The 2016 edition of SXSW Interactive had no shortage of virtual reality demos, including virtual reality as it applies to architecture. On Tuesday, IA Interior Architects and InsiteVR held a panel on the impact that VR has had on the design process and communication with clients.
I had the pleasure of speaking alongside IA's Guy Messick, AIA, director of design intelligence; and Kelly Funk, IIDA, senior workplace strategist. While 2015 was a big year for early adopters, VR has rapidly left the "beta" phase with firms like IA equipping all their offices with VR headsets and integrated work flows with InsiteVR, which lets them easily present their Revit models at human scale with the click of a button.
A core focus of our panel was describing direct experiences that IA has had with clients using VR. In a video shown to the audience, a confidential client was challenged to comprehend various design options and a specific ceiling solution. When the client put the VR headset on, one could see an immediate reaction revealing his sudden understanding.
Attendees were also shown a live demo of a large project IA had recently designed for a social media client. As Messick wore the VR headset, the audience followed his journey on the projector screen, and listened to personal anecdotes from him and Funk of significant client decisions that were made after providing the client with a VR walkthrough. Notably, the client had initially suggested a specific headcount and layout for their eating area. After seeing it in VR, their reaction was "No: That's too tight. That’s not good for our people." Despite that the design had already been finalized and that changes would incur extra costs, the designs were updated based on the client's realizations while wearing the VR headset.
"They were ok with increasing their costs and that doesn't happen very often in our industry" said Messick. It is crucial to emphasize the importance moments like this have had on proving that VR is more than a gimmick: It is driving real business decisions and giving clients and designers access to information that wasn't previously available without full scale mockups or post-construction adaptations.
Our conversation also highlighted VR's impact on empathic design. At IA, Funk focuses on ensuring workplace design aligns with client business goals and company culture. A large part of this is understanding how humans interact in work environments. Funk pointed out that nearly 20 years ago for the Harvard Business Review, Dorothy Leonard and Jay Rayport had suggested using virtual environments to immediately spot patterns in behaviors. VR is doing just that and allowing for behavior-driven design changes or enhancements to be made before it’s too late. Funk posits that VR is also giving employees the opportunity to help digitally craft their workplace experience rather than attempting to map it out in analog form or not being asked for input at all. “VR is bringing designers and end-users together in a way we’ve never been able to before,” says Funk. Funk also mentioned the ability for VR to impact positive change in an organization with respect to it being used as a tool for change management.
As VR becomes more commonplace in the design process, we believe VR will lead to new, quantifiable data that can influence the design process. We showed attendees a glimpse of the possibilities: for instance, using VR to view proposed designs and recording user gaze data to optimize wayfinding or store layouts for retail clients. Websites have an advantage that allows them to A/B test site layouts and make patches overnight. Though still in development, VR opens the door for A/B testing of built environments without expensive prototypes or equipment.
Ultimately, my co-panelists and I believe that VR can help "optimize for humanity." We all share the belief that VR doesn't have to lead to a dystopia full of isolated individuals in VR headsets. Virtual reality applied in the right way can have a tremendous impact on the physical world and help shape the built environment we all inhabit.