Virtual Reality in action

Virtual Reality: An Everyday Tool for Designers Brings Design to Life!

Blogger: Dan Williamson, Digital Design Leader, Computation | Minneapolis, MN, USA
November 01, 2016

"I see virtual reality as a communication tool to fully explain our design to the client and have them clearly understand their future space." - Jim Thomson, Managing Principal of Minneapolis Downtown Studio

Virtual Reality (VR) is still relatively new to most of the AEC industry, however: it is continually gaining attention and developing at an extremely rapid pace. One misconception is that VR is “expensive” and “time-consuming”—often maintained by those who haven't been properly introduced to the tools needed to create a virtual reality experience. VR is actually just the opposite. It is extremely affordable and relatively quick to produce. Numerous groups throughout the company are tinkering and experimenting with VR tools, workflows, and software. For example, here’s what our Sydney office developed:

I’d like to highlight the work being done in the Minneapolis office (my home base) where we have a group of designers developing and executing a workflow using a HTC Vive and IrisVR​ software. The goal in our studio is to leverage virtual reality as a daily tool for our design teams.

It’s hard to fully understand what virtual reality is like until you experience it for yourself. Just ask one of our own; we did—Cally Larsen—who recently visited our studio and got to experience a little slice of VR in action. See what it was like through her eyes:

Q. Was this your first time using this type of virtual reality? 
CL. Actually this was my first time using virtual reality of any kind.
Q. Did you know what to expect before you put on the headset?
. Yes, Dan was very helpful and guided me throughout the entire experience. I knew how to move throughout the model and most importantly, how to make sure I didn’t run into a wall while doing so! 

Q. Tell us about your experience with VR. How did the process work?
The team set up the projection screen and handed over the goggles and hand controls to me. I put on the headset and I was instantly “in” one of our projects. I was able to see everything as if I was actually in the building, moving throughout the floor, around desks and chairs and even climbing the stairs to the
next floor.

Q. What were some of the most amazing things about the experience?
 I used VR to walk through our project for an architectural metal company. I was able to see the full effect of the interior design and easily identify the different spaces. The design reflected the client’s work which was showcased within the interior of the workspace. Black steel, perforated metal and painted glass protruded from the ceilings and walls. It was amazing to see all of the interior design details, in 3D “living” color, including the color of the furniture and the floors, desks, etc. It was as if I was in a video game within a real space. I’d imagine it would be pretty incredible to walk through as the client and see the work they do featured throughout the space.

Q. Most challenging aspect?
CL. It was a bit of a challenge to learn how to navigate through the space, but within minutes I had it down. I even attempted to climb the stairs and see the second level of the space. Once I was on the landing area of the stairs, I turned and was then looking down from the top of the stair landing towards the floor below. At that moment I felt as if I could fall down the stairs, but in reality I was on a flat surface. That was pretty cool to experience.

Q. What advantages do you see to using this type of technology in the architecture / design industry?
. From vision to completion, it may take years before a project is finished. We’ve been able to close the gap and allow clients to visualize the final product by prototyping and creating mock-up spaces of floor plans. Now, with virtual reality you are able to completely immerse the client into the space —before it’s even constructed. This allows the client to see exactly how the finished product will look and review sightlines, views from the windows, and actually walk through the space. It’s a huge advantage to be able to have the client walk through what will be their building, even though it may not be completed for years down the road.

Q. What are your top takeaways from this experience?
. It was an incredible experience and something that will really bring a vision to life for our clients. I’m thankful to our Minneapolis team for allowing me to “step into” one of their current projects.

Workflow with IrisVR

Pictured above you’ll see one of our clients used VR for a design review during schematic design at the Minneapolis Studio. IrisVR’s goal is to create a VR experience with one button using the designer's typical tools: Revit, Sketch-up and Rhino. The VR product we’re been utilizing is called Prospect & Scope (still in beta but to be released soon).

With new software this is fast becoming a reality. In fact our project teams are loading up their digital models on an almost daily basis to perform design reviews, both internally and externally in our Big Think presentation space. We’ve equipped the space in a deliberate way so that design teams spend less than five minutes to set up and begin reviewing their designs. The key to this process is the streamlined workflow the software creates, making VR integral to the design process, rather than a break in the design process. We also include clients in routine design reviews with VR to facilitate better informed design decisions reducing or eliminating the barrier of 2D interpretation from plans, renderings, etc.

Best Practices and Space Set-up for Immersive and Collaborative VR

Five key components will help ensure you will have a successful and collaborative virtual reality implementation:

  1. Make a screen available for the audience members to view what the VR user is experiencing.
  2. Provide VR equipment for a fully immersive environment like the HTC Vive pictured above.
  3. Have an optional second screen to use to display things such as plans and sections to help further orient the audience to the VR experience.
  4. Make sure you have a willing audience, client, or team member to participate and collaborate in the VR experience.
  5. Have the VR user navigate through the immersive designed space.

Exploring ways to use VR 
There are many uses where we can exploit and leverage virtual reality. Here’s just a few uses currently being explored across the company.

  • Design Validation
    • Client visualization to validate the design intent
      • high level - selling the idea
      • low level - understanding the design intent
    • Internal design validation
    • internal design review tool
    • tool for design exploration
  • Development
    • In-house software development for AR & VR
    • Multiple users in the same VR environment
    • Modeling in VR
    • Mark-up and Annotation in VR

Virtual reality can be an affordable and relatively simple tool that should be incorporated into your design process. It removes the curtain of interpretation within our designs, and allows decisions to be made across the project team with a more clear understanding. Let’s talk! If you have any questions, comments, insights, or just want to chat virtual reality, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me: