Will Virtual Reality Redefine the Way Architects Work?

Published on August 30, 2016 | by Lidija Grozdanic
Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center
One of the first architecture offices to fully embrace Virtual Reality (VR) is Seattle-based NBBJ, here a rendering of the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center in China | © NBBJ
These days, virtual reality seems to be the most important buzzword across several industries. This technological advancement is capturing the imagination of tech communities and architects alike, but does VR really have a future in architecture?

Computer graphics have come a long way since Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad. Sutherland’s vision of entire environments being controlled and generated by computers has become more of a reality in the last decade. Gadgets such as head-mounted displays, data gloves, virtual reality controllers, and motion trackers are all promising to become as commonly used as smartphones. While skeptics question the true groundbreaking potential of VR, the adoption rate of this new technology seems to be on the rise.

Analyst firm Gartner has been keeping a close eye on emerging technologies for over 20 years. Their annual Hype Cycle research method visualizes the dynamics whereby new technologies emerge and develop. The chart predicts the evolution of emerging technologies in the IT and communication industries, separating the hype from industry drivers that actually evaluate their maturity, as well as commercial and business applicability.

The Hype Cycle usually includes five key phases of a technology’s life cycle:

  • The first, known as the Innovation Trigger, marks the kickoff of a technology breakthrough followed by hype generated by the mass media. At this time, no significant usable products or commercial viability can be seen.
  • The second stage, the Peak of Inflated Expectations, relates to early success stories and publicity. At this point, the curve starts to decline with the beginning of negative press coverage.
  • In the third phase, the Trough of Disillusionment, interest in the initial breakthrough wanes as experiments and implementations fail.
  • When the second and third generation products are launched and combined with a set of offered services, the technology reaches the Slope of Enlightenment. This is the stage in which new practices start developing pilots before they reach a high-growth adoption phase.
  • When/if the technology reaches the Plateau of Productivity, mainstream adoption will take off; this is also the time when investments pay off.

Gartner’s findings built on data collected up until 2015 show that virtual reality has reached the Slope of Enlightenment, together with autonomous field vehicles and enterprise 3D printing. The Hype Cycle chart shows that it’s probably going to take another 5 to 10 years for virtual reality to go mainstream. In the short term, the development of VR is expected to continue and, according to tech experts, will be mostly driven by the gaming industry.

When it comes to architecture, five years ago it was easy to dismiss VR as another passing fad, but now it seems that VR may be here to stay. Though mainstream architecture firms are not known for their readiness to invest in new technologies, VR seems to be gathering momentum. Firms are starting to use VR both internally, as part of their design processes, as well as externally, in communication with clients.

CGarchitect’s Jeff Mottle claims that the future of the technology in architecture and ArchViz lies in its potential to provide scale and presence: “Two things that also neatly sum up what we feel when we experience architecture in the real world. This ability to experience a space we can’t visit, or one that does not yet exist, is the basis of nearly everything professionals in the field of architectural visualization do on a daily basis, so really VR is quite complementary and takes what we do to another level.”

One of the most important questions to ask when it comes to the future of VR is whether its evolution will be driven by pursuits for visual fidelity (image quality) or commercialization. Mottle believes that the technology is likely to develop in both directions, and stresses interactivity as its most important aspect for adding value. In the foreseeable future, the consumer space will play a crucial role in the evolution of the tool, but the high price tag seems the largest obstacle in a more widespread use of VR in architecture offices.

A recent survey conducted by CGarchitect, which focused on the architectural visualization industry, shows a rising adoption of VR in the last year. Around 69% of surveyed professionals are already using VR/AR/MR in their workflow or are planning to use it in the next two years. Though the survey included a relatively small number of respondents, its results provide a useful cross section of the industry and show an enthusiasm with which architects are welcoming VR.

Seattle-based NBBJ is one of the architecture firms that has had the most success in keeping step with technology. NBBJ developed their self-contained venture Visual Vocal to build a VR platform that was integrated into the firm’s design process. By using VR, NBBJ hopes to speed up collaboration and communication between designers and allow them to make decisions based on fast client feedback. The new productivity tool will allow architects to build VR versions of 3D models that can be explored on a smartphone.

computational design tools
NBBJ used computational design tools during schematic design and design development for the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center in China to refine the competition design and explore how best to maximize the fan experience, use less material such as steel and model energy performance. | © NBBJ

Together with mobile and cloud-based solutions, VR is expected to replace conventional communication such as email. The team, led by John San Giovanni and Sean House, raised $500,000 for Visual Vocal, which will not only be developed as a solution for architecture, but for other industries as well. Future plans for the platform includes creating solutions for the aerospace industry, product design, and biotech.

For its new corporate headquarters in California, computer chip maker NVIDIA demonstrated VR’s potential on a completed building powered by NVIDIA products. The VR headsets allowed Gensler designers to navigate structural models and notice design flaws that might otherwise be missed in 2D environments. They also provided a more realistic view of how much light would enter the interior, and bounce off reflective surfaces or be absorbed.

While we’re waiting to see if VR assumes a more significant role in the architectural design process, those focused on creating architecture-related products might consider using VR to boost their marketing efforts. Global brands are already using VR to attract new customers. According to a new survey conducted by Greenlight Insights | Market Insights for Virtual & Augmented Reality, people are more likely to buy a product from a brand that uses VR, as this makes them appear more forward-thinking. The survey shows that 53% of responders are more likely to purchase products from brands that use VR than those that still haven’t adopted the technology.

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Do you think virtual reality has a future in architecture? How will it affect the way we design buildings and communicate with clients?

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