Original photo by Sergey Galyonkin

This year will see the commercial release of several virtual reality (VR) headsets, as well as the shipping of the developer edition of Microsoft’s augmented reality HoloLens. Both augmented reality (AR) and VR technologies hold potential in design workflow and client relations.

Of the two, VR is currently the more widely used in architecture. It immerses users in a self-contained, digitally generated world or simulation of an unbuilt project. The platform has had about 30 years to mature and “there’s more momentum happening,” says George Valdes, AIA, vice president of product at New York–based software developer IrisVR. By contrast, AR superimposes digital information onto real-time imaging of the physical world, therefore requiring hardware with a higher level of processing to emulate human vision, which has been a challenge to achieve, Valdes says. Thus, its use in architecture remains limited.

That isn’t to say that other designers haven’t taken advantage of current AR offerings on the market. Augment is a Paris-based startup whose eponymous iOS and Android app can overlay a 2D floor plan on a 3D model or virtually map digital objects, such as furniture, into a real-world context, which helps clients to visualize a building or space. New York–based architect Kyle May says the app—which has had more than 2 million downloads, with AEC professionals accounting for 30 percent of its users—is useful for communicating ideas to a client in the early stages of the design process.

For designs that are further along, however, VR is presently the more powerful communicator, allowing clients to better see and understand their forthcoming project, which in turn can lead to more informed decisions and minimize potential mistakes. “When clients experience VR for the first time, there’s always that ‘wow’ moment,” says Guy Messick, AIA, director of design intelligence for IA Interior Architects. “Then that goes away and they start making decisions.” The first time his firm presented a project using VR, he adds, the client saw the design intent and boosted the construction budget by 10 percent.

VR also enables remote viewing. IA has sent headsets to clients along with an emailed link to the model, allowing them to walk through the project on their own time or with an architect accompanying them either via a remote monitor or headset. For one large, multistory project, IA responded to a client request for a guide by creating an avatar of a staff member, who then walked the client through the project. In fact, Valdes predicts design review meetings could soon take place inside the virtual environments, eliminating the need to travel.

“When clients experience VR for the first time, there’s always that ‘wow’ moment.” —Guy Messick, AIA, director of design technology, IA Interior Architects

VR’s benefits extend beyond client interaction. Jason Halaby, Assoc. AIA, associate designer and BIM manager for San Francisco–based WRNS Studio, first recognized its potential three years ago when a VR experiment conducted toward the end of a project sparked “new discussions that we never had throughout the traditional design process, like the relationships of materials, scale of certain spaces, and how different materials come together at intersections,” he notes. More recently, Halaby and his team used VR on a project for the University of California, Berkeley, to compare curtainwall and sunshade solutions from outside and inside the building in a “very visceral way.”  IA has used VR to evaluate constructability and familiarize contractors with a project by walking through a virtual simulation. “Different people get different things out of the same [VR] environment,” IA's Messick says.

But VR has some drawbacks. Some users experience nausea or, to use the clinical term, vergence-accommodation conflict, which results from a disconnect between the sensation of visual movement and the body's vestibular system—a collection of mechanisms in the inner ear that controls one's sense of balance and monitors spatial orientation. This may be more noticeable with wireless headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR, which tracks head orientation but not position. As an alternative, the tethered Oculus Rift comes with two cameras to track head position, while the HTC Vive, to be released this year, limits users’ movements within a 15-square-foot area, which may be ideal for those with more sensitive equilibriums.

Another drawback to VR is poor integration with design-authoring software. While plug-ins for Autodesk Revit and other software, available through companies like IrisVR, help streamline the process of exporting models to headsets, the resulting virtual world is less detailed and thus only appropriate for internal use, Halaby notes. For client presentations, VR renders have to be meticulously modeled, illuminated, and textured. Optimizing 3D models and converting them for use with real-time rendering software drastically increases the learning curve, says Travis Brown, a 3D visualization lead in CallisonRTKL's Seattle office. High-quality, customized virtual experiences require knowledge of programming and gaming engines, such as Unity or Unreal. All of this is doable, says Derek White, chief information officer of SmithGroupJJR, in Ann Arbor, Mich., but “you have to be curious about the technology, because it’s not plug-and-play.”

Depending on need, cost is less of a barrier than one may expect. Augment is free to download, and for a low-budget, low-tech introduction to VR, Google Cardboard viewers start at $20. Compatible with Galaxy smartphones, Samsung Gear VR costs $100 (excluding the phone, of course), while the commercial version of Oculus Rift may run you as much as $600 to $700, according to Valdes; at press time, pricing for HTC Vive is unknown. The Microsoft HoloLens development kit, which many sources interviewed for this story say they plan to purchase, is $3,000 per device. Of course, a robust workstation with a high-quality graphics card is a must.

Although VR has enjoyed wider adoption, many see greater potential in AR. With the HoloLens and future AR devices, some foresee the ability to create an initial 3D model of a physical space by simply scanning it, overlaying a truly immersive environment on top of a raw space, and editing digital 3D models in real time. Until then, White advises taking the plunge and experimenting. As AR and VR continue to advance, the technology will not be in its current form, but surely “it’s not going away.”