Architecture firms around the world are rushing to embrace virtual reality. There’s no question about the cool factor — but does VR currently have a useful role in the day-to-day life of an architect?
First: What is Virtual Reality, Anyway?
As NASA explains it, virtual reality is, “the use of computer technology to create the effect of an interactive three-dimensional world in which the objects have a sense of spatial presence.” A VR headset fits around the user’s head and two small lenses replace what’s physically in front of her with another world — whether that’s becoming part of a film or taking a stroll around a yet-to-be-constructed building.
These days, there are several options for getting the VR experience: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR, to name a few. As headsets become more affordable and the concept grows more familiar to the general public, interest in VR is on the rise. Just take a look at the growth in search volume for the term “virtual reality” from five years ago to today:
Companies are riding this wave by using the technology to create unique branded experiences for viewers. Whether it’s pushing content to users who already own a headset, sending branded goggles to key influencers, or setting up an activation at a conference or event, virtual reality is one more way brands are telling stories today.
A few VR examples from the business-to-consumer world:
- Lowe’s Holoroom, a virtual reality home improvement design and visualization tool
- Ikea’s Virtual Reality Kitchen Experience, which lets users change cabinet colors and try out a virtual kitchen
- Carnival’s VR preview of its new fleet of “hyper-connected” boats
How Architects Are Using Virtual Reality
In 2016, global architecture firm NBBJ announced plans to incubate Visual Vocal, a VR startup, right inside its offices. Together, the two companies hope to build and test a virtual tool that will make it easier to share designs and collaborate with clients. Whether through partnerships like this one, or by creating tools of their own, firms around the world from SHoP to Gensler are making VR an everyday part of the design process.
To learn more about how and why architects are using the technology, TOKY sat down with virtual reality expert Mindie Kaplan, who is the CEO and founder at Rated VR.
Branding & PR
“The best news about the technology right now is it’s still early for the masses and the best time to determine a strategy,” says Kaplan. “Early adopters are seeing real PR value around these executions as a great branding tool.” Publications from ArchDaily and Dezeen to Fast Company and Wired regularly run stories about innovators in VR. By associating your firm with this exciting new technology, you’re showing prospective clients and employees that you are a forward-thinking team with an eye on what’s to come.
“The best news around the technology right now is it’s still early for the masses and the best time to determine a strategy. Early adopters are seeing real PR value around these executions as a unique branding tool.”
A Virtual Portfolio
“Right now we’re working on a project for a real estate and architecture firm to build a branding piece and fully rendered VR portfolio featuring their fixtures and finishes,” Kaplan says. The project is currently in the early phases, but when complete, it will encourage viewers to interact with the space, for example by selecting finishes for different surfaces.
Designing in Space
Many firms are utilizing virtual reality internally, as a tool in the design process. “With more and more architects, I’ve found that using VR as a design resource ends up being incredibly valuable,” Kaplan says. With VR headsets, your designers and engineers can truly experience the space long before construction begins, walking from one room to the next and troubleshooting along the way. Does this ceiling feel too low? Would a different finish better fit the space? How might the angle of lighting change the room?
Coupled with data analysis and evidence-based design, VR can empower teams to create spaces that model the best design alternatives, allowing users to interact and suggest modifications to layout, engineering, or finishes long before construction documents are created.
It can be tough for clients to visualize a design based on a two-dimensional drawing alone. Scale, tone, and texture are easily lost in a sketch or blueprint — but when a client can turn left, look up, and walk forward in a virtual rendering of the space, they can really see your vision come to life. “Starting with the Revit or CAD file, we are able to work with partners to fully render out the space,” Kaplan says. “From there, in a headset, we can take a firm’s client from blueprint to buildout to visualize the finished project,” Kaplan explains.
“Starting with the Revit or CAD file, we are able to work with partners to fully render out the space. From there, in a headset, we can take the firm’s client from blueprint to buildout to visualize the finished project.”
Training & Recruitment
Virtual reality can also be a great tool for AEC industry training, allowing new employees to interact with different (or even dangerous) environments while minimizing time and travel expenditures. A construction company, for example, might use VR to train an employee on how to operate a crane. Showing rather than telling can go a long way in these situations — in fact, research shows that immersive virtual reality training helps employees retain information better than passive approaches like manuals and presentations.
And if recruiting young talent is a priority, experimentation with this new technology can be a great pull. “As a recruiting tool, utilization of VR shows that your firm prioritizes innovation and is a forward-thinking leader in the space,” Kaplan says.
Is your firm experimenting with VR and architecture? Tweet us about it using the hashtag #AECvr. And for more on the latest in branding for the AEC world and beyond, sign up for TOKY’s quarterly Architecture Branding Newsletter.