first AR platform to allow users to experience hands-free augmented reality. While the demos that have been shown to the public are seemingly designed solely to make ten year old kids completely lose their minds, Microsoft is definitely focusing on construction industry, with videos available showcasing the possibilities of the headset for 3D visualisation, site inspections and on-site clash detection.

While the hardware is on its way, it will probably still be years before the software is mature enough for most practitioners to reap the benefits of AR. The technical problems to be solved are not trivial, and we’ll probably find that the possibilities open up as software companies move from standalone licences to cloud based services.  

3:  Sketching

Why do we use 2D documentation at all? Sometimes it’s for the sake of simplicity – abstracting a complex 3D idea into a simple 2D diagram. In many cases however, it comes down to a physical restriction – 2D media is practical to work with, simple to print, store, and distribute. But in the age of BIM, these abstractions should ideally only be sections and plans dynamically extracted from a highly detailed, fully 3D model.

So why are our interactions with that 3D model through the medium of a 2D window? The only reason we used them is that, until recently, they’ve been our only window into the digital environment we’re modelling. With VR, we suddenly have the ability to perceive and create the work we are doing in true 3D.

In terms of input, this also introduces a whole raft of new tools and techniques for inputting information using digital representations of our hands in 3D. Being able to poke, prod and tweak in 3D opens up a whole new raft of self expression on the user’s end – in fact, the simple act of being able to specify the position of a point in 3D space by simply pointing at it trivialises what has previously been a huge usability problem for 3D interfaces of the past.

When combined with our ability to shift scale, architects will have the capacity to sit above a landscape, draw a building on to it, quickly zoom down to a specific vantage point and wander through your creation, sketching as you go.

4:  Blurring the lines between Digital and Physical

There’s a decent case to be made that VR might be the natural replacement for traditional screens and workstations. In fact, transition might happen in only 10 years. Why spring for projectors, high resolution displays or workstations when a set of glasses can allow you customise your work environment at will? Software is already shifting away from single-user licences and towards collaborative, cloud based applications with multi-user editing – the natural extension of this would be to allow work to happen in the same physical space, without workers being tied to screens and with local or remote collaborators.

If we see this kind of office-wide VR environment emerge and become the norm, the implications for architecture are enormous. Depending on business and location, people may be using these interfaces all day, or some parts of the day. For some companies, it might be cheaper to augment an office space with digital elements, rather than going for a full refurbishment, blurring of the line between what is concrete and what is digital. Places in the building could be left clear for digital sculpture, communicating and changing its display in real time based on what is happening around the office, and individuals may customise their own work environment, changing murals or decorations based on a whim.

 Mixed reality concepts, such as articulated walls, and reactive facades, normally relegated to one-of-a-kind architectural installations could soon become de rigueur, with expensive actuators replaced by procedural shaders.

The ball has been slow to start rolling on VR in the building industry, but when it picks up momentum, we can expect the industry to evolve and transform rapidly. S
ome of the ideas presented in this article are already starting to be accepted by practices, others will take years to trickle down to industry, and other, new applications will emerge, creating opportunities for innovation in practice. Its an exciting time for architecture and I’m looking forward to watching it evolve.