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Virtual reality has the potential to transform the AEC industry in many ways, but one of the most notable is its capacity to completely redefine how architects pitch their designs.
As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately for architects, it takes far more than two-dimensional images (or many thousands of words, for that matter) to convey the experience of moving through a new structure before it’s actually been built.
The human mind struggles to visualize size and scale in the abstract, representing a serious hurdle that architects must overcome during the pitching process. Even scale models are only a static approximation of the finished product, and most are too small to leave an accurate impression of the actual scale. In response to these limitations, many are turning to immersive virtual reality (VR) environments to enhance their bids for projects. Here’s how it works.
The most obvious benefit of VR-based pitching is that you can provide a completely immersive experience for owners and other key stakeholders. This is not only valuable because it helps the audience gain a firm grasp on the project’s size and scale, but also because it reveals how different design features will interact with each other within the completed building — or how a structure will interact with its surrounding environment.
It’s one thing to able to perform a virtual walkthrough of a built environment, but if it’s not populated with the furniture, equipment, and whatever else will eventually occupy the space, the experience isn’t quite true to life. Another benefit of VR is that it allows designers to insert interactive objects into the immersive environment, including elements like light switches, movable objects, and television screens.
What’s more, with a little advance planning, designers can include multiple variations of an object or element within a VR experience, which they can cycle through in real time. From a pitching perspective, this is tremendously helpful, especially with respect to client-specific design elements like exterior signage. With the push of button, an architect can demonstrate how different approaches will fit into an urban environment or how they will look under natural lighting at various times of day or during various times of the year, all within the same VR simulation.
That being said, the true value of virtual reality in construction rests in its ability to transport a user to a completely lifelike environment. To be sure, virtual renderings have a certain amount of inherent value, but watching a slideshow and exploring a seemingly real space are fundamentally different experiences.
To that end, the ongoing development of wireless VR headsets has been a big step in the right direction. With a wired headset, any movement the user makes reminds them that they are tethered to a computer, which can hinder the immersive nature of the experience. Wireless headsets eliminate this obstacle and enable owners to lose themselves in the virtual world of an architect’s design.
Of course, a truly immersive experience is only possible when the underlying virtual environment is incredibly realistic. Architects hoping to use VR in their pitches must put in a good deal of work beforehand — or team up with the right partners — to ensure that potential clients have a high-quality virtual experience.
This requires the optimization of virtual assets, that is, the distinct 3D objects within a VR environment. The higher the polygon count within a given asset — in other words, the more complex that asset is — the higher the asset’s demand on the VR graphics card. Especially within a large-scale simulation, heavy demands on a graphics card can lead to the kinds of glitches and “catching” that will immediately bring a user back to reality, so to speak. Once the first draft of a rendering is finished, the VR designer needs to enter the virtual environment and assess which assets are too complex and which assets are simple enough to not detract from the experience.
Once these assets have been perfected, the next step is ensuring the rendering is as realistic as possible. For instance, while people don’t usually pay a whole lot of attention to how light interacts with the objects around them at any given moment, they notice immediately when a VR designer gets it wrong. In order to avoid such mistakes, designers use a physically-based renderings (PBR) tool to mimic the way light reflects off different shapes and textures.
Similarly, when working on intricate assets like sculptures or ornate lamp posts, designers can use sculpting tools such as ZBrush to make renderings even more detailed. Some tools even enable users to digitally sculpt an asset on a tablet or other touchscreen devices, allowing designers to fine-tune their virtual worlds at a granular level.
When you get all of these things right, you get a much more realistic virtual environment and, consequently, a much more powerful pitch. The results speak for themselves:
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