The typical technology predictions disseminated this time of year often suffer from at least one of two problems: they are too vague to be meaningful or they are too disconnected from most readers’ everyday lives. With the input of other architects, I offer this year a set of concrete and accessible interface-based technologies that appear poised for significant advances—with the input of architects.

The following digital-meets-analog applications and apparatus are readily available today and being tested by some designers and techies; and with your help, the next 12 months could witness their more mainstream—and thus more influential—utilization in architecture.

Virtual Reality
Virtual reality (VR), a popular platform for immersive gaming, advertising, and media, has significant potential for design applications. Early uses of VR in architecture have typically involved placing audiences within rendered computer-generated imagery (CGI) environments. While this is likely to remain the primary architectural function, other compelling uses of the tool exist. One such purpose is the ability to evaluate existing yet remote locations immersively. For example, Google’s Cardboard Camera app for iOS and Android enables users to use their smartphones as VR-capture devices. The interface is similar to that of a typical phone camera in panorama mode but in this case, the software is designed to create seamless 360-degree images—including captured sound. Once the phone is placed within a headset like Google Cardboard, the application switches to VR mode—transporting any user to the location and time of the capture, surrounded in all directions with imagery (and noise) from the place.

While the app has obvious appeal for vacationers, it can also be a powerful tool for architects to record existing site conditions and share them with clients and the design team. Geotagging enables easy integration with Google Street View, for which there is a separate (also free) mobile application, allowing users to augment Google’s burgeoning collection of location-based imagery. Additionally, Google's Cardboard Camera application can capture and compare critical architectural precedents—such as the interior of a client’s existing building or spaces within buildings of similar programs. In academia, the applicability in architectural history curricula is clear: Students can study the canon immersively rather than from cropped photographs. Although the app only creates panoramas (horizontal format) as opposed to spherical captures (all directions), reasonably priced spherical cameras are now widely available.

Augmented Reality
Augmented reality (AR) has also become a popular, complementary tool to VR. According to Autodesk Redshift author Jeff Yoders, “Augmented reality is a live, copied view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input.” Like CGI-based simulated environments for VR, most AR apps for architecture focus on virtual building models, but the difference is that they position them as objects in a real setting such as in a project site (1:1 scale) or on a plan drawing (design scale). An early example is French company Urbasee’s mobile applications for iOS and Android devices.

Housecraft screenshot
Courtesy Housecraft Housecraft screenshot

A collection of AR tools developed in recent months enables architects and designers to populate spaces with virtual objects such as furniture, indoor plants, or artwork. Domestic design apps such as Homestyler Interior Design, IKEA's IKEA Place, Houzz, and Housecraft allow users to locate photorealistic 3D models of a variety of objects within physical spaces. Apple’s ARKit makes it possible for viewers not only to insert virtual objects at a correct scale but also to maintain their physical positions even when the users leave the room. The software can even approximate the lighting in the space when rendering virtual objects.

Like Cardboard Camera for VR, one of the most compelling programs for AR is designed entirely for analysis purposes. San Francisco and Boulder, Co.,–based Occipital’s TapMeasure for iOS allows the quick measurement of real-world objects and spaces using an iPhone camera. Users first identify a horizontal surface and then tap the screen view near a particular point (such as the corner of a table or book), then a second point, and a distance is revealed. Entire floor plans may be measured in this way—no tape measure required—with each point serving as a transition along a polyline. Once the plan is complete (and the polyline is closed), users loft the polyline to establish the average ceiling height and general area info. They can then identify significant objects such as doors and windows. When finished, the app immediately generates a surface-based 3D model. Users can interact with the model on-screen or export it to another modeling program, such as SketchUp. Although the program’s accuracy is not guaranteed, the app significantly minimizes the time one would typically need for the hand-measurement and computer-drafting of existing spaces.

Mixed Reality
VR and AR are part of a broader digital-analog spectrum called mixed reality (MR)—what Forbes calls “the 21st century’s passport to an ethereal world of endless possibilities.” Most of the MR discussion today centers on portable electronics like smartphones and goggles, but the focus is widening to include physical environments. Such a notion is intriguing but requires some architectural imagination. Presently, building-related audio-visual interfaces are almost always afterthoughts: screens and monitors mounted to walls. In the future, architecture will be the MR interface.

One of the technologies making this possible is conductive ink. Haravilliers, France–based Crafter Studio, led by Alexandre Echasseriau, makes Interactive Wallpaper that uses the material as a touch-responsive surface. When users make contact with the wall, it transforms into an auditory soundscape, playing downloaded sound themes via an external control box. Another promising technology is electronic ink. Scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University print electronic circuits on expansive substrates, such as paper or plastic film. "You talk to the wall and we can print loudspeakers for the wall so the wall can talk back to you," said professor Joseph Chang to IBTimes. "Instead of trying to lift your handphone to call someone, you can just talk to the wall or call for help. So it's a little bit like your iPhone, but a big iPhone.” Taiwanese architectural products company E Ink Prism takes this approach in a visual direction, enabling active color-changing interior surfaces. The modular tile-based technology utilizes so-called “animated paint” to transform walls, ceilings, and furniture into color- and pattern-changing displays.

These environmental MR technologies are relatively new and therefore more challenging to incorporate into current design projects. Nevertheless, they portend significant, palpable changes for architecture. In the meantime, design professionals should be encouraged to experiment frequently with readily available VR and AR tools so that they can help lead the inevitable extension to MR-based environments.

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