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Collaborating on the Holodeck: Virtual Reality and the Immersive Design Process

One of the biggest barriers that designers face when collaborating with various stakeholders in a project is the ability to convey design ideas to decision makers. While architects and designers are highly trained to visualize 3D spaces from 2D drawings and scale models, many clients will struggle to comprehend how some decisions will become manifest in the physical world. This can lead to costly and time-consuming errors, especially if changes need to be rectified later in the planning or building stages.

While 3D modelling software overcomes some of these limitations by providing more detailed, accurate models, Virtual Reality (VR) technology can take computer-generated modelling to the next level. Combined, these technologies offer clients and design teams the ability to make decisions in real time from anywhere in the world. Decision making can happen faster and more confidently without the need for constant in-person meetings and site inspections throughout the design and construction process.

A quick history of VR in architectural design

For over 30 years, architects have been embracing the potential of VR technology to enable enhanced visualization and analytical simulation to support collaboration and design decisions. The aim has been to “offer a natural interface for architects to navigate through, make spatial judgements in, and manipulate three-dimensional physical environment.” Architects and designers understood the potential power of VR tools but, until recently, it was difficult for teams to share design ideas with anyone who wasn’t trained in a particular software. User interfaces (UI) were not readily intuitive and, because of broadband and processing limitations, even so-called WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) software required time lags for image rendering when changes were needed in computer-generated designs.

Technological improvements on a number of fronts are changing the landscape yet again. User experience (UX) designers are continually working to create software and hardware like headsets that are less intrusive and more intuitive for users. Meanwhile, faster computer processing and high-speed broadbands now allow quicker upload and rendering times so designers can make changes on the fly in real time.

Platforms like The Wild, for instance, integrate BIM (Building Information Modelling) software to create 3D digital models that let design teams ideate together within the model, from wherever they are in the world. Unlike physical scale models, virtual models give clients the opportunity to move through a detailed space and experience it at a human scale.

Immersing stakeholders

Collaboration with the many stakeholders who will use a proposed space is a key factor for successful facility design. Staff and facility users alike have unique insights into how they will interact with a space once it’s built. Giving them the opportunity to be immersed in and react to a proposed environment can in turn provide vital information to the design team.

In 2019, Parkin co-hosted a public virtual open house of the planned Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex expansion. Using Occulus Rift headsets, Parkin and the city’s project coordinator invited the public to virtually walk through the proposed space to experience what the planned environment would be like. Each walkthrough was projected onto screens so that other community members could follow along with the user as they interacted with the virtual spaces.

Today, Parkin clients can don the headsets to be fully immersed in a virtual world to get a detailed and interactive close-up of a proposed design. This helps clients become more informed members of the design process and reduces the possibility of costly errors or surprises at later stages. Feedback can be integrated digitally, which eliminates the time and costs of creating new physical mockups. Virtual immersion also lets users experience a “feel” of a prospective space because they can see elements like ceiling heights, furniture layouts and building materials.

VR at the building stage

When clients and designers are scattered across different cities, managing the construction of a project offers a new set of obstacles. The cost of onsite inspections can be prohibitive and time-consuming. Of course, any changes or errors mean that more expensive site inspections will be needed. VR technology is addressing these issues as well.

Higher resolution capabilities and tools like 360-degree photo capturing along with drone technology let teams create highly-detailed virtual walkthroughs of real spaces so designers and stakeholders can inspect building sites remotely. Problems or changes can be detected early and addressed immediately to reduce the likelihood of costly rework. Together, these capabilities can speed up feedback and approval rates and keep building projects on schedule without the need for excessive in-person visits.

What’s next?

In the early 70s, Star Trek fans were introduced to the immersive fantasy of the Holodeck. Today, technology is turning that fantasy into reality. Modelling software and drone technology integration into VR platforms are allowing designers to create more lifelike virtual walkthroughs. Now, multiple users can enter proposed spaces together, to take notes and make suggestions in real time within the platform itself.

In the near future, as the technology improves, iterative decisions will be able to be instantly rendered in the digital model, without having to leave the platform to make notes or changes elsewhere. Lighter headsets, along with handheld devices and body sensors, will even let other users see body language and emotions within the virtual platform. As hardware costs become more accessible and design softwares integrate higher resolution and faster processing capabilities, teams, clients and stakeholders will be able to explore virtual spaces that feel like the real world in order to ideate and ultimately deliver spaces that more fully meet the needs of a facility’s users faster than ever before.

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