Virtual Reality: Coming to an Architecture Office Near You

Virtual Reality. It’s an old term, even an old technology, but it carries new weight - and it’s coming to architecture, soon. Its prevalence will be a result of its near universal accessibility; the experience can now be powered by the modern cell phone. It’s probably on your desk, in your pocket - you may even be reading on a virtual reality engine right now. The price point to participate, thanks to Google Cardboard and a device you already own, is less than twenty dollars.

Google Cardboard might be considered a wearable, but don’t think Google Glass and shiver. As it stands, the technology is more inline with a smart-tv or peripheral, not something to be worn in public. Before we get into what it is, let’s talk about what it can do. We as designers have gotten very good at showing what a space might look like, but in many ways we have come no further in demonstrating what a space feels like.

Click image to access a set of Photo Spheres to test for yourself. Image © Josh Pabst

As a designer at smdpstudio and as an architectural photographer, this ability to virtually experience space is very attractive. The simple yet elegant technology gives the viewer - as we refer to it at smdpstudio - free will. You can choose where to look, and linger where you like. You are in the space and you yourself are ‘to scale’. It’s absolutely not the same as panning and orbiting while looking at your computer screen. Describing the experience is difficult for the same reason that it’s wonderful: it’s personal and almost tactile.

Using an image called a Photo Sphere in conjunction with Google Cardboard offers a unique experience to both designer and client. Creating and rendering Photo Spheres is only marginally more difficult than creating a traditional rendering. We model in 3D, yet continue to output 2D renderings or the occasional animation. Photo Spheres, like 2D renderings, take nowhere near the time or money required to produce an animation, but the impact is arguably even greater.

What makes me think this technology is going to take hold in our industry? Watching young and seasoned designers alike look around a rendered Photo Sphere inside Google Cardboard for the first time is like watching a YouTube video of a blind person seeing shapes for the first time or a deaf person hearing anew. It brings joy and excitement to their faces. It is a truly unique experience. Both designer and client equally enjoy seeing the design in such spatial clarity. As designers, this technology is a new tool in our arsenal to help illustrate sense of scale, adjacencies, context, and overall feeling of a space.

In 1890 Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer published “Client and Architect,” writing:

Much of our trouble in the past has come because the public does not understand that it takes an architect’s eye, or, at least, an experienced eye, to read an architectural drawing rightly [...] Even that picture which is called a perspective cannot easily be understood; and a plan, a section, an elevation, are not pictures at all, but signs and symbols, which the novice often misconceives most entirely just when he thinks he has unravelled every knot […] The interests of the client and those of the architect both demand that some competent artist, not himself concerned in the matter, should be asked — and paid — to explain the submitted designs.

Renderings, as we think of them today are inherently two dimensional. They are sophisticated perspectives. As mentioned by Van Rensselaer over 100 years ago, even perspective drawings can be misunderstood. A typical rendering of an interior lobby may show the beautiful feature-wall and front desk, for example, but it cannot simultaneously show the touch-down spaces to the north or the vertical circulation to the south. I’ve created the space below to illustrate the concept.

A Photo Sphere with the frames of three standard renders superimposed on top. Photo Spheres make clear the relationship between parts of a design in a way that a set of renders cannot. Image © Josh Pabst

Traditionally, we may have needed to deliver three renderings (illustrated in white) to show the client these design features. Consequently, only a trained eye, using the floor plans as reference, will truly understand the relationship between all the design elements. A well-rendered Photo Sphere in conjunction with a VR headset can allow your client to stand in a photo-realistic environment and look around. Not on a screen, but in exactly the same way they do in the real world. By tilting their head up, they can see the ceiling and lighting design, by looking straight forward, the front desk and feature-wall, to the right the main entrance and canopy, to the left the escalators, and down to the selected flooring.

It may seem easy or even natural to dismiss Virtual Reality, because we’ve all done so several times. We have heard the word come into, and out of, the collective consciousness time and time again. The difference now is that the technology has finally caught up with the concept. Google has already shipped more than 500,000 Cardboard units. Why not get the architecture industry involved?

Click image to access a set of Photo Spheres to test for yourself. Image © Josh Pabst

For those that think photo-real renderings have been harmful to the profession, I shall not speak. But these VR Photo Spheres will not eliminate, or more importantly, will not exacerbate that problem (if there is one). It’s not about realism, it’s about experience, context, and spatial understanding. The expression “seeing is believing” applies. The best thing for virtual reality now is for everyone to try it - for some - give it another chance. Why wouldn't you? Most of the technology is already in your pocket.

Need help getting started? Purchase your variant of Google Cardboard and then follow along to load a Photo Sphere onto your phone. For advanced users, here are some of my initial findings on creating your own CGI Photo Spheres in 3Ds Max.

Professionally trained in Architectural and Environmental Design, Josh Pabst has a substantial portfolio of diverse project types throughout the US, China, Korea and South America. As a designer, CGI expert, and an architectural photographer Josh explains that, ", architecture, and photography all compliment one another; what I learn in one field often informs my decisions in another." Living and working in Chicago, Josh has been designing and photographing the built environment for the past decade.

About this author
Cite: Josh Pabst. "Virtual Reality: Coming to an Architecture Office Near You" 06 Apr 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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