It’s interesting to note that a lot of the core technologies for Virtual Reality (VR) have been around for a while. The stereoscope was invented in the early 19th century to view stereo-pairs, which is what the modern VR headsets essentially do. In fact, while waiting to get an early Cardboard headset, I rigged an old stereoscope, which you could actually focus, to use the first Google Cardboard apps. The Panorama, which is another key technology used in VR, also has a long ancestry including 19th century painted panoramas. More recently, we’ve used spherical panoramas to test architectural designs in desktop viewer apps for decades since the early days of 3D Studio Max. The real innovation in VR is the pairing of these and other previous technologies with more current ones, like the motion sensors in your phone, in an effective and economic way.
The quality of a VR experience depends on a variety of factors including resolution and refresh rate. Another variable is whether the experience is navigable or fixed. While their resolutions aren’t currently higher than Samsung Gear VR, headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are more immersive because they have navigable interactivity with higher detail models. The downside is that they need to be attached to a powerful computer to have a 3D model run in real-time. They use game engines like Unity and Unreal to create this type of interactivity. Oculus Rift and Vive can be navigated with game-pad controllers, but currently only the Vive has the ability for you to walk around a limited real space while feeling that movement in the VR environment. The Gear VR can also be navigated by a compatible game-pad and can play experiences created in game engines, but the complexity of the model is limited because it is playing off of your phone.
A fixed or moving path experience can be viewed on all headsets including the variety compatible with Google Cardboard and your smartphone. This experience is created by rendering or capturing a spherical or cubic panorama. Because they are easier to create than ones requiring game engine technology, they lend themselves better to an iterative design process. They can also often be at a higher level of detail and still work in real-time because all of the information is baked in during render or capture time. The limitation is that you cannot move around the space with a game-pad or equivalent. In many situations this is not such a problem especially if you can jump from one panoramic to another to tour an environment. These panoramas can also be rendered animations or captured videos that can walk or ride you through any environment.
VR experiences can be monoscopic or stereoscopic. The stereoscopic effect is an effective experience, but when trying to improve speed of workflow for design, a monoscopic solution can also work well. This is currently especially true for VR animations or videos where the need for two separate images to create the stereo effect actually reduces the maximum resolution (currently usually 4K) that can be played back in real-time. For VR, this size is important because you are essentially dividing that resolution by six views while looking at a magnified version of your device’s screen.
An example of a rough conceptual spherical panorama still
Virtual Reality in Architecture and Design:
VR is often used in architecture today for the marketing of architectural spaces to a client or developer. It is similar to using presentation renderings to rent or sell units for residential, retail and office spaces or to pitch concepts to communities and developers. In contrast to still renderings, the immersive quality of the VR experience allows the client or buyer to interactively feel the space. You are also surrounded by more sensory information upon which to base decisions.
Another effective application that is available today for VR is iterative design. There is a selection of VR headsets and software viewer options currently available that have a low barrier of entry. By using current design software workflows one can render immersive 360 experiences in a similar time-frame as a presentation rendering. You just have to keep in mind that because you see all around you, more of the design has to be taken into consideration and addressed. This media now adds even more value to the design model, which traditionally can also be used for study, rendering, 3D printed models and as a basis for documenting the final built form.
One can also use desktop panoramic viewers on your computer or personal device to have a semi-immersive experience without the need to go into a headset. This is often an easier way to collaborate on-screen but does not give you a convincing feeling of immersion.
By having a design team and client to experience a space under development immersively, more nuances of the space can be felt and understood. It’s also possible to toggle between and test a series of design options while standing in the same place for easy comparison. VR as a design tool lets the designer and architect have more intimate interaction with a space as its being formed, while allowing all parties involved to better understand the space’s dynamic.
We’ve recently had the pleasure of helping design a variety of innovative conceptual projects exploring things like the future of retail, long-term care facilities and even a launch control center utilizing this media as a collaborative tool. Since we can’t share these yet, below is a prior immersive VR video experience that is tied to other evolving experiments that include studies about our relationship to virtual and visceral phenomena. The easiest way to view it in Gear VR is using the Samsung VR app where you can just search the title “Vision Machine”. For Cardboard headset related devices use the link below in your YouTube App or you can interactively watch it on your desktop. The details and narrative can be read at www.studiovass.com/2016.
Like isometric projection, some drawing techniques in the past had portrayed abstract information about buildings in ways it would never be seen in real life. The design is often informed by these non-actual views. Seeing a space all at once as a drawing without using a viewer, the unwrapped views of the spaces portrayed in VR may also inspire design in a similar way.
How will designing in real time VR effect the spaces we are creating? I remember seeing Timothy Leary years ago give a visionary talk about VR in college. The prop he used was a prototype VR glove. When put on and plugged in, the user’s hand was virtually interfacing with an environment depicted in the computer. It’s the predecessor to Vive’s handheld controllers, which can already allow us to draw and sculpt in VR space. Human action effecting VR space can also be harnessed as an input device to control visceral actions perhaps via CNC machines or robots.
The science fiction idea of VR has reached the tipping point to becoming visceral. We are now enjoying the process of evolving it in our image. Actors were the natural first inhabitants of virtual spaces by being inserted into other worlds in post-production via green-screens and the like. They pretend to be in a place the viewer believes is real in cinema. In cinema, the camera looks around for you. In VR, we have to look around for ourselves. In VR, we can be immersed into feeling that the experience is equivalent to our “natural” reality. As architects and artists, we can choose to explore these new worlds within a variety of roles including designer, virtual builder and adviser.