Avatars navigate a virtual building
Courtesy Nvidia Avatars navigate a virtual building

Three years ago, Santa Clara, Calif.–based technology company Nvidia began experimenting with virtual reality systems as a means of digitally testing and training algorithms for things like self-driving cars.

“One way to capture self-driving car data is to drive a bunch of cars around and capture examples of how people drive in real world conditions,” explains David Weinstein, Nvidia’s director of professional virtual reality. “Then you use that as the training sets for creating a self-driving car algorithm.”

But, as Weinstein points out, “you can only drive so many miles in a year.” Thus, the idea for the Holodeck virtual reality simulation platform for internal research and development was born. (For any Trekkies out there, yes, the name was inspired by "Star Trek.")

“We needed a very accurate, visually based platform that we could use for training these different learning systems, and virtual reality is a perfect match for that requirement,” Weinstein says.

Quietly, the company began demonstrating Holodeck to its clients, which include architecture, engineering, and construction firms, as well as robotics and autonomous vehicle manufacturers. Encouraged by their reactions, Nvidia launched an early access program in November 2017 for select users and has since released new tools packages to enhance the platform’s compatibility with the design review process. (Many of these initial users have also served as consultants to help tailor tools to industry needs.)

One of these early adapters is CannonDesign, a practice with 24 offices across the country with a penchant for embracing technology, with chief technology officer Hilda Espinal, AIA, at the helm.

While virtual reality is nothing new for Espinal—nor the architecture industry as a whole—Nvidia’s Holodeck platform features one key difference from other architecture-compatible VR systems: It is designed for collaboration.

Designers use six degrees of freedom VR headsets
Photo by Laura Peters for CannonDesign Designers use six degrees of freedom VR headsets

“It’s not just one person having a solo VR experience,” Weinstein says. “When you go into Holodeck you can invite your friends and colleagues to join your sessions. You each have an avatar that you can customize. Inside Holodeck you can see each other, you can talk to each other, you can wave, and you can collaboratively explore models.”

Since VR was introduced to the AEC industry around 2015, it has become a a flashy tool for showing off work to potential clients and internal review. And though the technology has been under development for decades, companies like Facebook are slowly beginning to integrate multi-user experiences into VR environments. As a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary field, architecture could be the ideal industry for this new iteration of the technology.

Designed to be explored via a six-degrees-of-freedom VR headset—more on that here—or launched in “desktop mode,” Holodeck allows designers to import CAD models created in other applications like Autodesk or Solidworks. Multiple users can then navigate the models as if they were a real structure, as well as edit and manipulate designs.

“We are now able to break down geographical barriers and collaborate with anyone in our office from any location,” Espinal says. “Actually not even just in our office, but any partner. We are working with a design architect out of Amsterdam and we think that [Holodeck] is going to be the primary way of bringing us all together.”

Avatar customization panel
Courtesy Nvidia Avatar customization panel

Originally, Holodeck featured basic tools for architects such as measuring, annotation, material editing, and navigation. But with the recent rollout of enhanced architecture-related tools on July 12, which CannonDesign consulted on, users can take 360-degree screenshots and create video recordings of virtual meetings to track design progress or archive for future use; “teleport” to different floors and elevations of any virtual structure; and test different lighting schemes to visualize the impact of daylighting and shadows on plans.

“Holodeck provides us with the ability to separate, view, and interact with portions of a model—be it building systems, elements of the building, etc.—equivalent to orthographic projection designers typically refer to as an “exploded axonometric,” Espinal says. “There is real value in being able to challenge physics this way, a great example of technology augmenting experiences, otherwise not feasible or possible in reality.”

Another of these new tools is Holotable, which allows users to interact scaled versions of models sitting on a table as they would in a traditional office setting. Points of interest can be marked with “beacons” that “teleport [users] into the model at full scale,” according to Weinstein.

“With this mixed mode, you can work with a scaled down version of your model and then fluidly switch back and forth,” he says.

These capabilities make the platform both a useful internal tool, as well as a means of setting a firm apart when competing for work.

"I believe we might have won some work because [Nvidia was] generous enough to let us use the product and show a partner in Europe," Espinal says. "Instead of having to do all this communication remotely or spend money traveling, we’re going to be able to hop into Holodeck and collaborate. That really caught their attention."

While CannonDesign has already implemented Holodeck into the design workflows of certain projects, the firm is also looking ahead to its future applications for staff.

“Down the road, maybe the director of design will give a virtual pin up or lecture in Holodeck to entry level designers across our offices,” speculates Ernesto Pacheco, CannonDesign’s director of visualization based in the St. Louis office. “This opens up opportunities to a lot of designers to interact with people that are not always available for them to see their directorial design process.”

For Pacheco, who is responsible for training and helping with the implementation of Holodeck, the platform is “very user friendly.” “It’s polished to the point that anybody can just come and pick it up in five minutes and feel comfortable inside the virtual world,” he says. “It’s almost plug and play.”

Currently, Nvidia has the number of users capped at 16, but Weinstein says this number is flexible though the team is unsure how the platform will scale with more users. And while Holodeck is free and does not require a subscription, it is designed to run on Nvidia-specific GPU's, which can cost thousands of dollars. For a firm testing the VR waters, an initial investment in the appropriate VR headsets would also be necessary. But for practice already at the cutting edge of design technology, it can be an affordable option. "This is the exact same equipment that I need to do any kind of VR anyway," Espinal explains. To gain access to the program, potential users must request a profile at Nvidia’s discretion, and not all applicants have been accepted. The company hopes to eventually make the program available to anyone, but has no definitive timeline for this step.

Because of this tight control over the technology, wide-spread adoption of Holodeck is certainly far off, though the potential for future tools seems limitless. As part of CannonDesign's consulting work with Nvidia, the practice has already requested another round of updates including adding output formats compatible with Microsoft Office, access to a GIS library such as Google Earth for master plan studies, and 3D modeling and shapes.

But the future Nvidia predicts is clear: Time and space may one day cease to be barriers to design teams.