Currently, virtual reality and 360-degree video are somewhat niche tools, but they are rapidly gaining in popularity. These immersive technologies give architects a means to better decipher a client’s expectations—everything from a building’s natural lighting to the choice of tile backsplash can be actively assessed at any point in the design and construction process. This transformative technology has already been fully incorporated into some practices. ArchDaily interviewed Henning Larsen’s Chief Engineer of Sustainability Jakob Strømann-Andersen to better understand the current and future applications of virtual immersion in architecture.
Thomas Musca: The disappointing response from consumers to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have led some to conclude that virtual reality may have little current use outside of gaming or demonstrative gimmicks. This has led to a mix of opinions towards the future role of immersive technology architecture. Why have you elected to develop spaces in virtual reality? How can 360-degree video enhance the design process?
Jakob Strømann-Andersen: This technology has the potential to rise way beyond a gimmick if we develop the space you immerse yourself into. The whole point for us is to build the experience; we want to improve the virtual space by providing much more than just a great architectural visual. We strive to create a more interactive experience by integrating real-time lights and auditory stimulation to make the experience even more authentic. This means that, in the earliest stages, the end-user of the future building can already get not only a visual impression of the building but also use their other senses for an accurate preview of the space. Architects can then make adjustments accordingly based on the user’s evaluation of the room. We can alter acoustic settings, light settings and so on, so the indoor climate of the space will fit the end-user. We can ask people how they perceive the space way before we hit the site, or even glimpse the rendering. It can qualify the decisions we make as designers in regards to important human aspects like acoustics.
At the University of Cincinnati, Lindner College of Business, we had users walk through three different classrooms in a virtual space, each with a different acoustic setting and different sound absorbents (carpet flooring, wall absorbents and sound-proof ceilings) to decide which they preferred. For each room, we recorded an acoustic simulation that they listened to when they moved through the rooms. For us, this idea has a tremendous potential. If we use the tools scientifically, and if we use them to actively make better decisions that are anchored in user experience, then it won’t just be a gimmick. Imagine the next level to be actually feeling the surface, smelling the landscape. The visual aspect is just one part.
TM: Most architectural renders are intentionally fantastical mockups designed to capture the imagination of clients. Does the shift towards realism provided by 360-degree videos force designers to present a more truthful narrative of a project?
JSA: It is important to note that realism won’t enter until the building is finished. Until then, the craft, details, and the meeting of materials are difficult to accurately represent. The 360-degree space immersion is still a mockup and should be presented as such. However, what the technology enables us to do is to make better decisions for the people eventually moving into the space than a traditional rendering would allow. Because of this, it is our responsibility to be accurate and transparent in how we present it. A lot of decisions will change during the design process, and immersive tech enables a new level of testing and altering.
TM: Both 360-degree videos and virtual reality allow viewers to self-curate their own experience in a space. Given that people will experience this technology through mediocre computer speakers, sub-par displays, confused camera panning, and so on are you cautious that the experience could be corrupted by variables outside of the designer’s control?
JSA: We’re not too concerned about a discrepancy in the quality of the technology. We do not consider these tools as a "test-at-home" facility, but as a service architects can provide in a controlled setting. It is up to us as designers to be able to manage the data we collect from the "self-curating" end-user. As with all other scientific data collection, we must calibrate our data, eliminate sources of errors, and validate input. It is on the architect to determine how the 360-degree experience is different from reality. Like other qualitative research, it is important that we contextualize. "Perception of space" is something we continuously research, as it is an important parameter in human-centered design. The use of immersion to qualify design decisions is a discipline anchored very much in qualitative research.
TM: Do you see 360-degree videos and virtual reality as a limited technology that can only be used to develop only certain types of architecture?
JSA: This technology can be rewarding for all end-users. It is suited to creating a better experience of the space, comfort, indoor climate. It is for people that can’t articulate their feelings and desires. They need to experience it first—and now they can. The difference is that immersion allows architects to actually do something about their remarks.
TM: Do you have any reservations about using this technology?
JSA: Some of our concerns are that it can be something of a solo experience. While one’s tethered to VR goggles, it can be hard to share with others. That said, we’re very optimistic about the potential of the technology. In the near future, we’ll be able to immerse ourselves into a shared virtual space right in our office and take part of the same experience with only a push of a button. We have always been very concerned with user evaluation and end user involvement, but this technology provides a whole new layer of information. We are now able to collect immediate responses on an array of parameters: acoustics, lighting, materials, and reactions. That is a gift! Not only for us as designers, but for the future of architecture.