Virtual reality’s role in architecture

by Ofentse Sefolo
Virtual reality’s role in architecture

Imagine being able to walk through your home before it’s built – experience things like the ceiling height, the width of the doorways, the fittings in situ. Welcome to virtual reality modelling.

“Innovation comes from a problem or a need,” says Lance Muller of Peerutin Architects in Cape Town, South Africa. “Architecture has always conveyed 3D aspects with 2D drawings, which some of their clients struggle to interpret. It is possible to draw multiple views of a space in 3D, but it takes too long to do so from all angles, and even if you did, it’s still not submersive.”

So how do we convey all this visual-perception information at the same time? Virtual reality (VR) is providing this very exciting solution for architects and their clients.

6 degrees of freedom

Virtual reality is interactive and responsive – instead of experiencing only what’s in front of you, you can turn and see what’s around you, what’s above and what’s below, what’s in the distance, and walk towards it.

For a submersive experience in a three-dimensional space, six degrees of freedom are a prerequisite: You can take in information by moving your head up or down, turning it left or right, tilting your head towards either shoulder, moving down (say, to your knees) and up, or moving left, right, forward and back within the “space”.

“Now, there are also six stages in architecture: inception, concept and viability, design development, documentation and procurement, construction, close out” highlights Muller.

“If changes are made to the building, it is much more cost effective to make them earlier, at the design stage, than later. So it’s important to convey the concept as early in the process as possible, but this is difficult due to the design disconnect many clients experience.”

Further developments in virtual reality

Unless you are used to envisaging perspective portrayed on a flat surface every day, it is difficult to get a true sense of what is being conveyed.

Virtual reality allows far better communication and understanding between the architect and the client, who can give instant feedback during the design process. The process is also interactive – you can offer the client different versions of his design and he can experience these differences in a way not imaginable before.

While experiencing virtual reality in an environment set up for it is the ultimate, there are other options which offer more than the traditional view of a 3D model.

“We can send a QR code that the client can scan with his phone,” adds Muller. “Any mobile phone barcode/QR code scanner will suffice. Facebook has one, but there are also various options available for free download to your phone. The QR code opens up a model where clients can experience their building from multiple predetermined static observation points – it feels like you’re in your building, especially if you slot your phone into a viewer like Google Cardboard, but you’re actually just moving from observation point to observation point, a bit like moving down a road in Google Street View. It still gives an incredible sense of what your building will be like, and you don’t have to be in the same room as your architect, but it’s not really a walk-through where you can ‘teleport’ within the model.”

Sensing the space physically

For full submersion, clients need to have their own kit at home or come to the Peerutin offices. “We have laser sensors/lightboxes set up to triangulate the viewer in a predetermined zone and allow the person wearing the headset to move relative to the design,” says Muller. “You use a ‘wand’ to ‘teleport’ spontaneously within the design. Think about it like this: The headset is a substitute for a monitor, the wand is a substitute for your mouse and keyboard.”

This demarcated zone is important for safety purposes: You are experiencing a very large building in a much smaller space (the Peerutin boardroom). If you just kept walking through your building in VR, you’d hit the wall of their boardroom.

At this point, only one person can “walk through” the model. Future functionality will enable architect and client to “meet” in the model, even if they are in different countries at the time. For now, the architect can wear the headset and take the client through the model, while the client watches on television and instructs him where to look. Then the client can put on the headset and get a personal sense of what it will be like to occupy space in his building once it is complete – such as how high the ceiling is above your head, which is very difficult to impart even in 3D drawings.

Ongoing developments

And the possibilities of VR just keep expanding. “Peerutin sent me to Autodesk University in Johannesburg recently, where presentations included VR and BIM aspects,” explains Muller. “One session demonstrated how IKEA models kitchen designs in VR. You can close and open drawers, move furniture, pick up a fork, experience daylight simulation and what the space looks like at different times of day, as well as with night-time lighting.”

The more dynamic components you include, the more submersive the experience. Clients can elect to commission varying levels of detail, depending on their appetite and budget.

Being able to offer VR is a massive advantage to both architect and client. As one client remarked, when discussing the option of adding a VR component to his project: “How can you plan and invest in a high-end residence and not want to experience it or check the design from the inside out before building starts?”

There are many applications for this technology – architecture is just one.

1. What is the ROI of VR? How much will it cost roughly?
R60 000 will cover a well-specked PC and the virtual reality kit as a once-off cost. Then there are annual subscription costs for the software (between R10 000 to R30 000, depending on how you want to apportion your cost).
2. What systems do you use?
HTC Vive for PC.
3. What were the concerns beforehand and what questions were asked before implementing VR?
Some of the main concerns include the minimum spec for the PC, costs being the initial barrier to entry, adapting this technology into our workflow and building a library of materials and components, to mention a few.
4. How does this help someone to fall in love with a building?
Buildings have a psychological and emotional impact on people, that 2D images cannot convey properly. The experience allows people to “feel” the building and to connect with it in a personal way.
5. Why would architects and specifiers choose this product and how will this benefit them long-term?
From the client’s perspective, it offers them an immersive experience throughout the design process – clients can walk through their space at a white card level, and if they prefer all the way to a photo-realistic level. From a designer’s perspective it takes much of the guesswork out of the process and allows them to design from the inside out.

Acknowledgement and thanks go to Lance Muller of Peerutin Architects for the information contained in this article.

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