Understanding Virtual Reality (and Leveraging it for AEC)

Virtual reality is gaining traction.

Reasonably-priced headsets are available at practically every wireless dealer and giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco and Samsung continue to push the technology further and further. While historically VR was associated with gaming, today large brands are leveraging it for marketing campaigns, VR-based apps are integrated into our daily lives, and even AEC is feeling the effects.

As engineers, we’re pursuing virtual reality as a collaboration tool, creative solution and way to streamline the work we do each day.

Before diving into virtual reality’s effects on the AEC space, it’s important to understand the language surrounding VR and the distinctions between technology types. We’ve assembled a quick summary:

Virtual Reality Definition:
“An artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.” Which means the user is immersed in a pre-programmed digitized world delivered through the device. All a user has to do is wear the helmet or goggles to enter a different world waiting to be explored. It’s a completely separate and artificial world designed to change your reality and immerse you in it. Nothing is real and everything is virtual. Ex: Oculus Rift (You know, Facebook’s $2 billion baby? Basically, it pulls you into a virtual world.)

Augmented Reality Definition:
“An enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (as a smartphone camera).” Which means… augmented reality is a distinct layer living on top of the existing reality, not mixed into it. Ex: Yelp’s Monocle – A cell phone becomes the transmitting device, allowing users to see info about nearby businesses as they stroll), or the infamous Pokémon GO. Ex: Microsoft’s HoloLens – merges 3D holographic images with the real world, which Microsoft calls “holographic computing.”

Virtual Reality in AEC

Virtual reality is undoubtedly integrated into the AEC industry, but each discipline, from architecture and engineering, to development and contracting, is adopting the technology a bit differently, customizing it to fit their clients’ needs.

For the Architect: Virtual reality can be an effective tool for collaboration and is changing how teams approach pre-planning and design phases. Architects who employ virtual reality are able to bring their visions to life in an unprecedented way. Architects who employ virtual reality are able to bring their visions to life in an unprecedented way.

For the Contractor: Put simply, virtual reality saves time and money in the field. 3D CAD is taken to an entirely new level, and the ability to notice details in the field before they become problematic allows for onsite solutions and real-time decisions.

For the Developer: Virtual reality walk-throughs allow developers to better appeal to tenants, even before the building is completed. Instead of traditional renderings, virtual reality allows potential tenants and buyers to be immersed in the space and even preview customizations and furnishings.

For Us (the Engineer): To create VR models, we’re developing a process to convert Revit files into VR models. VR models can then be used for virtual site visits. Taken one step further, these VR models are exported and used on a tablet during onsite walk-throughs, improving our project vision and team collaboration (and avoiding lots of paper hauling).

From the Field

Ankrom Moisan Architects: Ankrom’s dedicated virtual reality room allows clients to step into in-progress designs and understand architectural visions like never before. Additionally, like many design team leads, Ankrom is leveraging virtual reality to increase and improve collaboration. VR-based collaboration expedites the design process and provides more sophisticated critiques among partners. ankrommoisan.com

GLY Construction: The newest addition to the tool belt: the Microsoft HoloLens. Employed during onsite walkthroughs, mixed reality allows GLY to evaluate the space as it takes shape, identifying potential issues and making on-the-spot modifications. gly.com

Skanska: Skanska partnered with digital production agency, Studio 216, to create “the world’s first holographic real estate leasing center.” An office tower in Seattle, 2+U uses a guided holographic tour to appeal to potential buyers. The tour grants viewers a first-person perspective while the project is still in construction, and the program provides a solid case study in ‘how to sell real estate via virtual reality.’ 2andu.comstudio216.com

Weber Thompson: The architectural and interior design practice showed its virtual reality savviness and designed a custom virtual reality experience for the Seattle Block Partyweberthompson.com

Coughlin Porter Lundeen: We’re exploring augmented reality extensions and ways to embed data into plotted sheets. (Gear-geek friends, we’re using HTC Vive and a NVIDIA GeForce GTC 1080 video card.) By embedding data, we’d be able to do some impressive things and streamline our processes. Imagine: you’re onsite and need to be sure the team is working from the latest version of designs. No problem, just use a cell phone to scan the drawing and verify. Or, when onsite, scan a plan or drawing to see how it looks in 3D. cplinc.com

Key Benefits Recap

1. Enables everyone think in 3D and better visualize spaces. 
Is there anything better than seeing it for yourself?

2. Saves time and money. 
VR allows for early catches and a more comprehensive project vision.

3. Elevates inter-disciplinary collaboration. 
When VR is the centerpiece, teams can work especially creatively. 

A Grain of Salt (or three): No matter the industry, we know that VR is extraordinarily difficult to get right. Clunky technology can interfere with user experience, and (like every new development), the danger of pursuing VR because it’s “cool” and new, is real. The most drastic adoptions are in marketing and, according to Samantha Merlivat, an analyst at Forrester Research, “there is much more hype than substance when it comes to using VR specifically for marketing. A lot of brands have tried VR in the last year, and in many cases, it left marketers and consumers rather underwhelmed.” AEC can learn from the early-adopting industries and be sure to approach VR practically and purposefully. No matter the industry, we know that VR is extraordinarily difficult to get right.

Unrequired Reading

Engineering and AEC aside, we’re excited by some of virtual reality’s most unique uses – from nonprofit campaigns and consumer activations, to the latest developments of tech powerhouses and our own favorite applications. Despite the high barrier-to-entry and hype, certain brands have developed creative, successful adoptions. For fun, we’ve assembled some standouts. We see them as exceptional examples of what this technology can do.

Pottery Barn 3D Room View
The augmented reality application allows users to space plan and “see” furniture from the Pottery Barn line in their own home. This app just launched, so we can’t say that it’s metrically “successful” quite yet, but based on our informal, in-office survey, the interest is there. www.potterybarn.com/pages/google-tango-3d-room-view/

TOMS Virtual Giving Trip
The TOMS VR extension allows viewers to understand the company’s mission in a new way, tag along on a giving trip to Peru, and “experience where the other pair goes.” While the activation lives in the Los Angeles flagship store, the video is viewable on YouTube as well as the TOMS website.

Google’s Pearl
While not a traditional consumer campaign per se, Google generated lots of buzz with Pearl, a six-minute movie developed for virtual reality. Following a father-daughter road trip, the short earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Short Film category. google.com/spotlight-stories