Virtual reality is here to stay

By Louis L. Weinzelbaum, Group President, Commercial Banking, Professional Services

How is virtual reality helping to revolutionize the way architects and engineers work?

Once thought to be a passing fad, virtual reality (VR) is rapidly becoming a mainstay at innovative architectural firms. What is it about this technology that is so appealing to firms? Quite simply, VR can play an important role in all phases of the design-to-construction process, from assessing design options and showcasing proposals, to reducing rework on models and resolving potential construction issues before breaking ground. According to Archsmarter, which provides tools and training to architects, VR is changing architectural firms in five ways: 

  1. Reduces rework. The more clients can get a feel for what they like or dislike in a design, the less time architectural firms spend in reworking models. Using VR, designers can render things, like lighting, in real time. This can provide an opportunity for clients to interact with the design model fully, flipping light switches to see how different lighting setups affect the space and giving feedback immediately.
  2. Simulates real-world scenarios. This allows designers to take real-world subjects and see how they interact with their environment, providing feedback that can help make buildings safer and more user-friendly. 
  3. Features low start-up costs. The bottom line impact of implementing this technology can be minimal, potentially around $1,000, and could be recouped with the addition of a single client.
  4. Provides a competitive advantage. Clients who are able to walk through and see each detail of a design are more likely to choose your design over that of a competitor.
  5. Brands your company as an innovator.


Use of VR is growing

Because of the capabilities VR provides, its use is growing among a variety of architectural firms. In a 2016 survey of 276 respondents around the world, CGArchitect showed that 69 percent of surveyed professionals are already using VR/augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) in their workflow, or are planning to use it by the end of this year.

And VR is being used in different ways at different architectural firms. Building Design and Construction reports that international design and consulting firm, Stantec, uses it to analyze real-life situations. In designing its San Ysidro, California Land Port of Entry project, border patrol guards are using VR technology to “walk through” their building and do a security analysis before it is built, thereby potentially reducing costly alterations later.

Dallas-based Merriman Anderson/Architects uses VR not just for concept design, but as a marketing tool as well. The firm is customizing VR experiences to meet specific client needs and expects that the technology will win them clients in the future.

HMC Architects sees VR as a tool to enhance design communications, one where designers and clients can use VR as a virtual meeting room, hopefully in the near future. Rather than relying on conference calls and a shared presentation, architects, project directors and clients in different locations could put on their respective headsets and meet in the VR model where they could conference and share markups. An HMC exec calls VR, “the biggest change in communication that this industry has seen since the beginning of using computers in architecture.”

Seattle-based architecture firm NBBJ, in partnership with Visual Vocal, has already made the leap to fully embrace VR by developing a VR productivity platform. Instead of using more traditional methods of communication such as email, the new platform, combined with mobile and cloud-based communications, could help speed up collaboration, allowing designers to make decisions based on fast client feedback.

New tools for architects
While VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, are becoming more affordable, there are also a number of applications (apps) that architects can use as virtual tools. Archipreneur provided a listing of the top five virtual reality and augmented reality apps for architects:

  1. ARki. A real-time augmented reality visualization service for architectural models that provides 3-D models with multiple levels of interactivity for both design and presentation purposes.
  2. Storyboard VR. A free prototyping and visualization tool that can be used by architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals, architects, artists and creators to pull in, arrange, scale and animate simple 2-D assets.
  3. Pair (formerly Visidraft). With a catalog that features more than 200 home and office furniture products from Fortune 500 manufacturers, this app allows architects to drag-and-drop 3-D models of consumer furnishings and appliances into their designs using iPhones or iPads.
  4. SmartReality. An augmented reality mobile app that uses a mobile device’s camera to overlay an interactive Building Information Modeling (BIM) model over printed construction plans to create 3-D visualizations of projects.
  5. Fuzor. A real-time rendering app that has a bi-directional live link with Revit software, allowing users to move around, visualize, annotate, and inspect BIM information, while also syncing changes between the two tools.

From client presentations to the design process, VR is rapidly becoming a new industry standard—a vital tool that can immerse users in a 3-D environment, provide a streamlined and effective way to refine designs, and a unique way to collaborate with both colleagues and clients. It’s technology that appears to be here to stay.