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Q&A: Better Design through Virtual Reality

This is the fourth post in the TRG series, which focuses on one arm of Sasaki’s in-house research and resource arms, the Technical Resource Group. The VR team is a collaborative effort between TRG and Sasaki Strategies, another group dedicated to researching and developing tools that better our practice. Read more here.

Over the past year, Sasaki has been increasingly exploring the uses of virtual reality (VR) in the A/E/C industry. From the purchase of several VR headsets, to bringing on a VR-dedicated intern, the TRG and Sasaki Strategies teams are approaching this method of representation as an exciting new tool to elevate our practice and reinforce our commitment to design excellence. We sat down with Sasaki Strategies Co-Director and Principal Ken Goulding and R&D Project Manager and Sustainability Lead Colin Booth to ask them about their research to date and their visions for the future of VR in design.

Q: What are your personal backgrounds with Virtual Reality?

Ken: It’s interesting when you think about the history of VR; it was all the rage in the ‘90’s. Everyone was excited about how the internet was going to be this virtual cyberspace, how shopping was going to be like walking through virtual aisles. It seemed a little ridiculous, but it still piqued my interest. Although I didn’t really experience VR until Sasaki bought the equipment we’re using now, I’ve always had an interest in stereoscopic images, and there’s a strong relationship between those analog modes and where VR is today.

Colin: We, as a culture, have been thinking seriously about VR since the 1970s and ‘80s. That means that for nearly 50 years, we’ve been saying “okay, there’s going to be this thing, it’s going to work basically like this; and, when it gets good enough, here’s what we’ll be able to do with it.” The technology, in any sort of useful commercial capacity, is just now becoming available, so being involved in this space now is really a big deal. As a former amateur game designer, and long time fan of the cyberpunk fiction that drove much of the early vision for VR, being a part of this research in a design setting is incredibly exciting.

Q: How is VR impactful for architects?

C: For architects, so much of what we do every single day as architects is to try to imagine what we’re creating. We currently use a traditional design toolbox that includes plans, sections, elevations, perspectives, renderings and models—all of these different ways to get both ourselves and our clients into the space. We need these tools to understand the spaces we’re designing, and we’re always exploring new ways to communicate designs to our clients since more often than not, they’re not trained to understand the total spatial experience by mentally compiling the different pieces. VR offers huge potentials for us and our clients to better understand our designs. That being said, VR is not intended to replace these existing tools, but rather to supplement them.

Q: How are you approaching this relatively undefined field?

K: We’re attacking it on multiple fronts. On the research side, we had an intern strictly researching VR this summer. He explored the capabilities of the different out-of-the-box tools that are currently available. We’ve also been doing some custom development for designers. Many of our competitors have spent a lot of time creating custom experiences which they can sell to clients—we have mostly avoided that because, at present, we’re finding more value in the uses of VR for designers. It’s a completely new way of looking at design. There’s no false perspective, and everything is at the right scale. Long-term, I think we will start using VR at every step of the design process as another way of looking at and understanding our designs.

Q: Can architects build in the VR environment as they can in Revit or SketchUp?

K: There’s nothing super-sophisticated yet. There are some tools that offer limited capabilities for sketching directly in the VR environment, such as Google Tilt Brush.

C: Yes, Google Tilt Brush enables you to paint in a 3D space. It’s mind blowing, and very strange.

K: We’re waiting on stronger UI/UX interfaces that harness more of the potential to build 3D objects using 3D input devices. In the meantime, we’re putting together a sketching tool for the programming phase of architecture or planning projects. The programming phase of any project is always interesting, because it’s when you start moving from data into the built form. For us, this is an area worth exploring in VR because it enables us to combine the freedom of expression allowed by analog tools—like physical foam blocks used in the programming phase—with the automation and flexibility of digital design. We’ve started a very basic program that takes an excel spreadsheet and converts the data to virtual blocks, which you can then utilize for real-time massing and programming studies.

C: Beyond the programming tool, we’ve begun to explore data visualization in VR. It goes back to what Ken mentioned about how the internet was going to be this “cyberSPACE” thing that we plugged into, like the virtual storefront. Spatial understanding plays a big role in our ability to process information, so there seems to be real promise in moving complex data visualizations into three virtual dimensions; people who participate in memory competitions often use “memory palaces” to place things into a mental 3D space.

Q: Would you say that VR is changing the design industry?

C:  Absolutely! VR drastically collapses the technological-generational divide. There’s become this issue where it’s no longer just advanced architects mentoring the younger staff on a static  set of architecture visualization and documentation skills. Now, every mini-generation of kids coming through school has a different tool set: they know different digital tools, and their levels of facility with those tools are different. The advanced designers are often more removed from the trenches of the design process than they otherwise would be, and that makes it different and sometimes difficult to engage. Being able to put a project architect into a virtual model of the design and comment directly on what they’re seeing and feeling is a much more one-to-one relationship. Even if they’re still giving direction on what to change in the model, it is more direct. There’s good reason to believe that the tools for actually designing in the space are also going to become so much more intuitive than this panning and clicking that we’re doing right now.

K: I think there’s something really interesting in that. A lot of the time when you are using those digital tools, what you’re thinking about is not necessarily what you want to design, but how to actually make it in that tool. There’s a lot of skill to that and there’s a lot of thinking that has to go into that. But, if you’re working in a way that’s a lot more fluid, it’s almost like the devices disappear; you’re going straight from thought to representation. And I think that’s what VR can do for us, getting to the point where you can just think about the problems, and then solve those problems, instead of having to think about the tool you’re using. The next generation of these tools, of these headsets and controllers, will try to create less of a barrier and become more intuitive, so that it feels like you are just working with your hands. The ability to manipulate things intuitively and accurately can really help with thinking about what you’re making rather than how you’re making it.

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