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Getting Real About Virtual Reality

“We often go into a design based on experience and intuition,” muses Katia Lucic, AIA, a principal and architect at Sasaki. “Because there are things we know intuitively as designers, sometimes there is a communication gap between what we want to communicate to a client and what the client is concerned with.”

One of the hardest elements to convey in traditional modes of representation is light. 2D methods limit clients’ ability to understand work, especially with regards to the transient elements, such as how light plays through a space over the course of a day. Understanding how a space is lit is important for every design, but holds a special significant in places of spirituality. Virtual reality proved invaluable for the chapel in the faith-based dorms at Purdue University that Lucic is developing, enabling the client to see the sweep of the sun.  “How you experience light in VR is different than what you see with shadow studies or renderings. Even materials are different—it’s about the softer experience,” notes Lucic. “Using VR, we can specifically control the movement of light around the space so that at 5:30 on the solstice, the altar is perfectly illuminated. It’s not about the romance of the technology, it’s about using VR to confirm our intuition as designers and ultimately design better.” Aligning the altar and chapel design to the solstice light is not a superficial nice-to-have; it is very much a deep, symbolic design direction around which the chapel was intentionally conceived.

"It's not about the romance of the technology, it's about using VR to confirm our intuition as designers."

It should come as no surprise that virtual reality is on the upswing in popularity within the architecture industry. Featured in many a “tech trend” article, prototypes of what is to come in the industry have sparked excitement and discussion about the possibilities virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) bring. The concepts of VR aren’t new—this conversation’s been active since the 1970s—but the capabilities of the technology have grown exponentially in the last several years. Facebook, Google, and HTC, among others, have poured millions of dollars into R&D in a vote of confidence for VR’s applicability. Despite the mainstream hype, conversations around VR/AR in the design industry spawn more broad-stroke projections of a far-off reality than on-the-ground discussions of how to integrate the technology now.  If these tools are ever going to move from an over-hyped fad to truly disruptive technology, it’s time to get real about virtual reality.

For the entirety of construction history, humans have primarily relied on two-dimensional abstractions of building plans. Even with modern rendering software and physical models, everything is produced at an abstracted scale. “If there is one industry in which VR is a no-brainer, it is the architecture industry,” asserts Sasaki principal Ken Goulding, Co-Director of Sasaki Strategies—the firm’s internal computer programming and data visualization team. Sasaki’s exploration of and belief in the technology’s applicability culminated in the onboarding of a VR specialist at Sasaki, David Morgan. With the Strategies team and others at Sasaki, Morgan and Goulding have been working to integrate VR into the design process as more than just another tool: they want it to revolutionize how we conceive of and communicate designs.

One of virtual reality’s inherent values is derived from providing architects and designers the opportunity to design truly at scale; yet, many firms use virtual reality as a bells-and-whistles presentation technique, uploading models and renderings into the VR space for teams and clients to experience when the design is complete. Part of this stems from the perception that tacking on VR to the already-established design process is a time-consuming supplement. Perhaps it is exactly this way of seeing VR as merely another tool that has inhibited VR from becoming a useful part of design. “In order for virtual reality to prove its value to designers on a larger scale, we need to find the pain points in the design process that are ripe for disruption,” suggests Goulding.

Sasaki principal and architect, Pablo Savid-Buteler, LEED® AP, has a few thoughts on these “pain points.” “If you think about the architecture industry and the way we work, you can imaging using VR to bring everyone—clients, various experts, team members—into one virtual space, even across literal physical distances. That experience would be so powerful, regardless of how polished a given design is.”

Bringing clients along for the ride—powerful as it may be—is not without its own risk. Through elaborate illustrative drawings and plans, clients are usually given a curated explanation of their project, meaning designers and clients would have to become comfortable working together more intimately because VR allows the user to look where they please. “We don’t always render in duct work or sprinkler systems, but with VR, everything is within view,” Goulding cautions. “Architects might be afraid to pull back the veil and lay bare the less refined, yet essential, parts of our design process, which could be one of the reasons they are cautious to integrate VR technology into their design process.”

Maybe it is exactly this sort of transparency that the design industry needs. “I am optimistic that it will make us better designers,” counters Savid, unfazed by the prospect of bringing clients into a messy process. “You go into meetings with clients to show them these technical drawings and renderings––some clients understand how these apply to the building, but I think there are many who do not, but aren’t willing to say so. Then they walk into the finished building and say, ‘Oh! I did not know it was going to feel this way.’ Bringing them into VR or AR, whichever it is, will help us to have more constructive dialogue along the way to develop a product that the client really wants, down to the elements previously left out, like duct work and electrical outlets.”

The idea of a putting clients in a VR experience is nothing new; what is different, however, is Sasaki’s commitment to pursuing the ability to design or modify within the VR environment. “We are building environments to let people create in VR, not just look around the space and give feedback,” explains David Morgan of the Strategies team. “This is revolutionary for the design field because it really takes a background in programming and development. We are actively getting every discipline involved with VR as early as we can in the design process.” Doing so helps both the Strategies team and disciplines figure out what elements are best resolved in the virtual environment. Aside from light and shadow studies, sightlines and transparencies are proving to be two other design elements greatly benefitting from their turn in VR.  “Our seating bowl design in the Colby College ice hockey arena has some non-traditional characteristics,” noted principal and architect, Chris Sgarzi, AIA. “The VR was extremely helpful for the design team because it allowed us to actually sit in the seats and confirm the views of the playing surface. It gave us confidence that this unique design fostered successful spectator sight lines.”

Bringing virtual reality into the design process at an early stage poses externalities beyond reforming the design process. “If you think about all the things that we as designers do prior to VR, we develop these incredibly complex plans that have tons of embedded information, from pricing to thermal properties, all the way to furniture and licenses,” says Savid of the current process. “The problem is that we pack these models together but we cannot unpack the information to make sense of it for our clients to understand.” Specifically, he adds, at the end of projects there are many changes that need to be made because of budgeting, which often results in compromises at the material level. It is not always apparent to clients why changes must be made and what effects those will have on the experience of the building. VR presents the opportunity to express the potential changes much earlier in the process. “If we could use VR as a way to orchestrate much simpler storytelling and convey the full impact of the decisions we have made, that would be true disruptive technology.” Savid’s vision comes in the form of layering information that clients otherwise don’t see, similar to smart plans in which impact is shown immediately.  “We have so much data, how can we use this to achieve a beautiful design? How can we engage our clients more fully in the process of deliberating different decision points?”

We do not have all the answers, but we do hope to spark conversation and debate about the future of VR in the design industry, both technically and philosophically. Where is it going? Where should it go? Stay tuned as we continue to explore this burgeoning technology.

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