2016 is turning out to be a huge year for Virtual Reality (VR). I'm sure you already know this. The stars have aligned – the raw power of our pocket computers and the tools that allow us to create interactive experiences have finally matched up, and this is great news for architects.
This article isn't about the Oculus Rift ($599) or the HTC Vive ($800), both of which are technically more complicated. By that, I mean that they require a headset with wires, an expensive computer, motion trackers and a gaming controller to walk through your building. They are both amazing pieces of hardware, and I'll be watching closely as their development continues. I'm sure the prices will begin to drop as the technology moves forward.
This article is about a simpler, wireless technology that is accessible to far more people. I'm talking about Google Cardboard ($20 or less) and 360 degree spherical stereo panoramic renderings that many of you can already produce with the right software and view in a modern web browser.
Immersive VR Headsets
Before I get to the Google Cardboard part of this article, I want to quickly talk about the Rift and Vive. I'm really excited about the technology these headsets are promising. They are, for all intents and purposes, fully immersive. The videos I've seen of people using them are fun to watch and imagine myself as a user. This is something I'm pretty comfortable with since I am an architect who makes a living imagining what users feel like in spaces before they are built. You can probably imagine why in turn I'm so excited about the possibility of these new tools.
Here's an fun example. Turn down your speaker volume if you're in an office because the language has been bleeped out, and it might raise an eyebrow or two:
There are some really incredible experiences being developed to fully immerse users into other worlds. Architects have an unprecedented opportunity to jump on this technology and use it to our advantage. I've had high-power clients use these tools and quickly turn back into 6 year old kids. It's really fun and powerful to see them truly experience their buildings in this new way.
With the release of Rift v2 and Vive, the resolution of the screens has doubled, and the processing power of the CPU's pushing the data to the headsets has increased by a lot. It is now possible to actually feel like you're in a nicely rendered, real time environment. Both sound and motion tracking are part of the system as well. They do require hefty computers with serious graphics processing units (GPU's) however, and along with the price tag, this is why they aren't as accessible to everyone. On top of that, the headsets are connected to the computer via wires that scoop over the back of the users' head, so being tethered to the computer is something else to consider. If we were to give a client a demonstration with the Oculus or Vive, they would need to come to our offices most likely, or we would need to have a substantially expensive powerhouse laptop and a lot of parts to tote along with us when we go to visit them.
In contrast, what makes the Google Cardboard so compelling is its simplicity. It runs on devices that practically everyone on the planet has in their pockets and purses already, there aren't any wires, there's no software to install, and it's laughably affordable at less than $20. Sounds too good to be true, right? I know... but it actually works. I have a project I've been working on to prove it, and I want to share it with you. All you need is a Cardboard viewer. Actually, you don't need a viewer. You can look at my project without it, but there are advantages to having a viewer in your possession. It just runs in a web browser – there's no software to install. You already have what you need.
Math & Science Building, STEM Center - Golden West College, Huntington Beach CA
Imagery and VR courtesy of HMC Architects
Once you open the website address to our STEM center project by clicking on this link or by clicking on the image above, you'll see a panoramic interior view of the space. You can use your finger if you're on your phone or tablet, or your mouse if you're on your computer to look around. This is pretty standard panoramic navigation. What's a little different about these panoramas is that there are several nodes linked together via the large white-bordered arrows you see hovering over the floor. If you tap on those when you're looking on your computer or hover the crosshairs in the Cardboard viewer over them for a couple of seconds, you'll be transported to another location within the space. You can actually tour the building by jumping from node to node!
Let's take it a step further. There's an icon at the bottom of the screen that looks like a Google Cardboard viewer (where the green checkbox symbol is located in the image above). Tap that, and the screen splits in half displaying the synchronized stereo panoramas. This is where the magic happens. Once you've entered this mode, place your phone into the Cardboard viewer for an amazing 3d experience. With the slight shift of twin renderings about the width of a human's eyes apart, depth is enabled. Stereo panos coupled with the gyro motion tracking sensors in our phones allow us to look around inside our spaces in full 3d as if we are standing inside them. If you do it long enough (for about 5 minutes or so), you'll actually start to believe you're there. It's a mind-bender when you lower the viewer and you're standing in another space than the one you were just experiencing.
I can't believe we have computers powerful enough to do all of this with us all the time. This is so exciting!
If you don't have a Google Cardboard viewer yet, you can get them on Amazon for less than $20. A word of warning: not all viewers are created equal. Yes, you can find them for less, but the lenses are crap in the cheap ones, and they are the most important part because they insure you can actually see what you're looking at. I've included a link on the right to a viewer that has great ratings and has nice lenses so you can see the space you go into without blurred vision.
Why should you care about VR?
I'm excited about these immersive environments for two uses. First, for presentations this is a killer way to communicate a design. As I've talked about before, it allows us to put our projects in our client's hands to let them drive. Clients don't want to watch you drive around their project in 3d. They should get to do it themselves. Second, I'm excited to use this as a tool during the design process. I don't need a fully photo-realistic rendering to make spatial decisions. I could easily be modeling space within my 3d program and spit out a clay model of the project so I could quickly get inside and check it out. For this, photorealism isn't necessary like it potentially is for a client presentation. I now have the ability to intimately and immersively experience shade and shadow, volume, light, the way spaces interact, and much more in a very different way than just by seeing it on a screen or on a sheet of paper.
In both instances, the barriers of 2d mediums are no longer a communication hindrance, and projects can be experienced and therefore understood without the need for a presentation. In other words, people just get it, and the work will for the most part be able to speak for itself. I couldn't be more excited to share architecture people in this way.
In a future article, I'll be talking more about the software needed to generate these types of panoramas so that you can do this too. It's a fast-moving technology where things are constantly changing, so I'll keep it as timely as possible so you can give your models a try and experience them for yourself.