Courtesy CannonDesign

If you've attended any industry event recently, you've likely seen demonstrations of virtual reality (VR) technology. VR is being touted as the next big thing across multiple industries, from entertainment to medicine to construction. The frenzied interest in VR is bolstered by the technology's rapid evolution and increased availability.

Whereas VR once required expensive hardware, VR headsets are easily accessible to consumers now, from the $600 HTC Vive headset to the $15 Google Cardboard, which uses a smartphone for its display screen. Though fully interactive VR environments require custom programming using a game-design engine like Unity, simpler, but still impressive VR experiences can be created directly from Autodesk Revit and Trimble SketchUp models using software such as Enscape, IrisVR, or Yulio.

In addition to VR, which typically represents fully immersive environments, technology companies are busy creating augmented- and mixed-reality applications. Augmented reality (AR) environments overlay computer-generated information, such as utility lines, on top of real-world views, like a photograph of a city street. Mixed reality (MR), on the other hand, combines real and digital objects in a hybrid environment, such as this MR solar calculation tool developed by Los Angeles–based CO Architects.

But beyond the general marketing hype, what is VR’s real potential in architecture, and how can firms implement VR into their practices in a more meaningful way than as just another cool way to present 3D renderings?

Below are five steps to introduce VR, AR, and MR technology into your firm’s workflow:

Courtesy Payette

1. Know Your Why
Jimmy Rotella, a senior associate and digital practice director in CannonDesign’s Chicago office, recommends first outlining your firm's goals for VR. Is it going to be a design tool or a marketing tool? Will you use it for virtual mock-ups? Do you need high-quality models? How interactive do they need to be? After you identify your intent, you can then develop potential use cases. The required technology and level of investment will be different for each goal, Rotella says.

CO Architects discovered that VR helps fill in unknowns during the design process. Exploring a concept model in a fully immersive environment allows architects and clients to understand it better. Likewise, VR lets designers test different options at full-scale early in the process. VR also has visceral appeal. “Not everyone can read drawings,” says CO principal Eyal Perchik, AIA, “but everyone can relate to VR.” In the firm's VR mock-ups of complex lab and healthcare spaces, doctors and nurses could virtually work in a space, testing its layout and scale long before it's constructed. Currently, all projects at CO employ VR in some capacity.

Hickok Cole Architects in Washington, D.C., began exploring VR through its in-house iLab program, which provides micro-grants for employees to research new ideas and technologies. Recipients Carlyn Luu, a project architect, and Howard Mack, a design technology specialist, explored potential applications of VR tools in design, presentation, and marketing. In design, Luu and Mack used VR to highlight unresolved issues at the forthcoming International Spy Museum, for which Hickok Cole is the architect of record. By sharing the VR model with the client, they realized that they could not curate carefully styled views of the project as they could with conventional 3D renderings—the client could explore the model however they saw fit. Hickok Cole is currently using VR on three projects with plans to roll it out on more projects soon.

Courtesy CO Architects

2. Ask For Help
Rotella recommends partnering with software companies, which may fall outside a design firm’s typical network. CannonDesign worked with software company Enscape as a beta tester, getting early access to Enscape’s Revit plug-in and providing feedback on new software features. Rotella also recommends that firms educate a wide group of people—designers, business development and marketing staff—in VR to help client-facing leaders understand the hardware and software limitations before agreeing to provide VR deliverables.

CO Architects' interest in the technology began when a job candidate with extensive VR and gaming experience applied for a position with the firm. “Having an in-house VR expert opened our eyes to the technology's potential,” says CO principal Jenna Knudsen, AIA.

Courtesy LHB

3. Make the Necessary Investment
CannonDesign’s experimentation with VR began through its digital practice group. As clients began asking VR building models, the firm increased its investment in the technology and began using VR in applications beyond client presentations. Designers saw the value of exploring their own creations in VR while clients saw value in using VR to train their staff how to use their forthcoming facility before occupancy.

To foster interest in VR among staff, Boston-based Payette created a lounge space with dedicated hardware and software in its office. The firm also posts VR-related information to its intranet.

David Hamel, a 3D visualization designer, is exploring the use of virtual mockups for laboratory and healthcare projects using Unity, a game design engine that can export VR experiences to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. He encourages practices interested in getting started with VR to “jump in and put a headset on.” He predicts AR, with its potential to overlay BIM data on construction sites, will become even more important in the AEC industry.

LHB, an architecture and engineering firm with offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin, began experimenting with VR technology through Google Cardboard viewers and off-the-shelf software about a year ago. It has since increased its investment, fitting out an office with a dedicated VR lounge that includes a HTC Vive headset and 65-inch 4k monitor. BIM administrator Dan Stine says LHB tries to stay on “the cutting edge, but not the bleeding edge” of technology.

Courtesy Payette

4. Garner User Buy-In
One concern CO Architects has heard from clients is whether the sensation of moving in a virtual space will induce motion sickness. User comfort is a big priority, Knudsen says. She encourages users to go slow and checks in on them frequently.

CO has also discovered that the VR experiences need to be focused and short in duration: Five to 10 minutes is best. “You don't want clients getting lost in your virtual building,” says BIM director Nuri Miller. Current VR technology is a solitary experience as off-the-shelf solutions for multiuser VR experiences are still lacking. Principal Fabian Kremkus, AIA, envisions the day when architects will virtually lead tours of their proposed design to clients.

One open question that remains is how to bill clients for VR. CannonDesign currently does not charge clients for VR services such as walkthroughs or virtual tours, seeing them as an extension of the design process. That said, the firm sees interactive VR mockups as an additional service and plans to bill clients separately for this type of work.

Courtesy LHB

5. Take Advantage of the New Vantage

Payette’s Hamel recounts the first time a colleague donned an HTC Vive headset to view a bridge element of his project. Before Hamel could ask the designer if he was comfortable, the designer walked virtually over to the bridge's handrail and started revising the design. VR, and the new perspective it offers, is a game changer for architects, Hamel believes.

Hickok Cole’s Luu discovered that clients often notice details in the VR models that the design team didn't consider important. As a result, VR becomes a discovery tool to better understand the client's priorities and their intended, actual use of a space. If a client spent more time exploring a particular back-of-house area in VR, for example, the team knew they would do the same in the actual building.

For the reconstruction of a street in Duluth, Minn., LHB communicated the extent of underground utility work in VR (shown above), as well as through conventional 2D drawings, which helped the client understand the project scope. LHB made the same model available to the public through its website, where it can be viewed onscreen or through a Google Cardboard headset.

Virtual reality has the potential to transform how architects design buildings and how clients experience and review the proposed concepts. As more architecture firms adopt BIM, incorporating VR into the design process becomes a natural extension given BIM's 3D-based workflow. The challenge will be for firms to train their staff on the technology and to use VR to its full potential.

Luu advises all architects to test out VR and see what works: “Don't be afraid to explore the possibilities.”