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How to get started with Virtual Reality in Architecture & Design?



Virtual Reality in Architecture and Design


Virtual Reality in Architecture and Design 101


Virtual Reality has come a long way from the days of clumsy hardware installations, long development cycles to prepare 3D models & hard-to-install software on VR headsets. The hardware is wireless, affordable & of great quality today. The software is easily available for download and getting models into VR can be done in a matter of minutes.


This guide is to help you navigate through the most commonly asked questions by Architects in order to get started with Virtual Reality - in 2021. But before we get into how to get started, it may be helpful to quickly understand - “How are Architects using VR"?



How are Architects using VR?


In our own interviews with more than 30 Architecture firms across the world, we found that the primary reason stated by Architects for using Virtual Reality is for client presentations. There is a consensus that clients have a hard time understanding floor plans, 2D walkthroughs of a space not yet built. With Virtual Reality, they get an intuitive understanding of the space, feel more engaged with the design process and help reduce miscommunication errors before the construction stage.


However, it is not the only reason to use VR in the design process. A few Architecture & Design teams find great value in finding issues and improvements in their own designs by quickly reviewing in 3D. This testimonial from Ken Mahood captures the benefits really well:


“Using Virtual Reality not only blows the minds of our clients when we show them their project but also surprises us as designers.”



Which headsets are getting the most traction?


The VR headset landscape has evolved every year since the launch of the original Oculus Rift Consumer Version 1 in 2016. The general shift has been towards making the headsets lighter, wireless, improving resolution and processing power to handle VR experiences. Architects have often had to choose from a wide variety of categories:

  • Wireless headsets

  • PC-tethered headsets

  • Smartphone-based VR



VR Headset


Thankfully, the choices for Architecture & Design are becoming easier to make with the consolidation of the headsets market. Here are our recommendations related to headsets in 2021:


1) Oculus Quest 2: By far, the number one headset used by our users is the Quest 2 launched in October 2020. The reason behind its popularity is the combination of ease of use and affordability. With touch controllers, 1832*1920 pixels per eye resolution ( 50% more than the original Quest ), increased graphics processing power - never before have 3D designs looked better on a standalone VR headset. With the launch of App Labs, the software required to view 3D walkthroughs is now available easily making it an ideal combination of good software and hardware. The cons lie in the fact that using standard headsets requires a Facebook account - which not all business users are comfortable with. To provide an alternative, Facebook has provided an Oculus For Business option, where hardware and software deployments at scale can be managed with the needs of Enterprises in mind. The headsets leading to the Oculus Quest 2 in this category are Oculus Quest ( original ) & Oculus Go - both of which are now phased out by Facebook.


2) PC-tethered headsets: The line of headsets from Oculus that led this segment is phasing out soon making Oculus Quest 2 the focus of its VR hardware offerings. This creates a field for the other important players in the VR hardware space focused on PC-tethered headsets - like the HP Reverb G2 & HTC Vive Pro. The benefits of these headsets obviously lie in the superior performance owing to the PC power at the cost of limiting the mobility provided by the standalone VR options.



3) Google Cardboard & Samsung Gear VR: The early years of VR were marked by great enthusiasm in using the Google Cardboard - a less than $10 USD - option which a lot of firms tried in order to get their clients a taste of VR without spending on more expensive VR headsets. A more sophisticated mobile VR experience was using the Samsung Gear VR ( now phased out ). While there were benefits of getting smartphone-based VR ( large numbers, cheaper costs, branding options ), the experiences were not compelling enough to make it a repeatable exercise. It can now be ascertained that most firms are not exploring this path as there are cheaper and high-quality options like the Oculus Quest 2 available to get started without the limitations. For early adopters of VR, there is always going to be some empathy for the Google Cardboard experience in our opinion.



How does VR integrate with architectural & design software?


If the number of VR headsets can be overwhelming to choose from, it can be even more complicated to understand how your design & modeling software integrates with Virtual Reality. We recommend thinking about the design stage and communication intent to determine the right workflow for your requirements.


Looking for photorealistic immersive experiences?


Think of rendering software like Lumion, Enscape, VRay, Twinmotion, and how to get your content into an Oculus Quest 2? The proper workflow can be setting up your scenes in the rendering software, exporting 360 panoramas to your desktop & importing them to your Quest. The import process can be manual, ie, uploading the files directly to your headset or via a 360 tour software that has a cloud-based viewer for Oculus Quest.


Looking for 3D walkthroughs for conceptual design reviews?


In early design development, walking through a 3D model can be really beneficial for stakeholders to understand the intricacies of the project. Typically, this can be done via software that offers plugins in order to export models to the cloud and render them for viewing using a VR App. SketchUp also offers its own Virtual Reality viewer using a cable to view the models on the Quest. We have built plugins that integrate directly with SketchUp & Revit that makes the process of uploading and viewing a 3D Walkthrough a single-step process.



What are VR meetings like?


Meetings with different stakeholders in a design development process can be done in various modes. In-person meetings with clients have been the most common way of introducing VR to clients as most clients do not possess their own headsets. This workflow typically requires uploading the design to the cloud, ensuring the walkthrough is properly set up for a client presentation & bringing a VR headset to the meeting. The best practices around this include using the Casting option from Oculus which ensures all stakeholders not using headsets in the meeting can see the VR view on a PC or a larger screen. During the pandemic, things changed as one would expect as in-person meetings became harder to do. We saw a drop in the use of in-person VR meetings and a rise in virtual VR meetings where multiple people could join an immersive design review from anywhere using a headset. As of today, while most design reviews still tend to happen in-person owing to limited headset adoption in most firms and the fact that not all clients have VR headsets at home - Virtual VR Meetings is definitely a growing trend in making the use of immersive technology with different stakeholders for design reviews and presentations.




What are the limitations of 3D to VR software?


While it is true that significant improvements have been made in the field of virtual reality for architecture, there are still certain challenges that need to be addressed. A few limitations that exist today can be summarized as follows:


- High-polygon 3D models: Models can vary from small houses with a few thousand polygons to big projects with millions of polygons. Additionally, there can be files related to materials, textures that add to the complexity of rendering in real-time on headsets like Oculus Quest 2 - which has a limited capacity. This turns out to be frustrating for Architects who do not want to spend a lot of time cleaning up models. Significant improvements in this area have been made, but there is always a threshold beyond which complex models may not work in a plug-and-play fashion.


- Photo-realistic experiences: Most of the popular rendering engines like Lumion, VRay still do not have a direct VR integration option. The popular way of getting these photorealistic scenes into VR is via 360 panoramas which can be viewed in headsets and provide an excellent immersive experience - but a lot of the content is lost in this process which is a limiting factor for high-quality VR experiences.


- Usability for clients: For most clients, managing the VR headset experience is not a very intuitive process at the beginning. This can be a challenge in meetings and requires careful planning in preparing a good walkthrough that can be viewed by all stakeholders and easily managed in order to focus on the design content and not on how to use the headset,



What are the costs of implementing VR at my firm?


As we saw in the above sections, most of the 3D to VR workflow directly integrates with the software used currently by Architects & Designers. This implies that the costs in implementing VR at the firm essentially depends on two additional factors:


Hardware costs: Most firms begin with acquiring 1 or 2 headsets to start with and measure the ROI of VR for design review workflows. This helps to get initial results with clients and internal stakeholders before rolling out a wider implementation of the technology in the organization. In this case, initial hardware costs begin at $299/headset considering Oculus Consumer Version Headsets.


Software costs: Like most software acquisitions, there is a range of options to choose from for our VR requirements. Typically, for 3D to VR integrations and showing off panoramas, SketchUp, or Revit models, software prices range from $500 USD/year to $2000 USD/ year per user as a starting point. Also, these are typically monthly subscriptions which can be disabled at any point in most cases. Check SENTIO VR pricing here for more information.


Therefore, with an initial investment of less than $1,000 USD per year, any Architecture, Design, or Construction firm can get started with VR and measure the ROI before making company-wide adoption and bigger investments.




Conclusion


With the noticeable increase in firms participating with VR headsets since the launch of Oculus Quest 2 in October 2020, we have reason to believe that the adoption of VR in the Architecture industry is moving from the early adoption stage to the mass adoption stage - with 2021 being a turning point due to the sharp increase in possibilities and reduced costs. The benefits are clear, the workflow is simple, the limitations are well-known and the costs are minimal to get started with the technology - that may well be a standard in how 3D designs are shared and communicated in the AEC industry in the near future.



Feel free to leave your opinion & reach out if you have questions about your VR setup. If you’re interested in trying out SENTIO VR for efficient and cloud-based collaboration, you can get started here.