The term Virtual Reality (VR) was first used around the middle of the twentieth century, and despite lots of excited development and talk over the last few decades, it has failed in becoming commonly accepted by the general public. However, with game technology and graphics processing advances, along with the release of a number of commercially available systems this year, it might finally become an accepted form of reality. This year has seen the launch of various VR headsets, the current main contenders are Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which allow fully immersive movement around a virtual environment running from a PC. Currently navigation within the Oculus is by using a standard game controller such as the ones you have on an Xbox, or in the Vive by physically moving between a pair of sensors mounted up to five metres apart. The latter obviously gives a greater sense of engagement and involvement with the environment, your physical movements replicated in the virtual environment.
There are also less expensive, unwired versions that rely on having your phone slotted into them such as the Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard, these essentially play back a 360 degree image or video. The main differences between these and the wired viewers is that they are single nodal point viewers, so although you can interactively twist your head around you can only move through the environment by transporting to another node.
Within the architectural community uptake of real time rendering has been slow – partly as the quality tended to have poor materiality, textures and lighting. With the advancement of gaming engines, notably Unreal (UE4), the quality potential now is fantastic.
Reducing over-night render times to a fraction of a second (real time output is around 60+ frames per second) which means ‘screengrabs’ of full resolution marketing images and animation are outputted as by-products of a real time environment.
At AVR London we’ve been using UE4 for a few years now, but the most remarkable project was one earlier this year for the London Business School and their new premises on the Marylebone Road. We were restoring (virtually) one of their existing rooms to create a fundraising image by building a 3D model, rendering and then creating a ‘traditional’ interior CGI. Once complete, and although looking great, the wide angle view just didn’t ‘feel’ like the physical space we visited originally to take measurements and photos. However, when the exact same 3D model was put into the headset it felt spatially identical to being in the room. How our minds interpret 2D wide angle photography versus perceived reality is a much bigger subject than can be covered here, but the effect speaks for itself; virtual reality feels so much more real than traditional perspectival CGIs. Not only is the quality a vast improvement on current rendering speeds, but the experiential possibilities are much more believable. The word ‘immersion’ is used a lot, and rightfully so.
This strength of VR has yet to be fully appreciated by the architectural community, alongside the Vive’s ‘paddles’ which allow the user to interact with the space, are the aspects of VR I find hugely interesting. Using a mouse/tablet are so ingrained in our methods that it is difficult to imagine using another interface, but the ability to essentially use movement and gestures to shape the virtual environment around you is thought provoking. Wearing a headset and 3D modelling whilst ‘inside the model’ pushing volumes and moving walls and openings around whilst immediately appreciating how these changes alter the way a space feels is an inspiring design opportunity, VR in VR.
The opportunities for visualisation and modelling are clearly obvious, but when you consider the wider potentials it becomes pretty mind-blowing. As with computer games, a solitary experience is rare, so combining your own immersion with others it becomes imaginable that we can all put our headsets on and meet up in a virtual meeting room, basically 360 degree immersive Skype. The technology is approaching a stage where we could walk around the pre-application scheme with the architect, engineers and developer all together within a shared virtual environment discussing then altering the design and seeing the implications in real time. Lucid dreaming can be described as having an awareness of and control over our perceived experience, maybe it is now more achievable in reality, virtual reality.
The WAN Awards Best Use Of Immersive Technology category is now open for entries