“Imagination creates reality.” – Richard Wagner

Imagine being able to work on interactive floating menus[1], as seen in the Iron-man franchise, or even going back in time, to find yourself completely surrounded by dinosaurs! Advancements in technologies pertaining to the development of Reality Environments, help in fabricating a number of virtual environments – opening up a broad spectrum of possibilities, where one could literally live out and experience their wildest sci-fi fantasies like never before. Reality Environments can be classified into ‘The Virtual Reality Environment’ and ‘The Augmented Reality Environment’.

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

What is the difference between  Virtual and Augmented Reality Environment?

Let us now understand the main difference in between the two. The Virtual Reality Environment (VR), is an immersive environment, where one is ‘transported’ into a whole new, computer-generated world, with no relationship with the real world environment. This is achieved by tricking the brain through our sensory organs, to think that we’ve been ‘teleported’ to the virtual world, which essentially translates into our new ‘reality’. VR was initially developed for The Air Force, for simulating various mid-air maneuvers and other forms of training (Flight Simulator), to prevent actual million-dollar jets from being used, for the same.  The Augmented Reality Environment on the other hand, is augmenting one’s real environment, by adding various computer generated interfaces & models into it. It is often added as an overlay on top of a real world object and is often experienced by stimulating the sense of sight and the sense of touch.

Courtesy of Rama

Courtesy of Rama

How can Reality Environment Technologies be used by Architects?

These powerful technologies, bridge the cavernous gap in between the real world, and a virtual computer generated world. Companies like Oculus, Google, Samsung, HTC, Sony, Razer, AMD, Valve Corporation, Araig, YEI Technology, Cyberith, Sixsense Entertainment, Tactical Haptics, Dexmo, etc., have made several interesting advancements in the technology, to provide users with some of the most convincing immersive experiences available today.

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

A question may arise as to how these advancements, in VR and AR technologies, can be applied by Architects and Designers? Primarily, by exploring the kind of technology and tools developed, their capabilities and features, we can then apply them accordingly, into other fields. For example, Oculus, popular for the ‘Oculus Rift’ VR headset, takes control of one’s sight, hearing and motion based interactions, to immerse them into virtual worlds. This can be used by architects to immerse themselves and their clients into the designed spaces, well before the spaces are built[2]. This gives them a clear cut understanding of the overall look and feel of the space, and they can hence effortlessly change various aspects of the design, accordingly[3]. They can also work on multiple different scaled objects, existing on the same scene[4]. The Cardboard project is an initiative by Google, which envisions bringing VR systems to everybody. It provides templates which lets the users build their own DIY VR headsets, using nothing more than their smartphones(which becomes the main VR engine-thanks to the various sensors embedded in them), VR content (usually in the format of a media file or that of an application)[5], an empty cardboard pizza box, and other common household items.

Courtesy of Oculus

Courtesy of Oculus

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Cyberith

Courtesy of Google

Courtesy of Google

Cyberith have taken this a step further by incorporating an omni-directional treadmill into their VR kit, hence allowing the user to walk, run, jump and crouch in the virtual world. YEI Technologies’ PrioVR is a system which is to be worn all around the body, enabling the user to translate real life motion into the digital world. These can be translated into the field of architecture, by letting the client literally “walk through”, a walk-through! This also means, one can measure both, the number of steps and amount of time it might take to pace from a point ‘A’ on the designed space, to another point ‘B’, which aids in optimizing the design of various circulatory paths, within that particular space. It can also be used to broadly survey a model of the site, to get a good idea of the topography and the surrounding geography, without actually having to physically go there.

Courtesy of Cyberith

Courtesy of Cyberith

Courtesy of PrioVR

Courtesy of PrioVR

Courtesy of Cyberith

Courtesy of Cyberith

Sixthsense Entertainment’s Stem Wireless Prototype System, Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip System and Dexmo’s Dexo Classic & Dexmo F2, enable the user to interact with objects in the virtual world like never before. They all are built around the concept of “reaching out from the real world, into the virtual world”, and enable the user to do exactly that! Using the Stem Wireless Prototype System, which are essentially wireless controllers, one can virtually use their ‘hands’ to drop, pick up, throw, reach out, make gestures, etc[6]. Similarly, The Reactive Grip System empowers the user to experience a force torque like feedback, which is significantly more immersive and engaging than the conventional buzz and vibration feedback, implemented in the majority of controllers. This technology enables the user to feel the ‘weight’ of virtual objects, the recoil produced upon firing a gun, as well as, something as subtle as a fish biting on the end of a fishing line. The Dexmo systems however, take the ‘touch’ haptic feedback to a whole new level. Both the systems (The Dexmo Classic & The Dexmo F2) are wearable exo-skeletal systems, which replicate eleven degrees of freedom, with respect to the kinetics exhibited by the hand. The latter however, has the additional ability to provide force feedback. By using this technology, one can ‘feel’ objects that don’t really exist. This can translate into architecture-to give more effective and interactive presentations to the client. They can be programmed to exhibit the textures on various surfaces as well as, the flow of fluids like air & water, in between one’s fingers.

Courtesy of Dexmo

Courtesy of Dexmo

Courtesy of Sixsense Entertainment

Courtesy of Sixsense Entertainment

Courtesy of Tactical Haptics

Courtesy of Tactical Haptics

Companies like KOR-FX and Araig, have gone as far as to fabricate full body VR vests & suits. The KOR-FX uses “4DFX” technology, enabling the user to ‘feel’ the environmental and situational feedback, sent from the virtual world. This could correspond to feeling a ‘buzz’ accurately in the same place the user was shot at, in a FPS (First Person Shooter) VR game. Similarly, Araig takes this a step further, by integrating a patented surround sound system and 40 haptic feedback vibrators into a seamless exo-skeleton like suit. Although these technologies are gamer-centric, they are open source- which implies that  anybody with basic programming knowledge, can develop customized immersive experiences[7]. Architects can use it to further enhance their presentations, by allowing the client to ‘feel’ the various wind-flow patterns, around the designed space.

Courtesy of Araig

Courtesy of Araig

Courtesy of Araig

Courtesy of Araig

Larger companies in the industry like Google and Microsoft, are using Augmented Reality Systems (AR) to bring forth other types of Immersion Technologies. Google Glass are a pair of glasses, which project useful interactive information onto one of the user’s lens. Microsoft’s “HoloLens” however, is a head-mounted and a self-contained computer device, that lets the user see holograms, in the real world. It enables the user to create and project custom 3D holograms of any scale, shape and size, through hand gestures and voice commands. They can be widely used for 3D modelling, construction, architecture and collaboration. According to Trimble, a leading architecture firm, which is actively using this technology, architects initially dream out their designs on a 3D space and then have to translate that into 2D, workable plans- however this AR technology paves the way for a completely new dimension in design. With multiple systems mounted around each project member, on the team, it allows for unmatched 3D modelling techniques, instant remote collaborations, and the flexibility to run quick iterations and also in order to explore other alternatives[8]. It also allows the architect to get a street-side view of the building, to give them a clear idea as to how the building would appear in the real world, to scale. They also believe that visualizing the digital design data in real time, on site, amongst MEP and Structural Consultants (who can be present remotely), could help in throwing light on and troubleshooting, various minute issues, which wouldn’t have been conventionally identified. The technology can also be used to provide training to workers in the construction industry, for example, they can be taught as to how to work a crane, and can practice it, ‘hands on’. It can also be used as a very powerful marketing tool-in order to create interactive advertisements.

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Google

Courtesy of Google

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Reality Environment Technology in the Design of Martin Luther King Center

One of America’s largest construction company, McCarthy Building Companies, used VR to build the Martin Luther King Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles, CA, which was completed in 2013. At its office in Roseville, the company has been experimenting with various VR technologies, in order to make its design & construction processes more efficient. Back in 2012, McCarthy created its own Building Information Modeling (BIM) Cave, which uses a projection technology and a pair of 3D glasses, to allow multiple users to see what a hospital room or office space will look like. The company soon realized that making any type of change, once a building is under construction, is extremely expensive, time-consuming and inefficient. They started tackling this challenge by implementing VR technology. They offer their clients the ability to evaluate the design and make iterations, virtually, well before the actual construction has begun. They always believe in implementing the latest VR technology, in the hopes of remaining a step ahead of all their competitors. The company currently uses a very powerful computing device, attached to an Oculus Rift VR headset, in addition to an Xbox controller- to present as to what a 2D blueprint would look like, once it has been built.

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

When all the above mentioned technologies and applications are subjected cumulatively, the experiences rendered would truly be Earth shattering. Architects would be able to experience the designed space; way before it’s been built. This experience also gives them a clear understanding of how the entire structure or space would fall into place, on site. It presents itself as an effective platform for remote collaborations with various other consultants, to troubleshoot various construction-related issues. The Immersive Virtual Environment technologies can also be used both as powerful marketing tools and as interactive presentation tools. Conclusively, by translating and applying these technologies in the field of architecture, we have transcended into the next generation of reinventing the distinguished, ‘architectural design process’; where the only limit-is one’s imagination!

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Courtesy of Microsoft

Written by Aprameya S Pandit.

[1]“Design and Evaluation of Menu Systems for Immersive Virtual Environments”, Doug A. Bowman and Chadwick A. Wingrave.

[2]“Spatial Cognition and Architectural Design in 4D Immersive Virtual Reality: Testing Cognition with a Novel Audiovisual CAVE-CAD Tool”, Lelin Zhang, Joachim Gossmann, Cory Stevenson, Michael Chi, Gert Cauwenberghs, Klaus Gramann, Jurgen Schulze, Peter Otto, Tzyy-Ping Jung, Randy Peterson*, Eve Edelstein** and Eduardo Macagno, Presentation to the Spatial Cognition for Architectural Design Conference 2011.

[3]“Spatial Understanding in Immersive Virtual Environments”, Marc A. Schnabel and Thomas Kvan, International Journal of Architecural Computing, Issue 04 Vol.1.

[4]“A Virtual Environment for Conceptual Design in Architecture”, Lee Anderson, James Esser and Victoria Interrante.

[5]“Architectural Framework for Immersive Web Based Virtual Environments”, Nuha El-Khalili.

[6]“Interaction Techniques for Immersive Virtual Environments: Design, Evaluation, and Application”, Doug A. Bowman.

[7]“Design and Evaluation of a Real-World Virtual Environment for Architecture and Urban Planning”, George Drettakis, Maria Roussou, Alex Reche, Nicolas Tsingos.

[8]“CaveCAD: A Tool for Architectural Design in Immersive Virtual Environments”, Jurgen P. Schulze, Cathleen E. Hughes, Lelin Zhang, Eve Edelstein, Eduardo Macagno, University of California San Diego, Calit2, La Jolla, CA, USA. 

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