Will virtual reality disrupt architecture? That’s the plan.

There may not be an architect or designer on the planet who hasn’t felt the consternation of clients who are unable to align their personal vision of a project with its rendering on paper or in a VR architecture model. As architects present their work, they steel themselves for the four painful words they are likely to hear: “I don’t see it.” For their part, most clients find sparse comfort in the four words with which their architect is likely to reply: “Trust me, you will.”

In theory, VR architecture will give all stakeholders in a project a chance to fully conceptualize and collaborate on its intended results, see the impact of proposed changes, and communicate the potential of an architect’s vision by actually being inside the project throughout its duration. VR and its non-immersive cousin, augmented reality (AR), can also help increase job site safety by accurately showing the location of possible hazards at scale.

Gartner’s 2017 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies places VR architecture comfortably within the “slope of enlightenment,” which indicates a broader grasp of the technology and its business benefits, and the infusion of money into pilot projects from confident investors.

Because our basic perceptions of the VR experience have been informed by our exposure to dazzling gaming, entertainment, and marketing, it’s unsurprising that our expectations for its application in the enterprise may be ahead of the curve.

VR has been sparking imaginations in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) space for years. In 2015, Olivier Demangel, Founder of London’s IVR Nation, created an immersive walkthrough of a home designed by architects Featherstone Young that he’d seen on the Dezeen website.

Speaking to Dezeen, Demangel postulated that VR’s precision will turn architects into magicians, and lift them a skosh higher on the creative food chain. “You’ll be able to change the world around you like a god,” he enthused. Promises, promises.

VR Architecture in the Immediate, Very Real World

To understand how VR and AR technologies are performing in our current reality, let’s take a closer look at one of the most challenging, complex, and fluid areas of AEC practice: healthcare facility design.

Within any healthcare complex, one of the most difficult areas to plan and design are operating rooms and interventional suites.

“Both of those places have a lot of things that are suspended from the ceiling. You’ll have monitors, lights, imaging devices. When you look at a two-dimensional plan it’s difficult to understand exactly what’s on the floor, what’s suspended, how far things are suspended down from the ceiling, and where those things might block your view or your ability to move within the space,” explained Jason Carney, AIA, NCARB.

Carney works for one of the nation’s most high-profile healthcare architecture firms, Environments for Health Architecture (E4H). Ranked amongst the top 25 architecture firms in the nation and first among firms specializing 100 percent in healthcare by Modern Healthcare Magazine, E4H is at the forefront of technological innovation.

“When you put on a VR headset and you enter that simulation, you can immediately see where things are located. You can experience how far you need to reach to touch something. You can experience whether that item is too high or too low, or if there’s something that might be blocking your view. All of these things are extremely important in healthcare.”

IrisVR, a producer of desktop and mobile VR equipment and software, partners with E4H to provide its VR technology. IrisVR software integrates with existing 3D modeling technologies, such as computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) to create the true-to-scale environments necessary to accurately plan and design healthcare spaces.

Although E4H has been using fully-rendered, photorealistic VR architecture for three years, they have only recently been able to bring the technology to the field, which is a key consideration when working with medical professionals and other clients whose time and availability is tightly scheduled.

“For our clients it’s very important that we come to them, and that we bring our tools to their location because, for physicians in particular, it’s difficult to get a group of physicians to leave the hospital to travel offsite to one of our offices. It’s important for us to bring those tools to them,” Carney said.

“The interactive process has really caught on during this last year as the capabilities and portability of the technology has developed further,” he added. “It has enhanced our ability to take it out to the field and work with our clients.”

Design technologies in a changing world

E4H employs VR to present completed designs to clients as well as using their actual models to interact with them, soliciting feedback and making updates and changes to the model during the design session.

While we often view VR as the only immersive technology, architects, engineers, and builders have long benefitted from the immersive nature of CAD and BIM technologies.

“The technology is moving towards a full CAD solution that really does create a traditional model of buildings as we work,” Carney said. “We use building information modeling, and in that process the building is fully modeled during the design of that implementation process.”

Now these technologies can work in concert for a more effective result. “As a byproduct of BIM, what we’re able to do is to use that same model and load that into a VR simulation so that users can interact with it. Then, as we get feedback from them, we can make edits to the model, thus not creating parallel workflows. It’s a more seamless process where we don’t have to create a separate process to gather information and then incorporate it back into our model. We can do that simultaneously with the users.”

The ease of creating a space from a VR architecture rendering, according to Carney, “depends on the complexity of the model itself and what the goals are for the session. In some cases it can be very easy and very seamless because when the model is used it is updated during the session and then synchronized with the central model. Those changes are then orchestrated into the overall central model.

“In other cases we may work with a copy or modified version of the original model for the purpose of a faster workflow, or if we need a higher level of rendering. Once we move into a higher level of rendering it’s difficult to maintain that with the complexities of our BIM model.”

He stressed that VR architecture development efforts have been moving towards a more connective, collaborative type of workflow, both internally with project consultants and with clients.

“There have been a number of software platforms that have moved to cloud-based. For architects and engineers that becomes a little more difficult because of the intense nature of the software that we use, and the complexity and file sizes that we work with. But that is something that is happening as data speeds increase and costs decrease.”

The myth of photorealism

The fully photorealistic experience that VR architecture provides can be a boon or a burden, depending on how and when they’re used. The sight of a true-to-scale, fully realized space can inspire awe and excitement, but when it comes to getting clients to consider issues around infrastructure and other critical details, that realism can detract from the process.

“Certainly, in an interactive session with the users, we’re not quite as concerned with having a perfect photorealistic rendering of the space. We can deal more with generic colors that convey finishes without bogging the process down,” Carney admitted. “Oftentimes, if we jump to a too specific and too highly- rendered model, we find that people react more to the finishes in the room rather than the relationships and the information that you’re trying to get from the session.”

Apart from communicating the overall concept of a space, VR architecture is a valuable tool for helping the client meet goals around project funding. “We actually have clients who have requested that we render VR simulations for them, which they can then load in their own setups and that are very portable, and they use those for fundraising and to showcase the end product and the design to potential donors,” he added.

Augmented reality in the AEC sector

The ease of creating a space from a VR architecture rendering, according to Carney, “depends on the complexity of the model itself and what the goals are for the sessionAt present, VR is more applicable in the AEC space than its cousin, augmented reality. AR allows users to place objects in a space at full scale, and move them throughout the space to aid decision making.  As far as Gartner is concerned, AR is currently slumped in the hype cycle’s Trough of Disillusionment, as experiments in the technology have failed to meet expectations and high costs are keeping investors at bay.

“The actual experience is more like a floating screen in space, not a fully immersive experience,” Carney pointed out. “So while it has benefits to some of the workflows, it doesn’t really take the place of a virtual reality simulation at this stage.” AR’s inability to provide the detailed feedback needed to be fully useful presents another barrier.

That’s not to say AR won’t find its feet, which Carney believes it will over time. “Today, a lot of the design models are generated as BIM models in 3D, and then during construction these are carried forward and manipulated with the use of coordination models so that at the end of the process there’s a full 3D model of the entire building and all of its systems that are constructed, beginning in design and developed all the way through construction as a record model,” he illustrated.

“The use of augmented reality is going to mean that facilities will not only be able to look up a model on a computer to see where things are located, but that people in facilities will be able to go out through the buildings themselves with a headset, with glasses, and be able to see effectively through the wall as to what is within those walls. That’s the really exciting thing that’s going to be happening down the road.

“The complexity of all the services being coordinated within ceiling spaces and below floors is very intricate, and it’s important to be able to coordinate all of those pieces in a 3D manner. It saves time and issues–costs like construction–as we’re able to make those judgments before we actually get into the physical construction and identify issues.

Visualizing Tomorrow

As we continue to imagine the landscape of possibility for immersive technologies in architecture, Carney is careful to remind us that they are still new. “In some cases and in some industries it has been used for a while now, but the integration of the software that’s used for design and documentation with VR platforms has taken some great leaps forward in the last couple of years,” he said. “This is something that we really see as an important part of communicating with our clients, and will continue to grow as a facet of the industry.”

As for other advancements, Carney expects more use of cloud systems, and vastly improved collaboration over much broader geographies. Like many firms, E4H staff coordinates several projects in multiple office locations throughout the country.

“That’s going to be something that increases as we move forward. It’s also going to start to involve the client side of that equation as we’re able to interact with clients through connected online meetings and interactions, even with VR, where we can take a VR simulation to one location. But we may be able to include folks in a different location in that same VR simulation so they experience it together even though they’re not geographically in the same place.”

Do you see it? Trust us, you will.