If VR is a window onto that which doesn’t yet exist, it seems there is almost no industry more primed to become users of VR than architects. But VR for Architecture has had a long road as the industry has evolved through changes in hardware, software, industry resistance and client acceptance. Keep reading for our short history of VR in Architecture, and some tips on how to find the right VR solution for your practice.
In This Article
|The Natural Fit for VR in Architecture|
|Getting Started with VR in Your Firm
The Natural Fit for VR in Architecture
While the journey toward integrating VR fully into architectural practice is still underway, at Yulio we see the possibilities every day, in the work our clients create, and the problems in communication they tell us the tool is solving. It’s pretty simple as to why - there is no better way to show someone a vision of something that doesn’t exist yet than to give them a chance to be inside a 360-image. VR is superior to plans, which clients may find unreadable, and more realistic than 2D images because clients can better understand size and scale. VR also highlights potential issues like blocked sitelines and lighting in a way other presentation tools cannot. But that doesn’t mean full, photo-realistic VR projects are the answer to every architectural problem. At Yulio we’ve looked at a lot of VR projects, and generally, the best use cases fall into one of three categories. If your design problem doesn’t fit one of these, VR may not be the medium to pursue.
Something that doesn’t exist yet
This is an obvious fit for architecture - in fact we often give the example of an unbuilt building or renovation for this one. But it may also be about revising a floorplan, changing a façade or landscaping. There is no better way to express your vision of something not yet built, from concept to final sign off than VR presentations, whether they be from CAD, Video or Photography sources.
Something that exists but is a long distance away
In times of reduced travel, whether it be due to budgets, unwillingness to be in airports or reduced ability to travel internationally, VR steps up when your client or stakeholders are at a distance. And it opens up the geography in which you can pitch. VR is as close as it gets to seeing something in person.
Something that is too large, impractical or expensive to model
We have clients who have built virtual showrooms for a variety of products, but when it comes to VR for architecture, this last category is the one where you can really speed up client decision making which should help you with our project timelines and ROI. When it comes to decisions around finishes, materials or even locations of interior walls and windows we sometimes ask clients to make a decision from a sample when they don’t yet have a full mental picture. Modelling the options in VR gives your clients a deeper understanding, and the confidence to make decisions faster.
In architecture and design, there are always design issues and client presentations that fall into all three categories - making the new medium of VR seem like a logical fit.
A Brief History: The Current State of VR in Architecture
Because of the clear fit for a visual medium that represents greater size and scale, the Architecture Industry was among the early adopters of the technology. And while everyone saw the potential, like any early adopter, there were some road bumps along the way. If VR is such a logical fit for architecture, you may wonder why it is not even more widely adopted. Typically it comes down to two building blocks of the technology - software and hardware.
The Built Here Challenge
When Yulio’s precursors entered the market in 2014, a number of architectural firms were working on in-house software solutions that would address their custom needs. Many firms started this way as a response to the fact that a lot of VR development was coming from companies focused on mostly entertainment and gaming and architects felt they needed to custom create something more focused on design and on business usage. By 2016, most internal projects had been abandoned as cumbersome and impractical as they required designers to go outside their typical workflow and design for the in-house built VR system. Over time, many firms abandoned the idea that they needed custom built solutions that worked with how their design team was structured because the software was expensive to build, and never “fully finished”. And at the same time, design focused solutions like Yulio were evolving, letting designers hand over the task of software development and get back to focusing on design.
The Tethered Trap
Hardware leads us to the other reason first attempts at adopting VR for architecture were abandoned. Originally the only way to get ‘walkable’ VR, or “six degrees of freedom” was with a fairly complex tethered system. These rigs had a series of roadblocks that meant even when you created a scene, they could be hard to ‘show off’.
Tethered VR required:
- Space - about 3m x 3m of dedicated floorspace to set up the sensors and open area
- Significant computing power to keep up the visual frame rates fast enough
- Monitoring - for safety someone had to keep the cables etc. out of the way of the viewer, which led to people rushing through the experience since they felt watched and foolish
- Static Use - because of the setup time and space required, clients had to come to the office to use it
Additionally, clients were reluctant to try the tethered rigs because they had a higher incidence of nausea, and created a feeling of claustrophobia while strapped inside.
Between the software and hardware challenges it was clear VR needed to become a more practical tool, but we did see a significant change in mindset - firms went from a vague sense of “maybe we should look at this VR idea” to having someone with a VR title on staff rapidly, with the industry evolving significantly from 2015-2018. That’s pretty typical of Gartner’s product hype cycle, seen here;
Gartner’s product hype cycle
Generally, early adopters were disappointed by the impractical nature of moving tethered rigs and getting clients who were concerned about looking or feeling foolish inside to even take a look. They were incredibly impractical for frequent use. It seemed VR for architecture was firmly entrenched in the trough of disillusionment. But the industry discovered new solutions, as they were aware that VR and architecture were still a logical fit. The path forward really helped create the best practices in business VR we use today, including being mobile, and fast to design. With those improvements, Yulio clients find themselves firmly in the Plateau of Productivity.
Lessons Learned: The Path Forward for VR in Architecture
If you are beginning the journey of implementing VR in your practice, or are trying to sort out how to drive greater usage of a tool you already have in house, you can avoid the “disillusionment” phase of the cycle by learning lessons from early adopters, in a few key areas.
Accept that it’s Evolving
Firms that started with an in-house solution grew frustrated in part because they never finished their software build, or never had time to trial every new headset option on the market. While patterns have evolved (see mobile adoption and more, below) it is important to recognize the market is still evolving, and will continue to do so. From VR to AR and mixed reality, these technologies are a new medium with new rules. And just like companies who failed to build a mobile website in the early 2000s while they waited for industry standards like screen sizes to settle, you can be left playing catch up if you don’t embrace a fluid environment. The old adage about sacrificing the good in pursuit of the perfect is relevant here too - if you are waiting for things to settle, stop waiting. It’s time to get started on next level presentations for key clients, and winning VR pitches. With the right tools you can be up and running with your first projects in a day.
Make it Fit the Workflow
Firms embarked on their journey to build something in house partly because a lot of VR development was happening through gaming engines. That’s no longer the case, with software solutions like Yulio built from ground up for architect and design. When firms are evaluating solutions worth going outside their own walls for, they should consider software that works with CAD tools the design team already uses. In house adoption will be far easier when your VR engine makes use of the design work that has already been put in, and will be used for key pitches more often if translating that design from CAD or Photography to VR is a quick process at the end of the workflow. Rarely will designers have long timelines built in for VR creation, so it needs to be something that can be turned around quickly.
Make it Mobile
Our architectural clients have told us that about 80% of their meetings take place at the client’s offices, or offsite. Which means that a VR solution you’re intending to use with clients must be mobile. With the evolution of headsets, walkable VR with six degrees of freedom (6DOF) is now possible in a mobile headset like the Oculus Quest for about $600, a reasonable price for portability and high end visual experiences rolled into one. The Oculus line of headsets generally was a massive step forward for this technology, with lightweight computing power in the headset itself, vs the early days of mobile VR where a smartphone powered the visuals. New self-contained headsets are less cumbersome and getting better all the time. And at the new, reasonable price points that don’t even require expensive computers to run, you can afford to keep up when the technology makes leaps forward.
VR presentations are fantastic in increasing client engagement and interaction.
Put Client Comfort First
Some firms abandoned VR before they got very far, citing client disinterest in viewing plans in VR headsets. That’s hard to understand - how could being immersed in a design where size, scale and layout are easier to understand be of so little interest? It turns out many people are still afraid they may have motion sickness, or feel foolish using the controls and moving around when they can’t see. There are a couple of keys to client comfort:
- Teach and lead. Users want to be able to use the controls themselves so give them a quick demo, and rehearse this as part of your hand off.
- Pop in and out. At Yulio, we recognize that viewers will feel less hesitant putting on a headset if they know they can easily take it off - consider removing headstraps for people if they are going to be seated during the experience so they know they can leave if they feel motion sick. Plus, the experience should be about looking inside, and then discussing face to face - you don’t want someone lost in a virtual building. Expect clients to look around for 2-3 minutes before removing the headset
- Personal hygiene concerns - ensure users see you cleaning the headset before switching users so they know it’s safe to put on their faces. Business users are sometimes concerned about looking foolish with messy hair or smudged makeup after use, another good reason to remove head straps where possible
- Make it a social experience - the person in the headset can feel a bit blindfolded and that everyone is staring at them, while the people looking on aren’t part of things. If it’s not feasible to use multiple headsets, be sure your software allows you to broadcast what the headset wearer is seeing to a monitor. This is important in meetings but also at tradeshows or other events
Cost of Ownership - and Authoring
Your own investment will be in hardware (VR headsets) at approximately $600 per unit, and the software you choose. Most SaaS solutions are per license based, which is something we advise you look for. A few options originally tried a per project licensing fee, but it typically discourages experimentation and learning, so choose something that lets you create all you want, to help drive adoption.
As far as your authoring time, every firm will need to make a decision about a fee structure that aligns with their other services. We’re seeing increasing numbers of RFPs that ask about VR capabilities, and it’s an open question for many firms about how they will bill for VR experiences. Typically, if you’ve created the experience as part of your design workflow, it should be an extension of your design services and you can bill accordingly. However, in cases where you are asked to create complex, high fidelity walk throughs for use at public meetings and more, those are really services you can charge for accordingly.
We are now in the phase of productivity in VR for architecture where the tool can live up to expectations and give your clients better experiences. Plus, as many in the industry await the perfect solution, it can be a point of differentiation on your pitches and in your ability to earn trust from your clients. The key is to use VR in the areas it performs best, which we’ll explore in the next section.
Using VR for Architecture Presentations
Now that you have a sense of the lessons learned by early adopters of VR for architecture, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss what kinds of projects, pitches and presentations are best suited to VR. While some software solutions might ask you to try “all of them”, there are certain parameters around which projects are best suited to VR.
What VR Does Best:
Explore Size and Scale:
Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin was purported to have seen a scale model for the 700 ft high wall he described in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ books and realized it actually looked absurd when seen in a three-dimensional context. It’s a case of not being able to picture what 700 ft really looks like. It’s a problem a lot of architectural students have when starting out as well - and certainly clients. What does 12’ really look like, and what’s the difference between 36” and 40” in something you will be living with every day? VR, by placing your client inside the design, solves that issue. It makes the design human scale again. While you may have assumed VR was best suited to large projects that look impressive in the headset with lots of areas to explore, we have actually seen it put to excellent use in bathrooms, in the tiny home trend, and inside an office cubicle. When space is at a premium, every design decision matters even more, and VR can help you see this even more clearly.
Our clients have uncovered errors pre-build that avoid costly time delays, including sitelines from a restaurant bar that were blocked by a dividing wall, which resulted in the wall being designed 4” shorter, and the realization that skylights would wash out computer monitors for the developers who would be working at the company, resulting in about half of the costly skylights being removed. In both these cases and many more, the client would never have made the pre-build changes from plans alone - VR drove better understanding and better decisions
VR also guides decision making about less “major” decisions. Many of our clients work with design and interiors, and they all know how challenging and time consuming it can be when you don’t get a decision in a meeting, or clients take something away to think about. VR allows them to put two different colorways in front of the client, not as samples, but as fully rendered designs and many have noted it speeds up decision time, and reduces meeting time by about 50%.
Another recurring theme from conversations with A&D professionals is an important use of VR's ability to engage clients in the design process in a very different way. With any new space design that’s going to go on to be constructed, there is a lot at stake, both emotionally and financially and therefore, all parties fully engaged in the process can make a significant difference to the eventual success of a project.
When speaking with ALSC Architects in Spokane, WA - who often present to school boards - they described going to present designs using plans and static renders and not commonly getting a lot of questions or feedback. It was challenging for people to place themselves in a design using traditional presentation formats and took time for them to assimilate enough information on a design to then feel confident questioning it. Through sharing designs in VR and enabling clients to experience them on their own before being presented to, ALSC found it evoked something very different, inspiring clients to ask a different set of questions, be more informed, take more ownership and get more involved in the process. As a result of clients becoming more involved and seeing that their ideas could then be translated by ALSC into meaningful, beneficial changes, overall designs improved. “When people understand more fully what they’re getting, they will ask what more can be done, what more can be created with this space? I want clients to be part of the inspiration of a project and we find that when they are, designs tend to rise to another level.” Indy Dehal, Principal, ALSC Architects.
Check out this VR project and what your presentations could look like.
Which Projects are VR Worthy?
While we would all like to give clients engaging experiences every time, there’s a time and rendering cost associated with VR that may have you wondering which projects should really involve VR presentations. Some places where using VR is worthwhile for your ROI include:
- Pitches - show off your capabilities and underline that your firm embraces new technology
- Projects with stakeholders in different locations - as mentioned meeting in a single VR space to show off something too difficult to see in person is one of the great strengths of VR
- Early renderings which require decisions about layout or scale
- Late stage renderings about finishes or final color themes etc.
It is important to note that a number of our clients started out thinking a VR image needed to be nearly final to be appealing - but we have all had the experience where clients get too focused on on a detail that doesn’t need to be decided yet, like finishes. This approach will stop you from using VR in very useful situations, so bear this important rule in mind - VR can just be a tool, it doesn’t need to be an experience.
A designer wanting to communicate an idea quickly doesn’t obsess about making their pencil sketch perfect and it should be the same with VR. All renders should be useful but only very few need to be beautiful. Confirming feasibility of a design or a scheme by doing a simple black and white proof of concept with the correct dimensions can save countless hours, dollars and chances of future issues. You can use VR to pop in and out of a draft design, check the validity of an idea and get buy-in from a client.
Design processes don’t need to follow the familiar, ‘draw - model - present - iterate - draw - model - present …’ cycle. A growing number of our clients are no longer providing updated drawings and models during the iteration process but instead, being asked by their clients to simply update the VR project in order to move more quickly to a project’s sign off.
Integrating VR into Your Practice
Areas of Practice
When thinking about where you want to use VR in your firm, it’s helpful to break down activities and set clear criteria of when to use VR:
Marketing and Pitching
VR is an excellent tool for marketing and portfolios. Not only does it provide prospects looking over your website and projects with a greater sense of the design you created, but VR presentations carry a ‘wow’ factor that helps people engage with looking at them. It also sets an example of how people can expect to see their own projects presented. There are increasing instances when VR capabilities are part of the RFP work, which reflect this need for understanding.
Heritage Business Interiors (HBI), a commercial furniture dealership in Calgary, Alberta won business by helping their contact sell to the c-suite. Founder Mike Taylor told us:
“We were doing some mockups for a large oil company here in Calgary, and we did it in VR as something they could really sell internally to their C-suite, rather than have them trying to see value in a floorplate. It just brought a much greater level of understanding of what we were trying to achieve to the team. It’s sometimes about us helping internal people make the ‘sale’ to upper management, and people always love the VR scenes in those cases. That client then asked some of our competitors if they could immerse him in the space. When they said they might be able to find a way, he was able to point to us and say ‘HBI is already doing it’.”
Find a tool that allows you to easily share you projects on social media, and embed them in your website for the best use of VR projects in marketing - but also make sure you use a tool that can help create them fast enough that you can place them in most pitches.
Internal / Collaboration
Finding something that lets you create VR fast is critical to using the tool in collaboration and during your design process. And while you might be thinking that professional architects don’t need VR, since they’re expert plan readers, it can be surprisingly useful to bring people up to speed fast to help solve problems. Andrew Chung of Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto shares:
“our design process has changed for the better with VR. From our staff who have a drafting history to those who think in 3D programs, everyone is excited by the sense of scale they can see in VR. It’s generating a lot of excitement within the firm because people get to see their vision sooner. It’s changing the way we talk about things too - in internal meetings, we’ll pull up the Yulio VRE and solve a detail or design challenge and it creates better understanding among the design teams.”
And Alex Garrison of Gensler Denver makes a point beyond understanding, to talk about how VR makes it easier to explore the feasibility of ideas.
“As architects, we often rely on benchmarks, such as certain story-to-facade ratios or typical window heights because we know they have worked in the past. Now, on top of using benchmarks, VR can help us explore, experiment and push these thresholds to see what a triple-height space would feel like, for example. We’re able to simulate our experimentation, learn from it and hone in on the right solution more quickly.”
Trade shows are a natural fit for VR, creating a stunning visual backdrop and the sense of “something happening” in a booth - and in many cases something that not everyone will have tried before. ALSC Architects in Spokane adopted Yulio VR for a tradeshow, and principal Indy Dehal noted,
“we adopted it specifically for a tradeshow we attended in fall 2016, and used Yulio to show off some new school designs we had done. Since then our designers have been using it for design work and we’ve been using it to show off our portfolio to clients since the show, as well. It’s becoming integral to our workflow. We work naturally anyway in three-dimensional model programs such as Revit and SketchUp, so it’s natural from those models to work them into a number of apps for a virtual tour. We use Yulio to create our virtual reality panorama image so clients can immerse themselves in an environment.”
As when we discussed how using VR in a meeting can be isolating unless the scenes are duplicated onto a screen, the same is clearly even more critical for a trade show booth. It is also useful to have a staff member on hand talking about what those in the headsets are seeing to the crowds who are waiting.
As you work to implement VR, you’re likely thinking mostly of how it will help you in client meetings and that is undoubtedly one of the best uses of the tool. You’ll create a greater understanding of the plans, but also better dialogue about the project. Mr. Chung explained the experience for Diamond Schmitt,
“put engagement with our client grew exponentially when we introduced VR. Now they’re getting into what we’ve proposed and are much more excited. We have found the client has engaged in a dialogue with us much more frequently. It’s not just a relationship of us describing the project to our clients, but also seeing how they’ve shared more of this material with their staff.”
We find the most successful integrators among our clients are those who, like ALSC, choose a specific project initiative to present in VR and work to that goal, before further integrating VR into their workflow.
Find the Right Software Partner
Partnership with a software company, as opposed to building in-house solutions, lets you take advantage of the expertise gained by the industry and by early adopters. Save yourself time by letting others work out the bugs and find the best practices from trial and error. A vendor software solution also frees up your internal resources to focus on other things - like design and winning new business. Choose the right partner, one not too focused on gaming engines or consumer applications that understands the key ways to integrate VR into your workflow so that the software will continue to evolve with the industry and not require major investment from your development team. Ensuring you have the right software solution is key to driving usage and experimentation in your company so take your time up front to assess the options. It can be a daunting task, so break it down by ensuring the solution will fit each stage of your workflow.
Analyze Your Workflow
Breaking your workflow down into the key parts that go into creating a presentation - authoring, presenting/sharing and iterating can be a good way to assess VR software to make sure it’s a fit with your workflow - and is something that will get used regularly:
The key to choosing the right software for using VR in architecture is to choose something that works with the programs you already use. Your design team will be unlikely to take on VR if it is an entirely separate design process, so choose something that can work with your CAD programs and translate them to VR. And since architecture is about presenting construction that doesn’t exist yet, it’s important to avoid software that is driven primarily by 360-photography. Photos are a fantastic way to capture completed spaces for your portfolio and project documentation, and your chosen solution should be able to work with them, but avoid programs for which photography is the main driver of innovation.
Presenting and Sharing
Your hard work to create accurate, immersive VR renderings can help your team spot problems and review for design solutions - but if we’re talking honestly about the effective use of VR for architecture, we’re talking about how to win business and impress clients through strong presentations. As we noted above regarding the lessons learned by early adopters, getting clients comfortable enough in VR to see the detail you’ve created is key to their experience. Look for software that lets you see where your clients are looking, and to guide and re-focus viewers as needed. You’ll also want something that lets you present remotely - and that means software that treats both headset and online presentations as premier experiences. You won’t always have someone in a headset, if a stakeholder is at a distance so you’ll want to try out a browser-based version of the experience too.
But what about presentations that aren’t one to one - what about events or tradeshows? Can the software accommodate shows where you may not always have someone in headset triggering the experience? How long does it take to learn the navigation of the scene? All of these will be important factors to you as you choose the right software solution.
Another part of presenting is about sharing your finished design first with your clients and later on your website or as part of pitches. So knowing how you can share the projects, and how they can be compatible with your website or social presence is also important.
VR is great for reviewing projects and doublechecking with your team.
Iteration and Feedback
If you’re presenting your designs increasingly in VR, and receiving feedback from clients in the context of VR projects, you’ll want a software tool that can capture feedback, so be sure to check that tools for capturing it are available - whether markup of scenes or the ability to make voice or text notations to designers after checking in with a client. And, as you work with your team, you’ll want something that works the way you do - something that allows you to replace a scene or a link without re-rendering the whole project.
Appoint an Internal VR Champion
The number of people with “VR” in their job title working at architecture and design firms has grown significantly from 2016, partly because firms recognize the need to appoint a champion to make a new technology an integrated part of daily practice. Some of our early clients adopted Yulio VR because a new employee at the firm took the time to research it and become a champion. Still more architects are about to graduate with VR portfolios and experience, as the curriculum in architectural programs moves to modernize and show students the possibilities. Find someone in your organization with an interest in technology, or a newer higher without a full work load yet and get them to learn the new software and its possibilities, and then teach what they learned to a wide group of people—designers, business development and marketing staff so that everyone will understand the potential of the tool. Set VR goals, such as one presentation per week using the tool to fully drive adoption.
And, get the champion to outline what parts of VR and what ‘next tasks’ will be necessary in each area where your firm could be using VR - is it for internal design, a certain ‘level’ of client presentation or for marketing?
Getting Started with VR in Your Firm
It can be overwhelming to look at all of the options for VR hardware, software, design integrations and uses, so for those looking to get started, we typically recommend a simple approach:
- Appoint a VR owner who will evaluate your options and drive internal adoption
- Determine which design software is a ‘must’ for compatibility
- Ensure the software you’re looking at meets your criteria for authoring and presenting
- Test out a solution that fits with a few software seats that go to beta testers in your organization
- Have them create projects at different levels of fidelity
- Evaluate after 30-days and roll out to more users
- Roll out to more users with assigned, specific project goals
VR is an ideal partner for architects - it is the window on that which doesn’t yet exist yet, and can be the means of translating design from a vision to a reality. By following your existing workflow and identifying how you wish to use VR to communicate internally, with clients, and to attract more clients you can end up creating a workable window onto your vision.