Within the past few years, Virtual Reality (VR) has evolved from a gaming experience to a valuable tool that benefits all areas and roles of a project – from the front-end planning stages to the project closeout and beyond. VR technologies such as Building Information Model (BIM) software allow architects and designers to have a much better understanding of their project and the design they are working on, which in turn helps them to deliver a better design and, perhaps more importantly, improve communication and client collaboration.
Most architects and designers using virtual reality technologies today would argue there is no comparison between the cost and quality advantages of current virtual reality as opposed to pre-2000’s visualization software. Creating traditional 2D renderings by hand would take days or weeks to fine tune design details. This method is not only tedious but can also impact the project’s timeline and price. Today, however, architecture and design firms can use BIM technology to create high-quality 3D renderings in a matter of hours.
Virtual reality renderings, or computer-generated simulations of an environment, not only help streamline the design process, but can also be used in unique ways by clients during all phases of a project. In addition to speeding up the design process, virtual reality renderings serve as a digital data model for a project’s characteristics, including 3D geometry, 4D sequential data relative to time and phasing, and cost data. The data within the BIM technology is a dynamically interconnected graphical representation of a project that creates both drafting and three-dimensional views as well as tabular data, which can be sorted, counted, organized, and analyzed in a wide variety of ways.
Using the BIM model as the primary design tool enables the entire team to view 3D depictions of proposed designs with related data analysis. This detailed data allows for a quantitative study of design ideas, cost implications, conflict resolution, and construction sequencing. By utilizing this technology, firms can provide clients with a vastly enhanced design experience that wasn’t even imaginable 25 years ago.
HOW VR CAN IMPACT AND IMPROVE THE DESIGN PROCESS
Beyond creating more realistic designs, virtual reality allows contractors, clients, and designers to collaborate more effectively throughout the project. Working with 3D objects and 3D worlds empowers the whole team, including multiple stakeholders and end users, to have a much better understanding of the finished product long before any actual construction begins. Clients – who almost always see things differently than architects and designers – can pinpoint certain elements of a design that could impact the desired outcome of the space.
In a restaurant, for example, architects and designers typically do not have an intimate working understanding of how a kitchen should flow or operate on a day-by-day basis. Despite working diligently with the client to fully understand the functionality and accessibility from a staff perspective, subtle details are sometimes missed. By allowing the head chef to walk through virtual reality renderings and explore the kitchen and the waiter’s path, the client can see aspects of the design that might negatively impact the speed and flow of service. The chef’s unique perspective and insight allows for changes to be made in the initial design stages, saving the client time and money. Taking multiple perspectives into account gives the design team a unique insight when designing a particular space, making the end product not only aesthetically pleasing, but also incredibly functional and intuitive to those using the space.
In addition to improving the ability to adequately communicate with project stakeholders, virtual reality technology also helps factor in real-time scenarios. Prior to VR technology, determining the effects natural light has on a space and design would take numerous renderings, having to manually add in light to depict the time of day. Ray trace rendering technology now allows users to accurately simulate light, giving designers the opportunity to consider how natural light will affect a built project at different parts of the day and from anywhere in the world. By determining how natural light exposure could impact customers in a restaurant, designers can add elements and design a space to prevent direct sunlight from hitting customers head on. Using the newer technology conserves time for clients and improves the efficiency of designers.
USEFUL BEYOND DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
What happens to these impactful renderings once construction begins and the design is approved? Does the designer’s hard work get saved on the cloud and only accessed when needed to land a new client or submit for awards? Fortunately, VR renderings can have many beneficial uses once the design process is complete.
One way to repurpose virtual reality renderings’ post-design process is to implement them into the overall marketing strategy of the project. This is a great tactic for building owners to attract and retain tenants as printed materials with images of 3D renderings can be used to keep current tenants updated on the construction process while also attracting potential new tenants. Before the redesign of a commercial office space at 101 S. Hanley in St. Louis County’s primary business district, occupancy was only at 86 percent capacity. The building owners were able to effectively communicate the updated aesthetics and modernization of the building with the use of 3D renderings, which resulted in leasing the remaining space to full capacity before construction was completed.
Another way to use VR renderings as a marketing tool is to provide virtual reality headsets to attendees at a groundbreaking or grand opening event. Attendees at these types of events – consumers, local dignitaries, and even media – can take a virtual tour of the project in 3D. While this practice is less common, it is an effective way to get an entire community excited about a project.
Virtual reality may also contribute after the design stage with “fly-through” videos as training materials for new employees and new store openings. These fly-through videos can be created from many different viewpoints, including that of a customer, to help portray how the end user will experience a space. Especially for large-scale rollout work, creating this experience for employees gives them the unique ability to better appreciate the experience of their customers. These videos allow individuals to stop along the way at each critical point of customer interaction, giving management the ability to talk about how they want to engage the customer at each specific location.
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THE FUTURE OF VR
Over the past 25 years, virtual reality has gone from a novelty to an expectation. With rapidly evolving technology, the hardware and software are continually becoming more sophisticated and powerful, providing better quality and realism to a visual design. In addition, VR technologies have become less expensive, making them more accessible to smaller architecture and design firms. While it is hard to determine where VR technology will be in the next three or more years, there is every indication that virtual reality will likely be a much more interactive and collaborative experience than it currently is.
VR has the power to allow many people in remote locations to interact and collaborate on the same content in real time while using a variety of different formats simultaneously. VR experienced through a headset will blend work with someone else seamlessly, perhaps while working on the screen of a mobile device. This advancement would not only create greater accessibility, but it would also complement the benefits of real-world augmented reality where layers of computer-generated enhancements are added to an existing space, making the information about the surrounding real world interactive and digitally manipulative. Time will only tell where VR technology is headed – architects and designers just need to hold on for the ride.
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Brian Kern is responsible for Oculus Inc.’s implementation of building information modeling software tools, a new web-based multi-site project management tool, and other communications tools for the company.