This piece originally appeared in:

Retrofit, July-August 2021

Augmented and virtual reality bring new dimension to design and construction.

The concept of virtual reality has been the stuff of science fiction for many years. Going back as far as books, like William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer, or in films like “TRON” and “The Matrix”, creative minds have imagined worlds entirely generated by computers and pondered what it would mean for humans to insert themselves and walk around in those worlds.

Technology has been slowly catching up to the storytellers, and virtual reality is no longer fantasy. For many years it was primarily limited to applications, like gaming and entertainment, but more and more, immersive virtual reality and its cousin augmented reality—technology that superimposes computer-generated images on a user’s view of the real world— are finding practical applications in many professions.

“What started out as an entertainment feature or fun gaming experience is being innovated into an effective tool that companies across many industries can utilize,” says Farris Wu, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based DecorMatters. “We are seeing more real-life applications of AR/VR technology and realizing the efficiency and power it brings.”

For those working with the development and construction of buildings, VR and AR can provide incredible benefits, particularly in the planning and design phases.

“AR allows design to be done more efficiently and effectively,” Wu continues. “It helps you with everything from brainstorming ideas to planning a layout to visualizing the final look before you invest huge resources into development. It also helps digitize the entire design process, including seamless communication among clients, designers and contractors.”

There are practical design and construction reasons to step into the virtual world, but one of the most compelling ways AR/ VR can change the game is by creating an accurate, interactive platform to show and share ideas and design vision.

“The primary use of AR/VR in our projects is as a communications tool,” says Chris Mrozewski, architectural designer with V Three Studios in St. Louis. “It helps clients gain a much better understanding of the space and allows them to make changes to the design long before construction has ever begun, saving time and avoiding costly changes down the road.”

From 3D to Immersive
The idea behind virtual and augmented reality is really just a logical extension of what designers and builders have been doing for ages. After all, what is a drawing or blueprint if not a creative rendering of what a building can be? AR/VR technology simply uses technology to leap that idea forward, adding exponential layers of detail and engaging more directly with human perception.

For architects and engineers, 3D modeling has become standard practice in building design. Using technology to bring additional depth to drawings has already become accepted. This creates a ready foundation for AR/VR.

“V Three Studios develops a 3D model of every design, regardless of whether or not a client requests it,” Mrozewski says. “The model gives us the opportunity to refine the design and ultimately deliver a more successful project. Depending on the software used, converting that 3D model into some level of VR imagery is relatively straightforward.”

As the technology becomes more effective and accessible, building professionals are finding that the in-depth views and perspective that AR/VR can deliver can be extremely helpful to the design process— and a game changer in identifying issues before they happen.

“Modifications in a building that will improve energy efficiency or decrease energy demand can all be visualized and planned through AR and VR,” Wu says. “Executing the project will be much more efficient with precise AR models and the ability to instantly make adjustments and collaborate together on the design.”

“These tools can help identify potential conflicts as early as possible in the design process. Plumbing, mechanical and structural systems often overlap in very complex ways that are difficult to fully express in a typical two-dimensional plan or even in a static 3D rendering,” Mrozewski explains. “Having these systems modeled and available in a VR environment can assist the contractors and installers in gaining a much deeper understanding of the interaction and location of these systems.”

Technological Leaps
While AR/VR technology has existed for quite a while, early iterations of it now seem somewhat primitive in retrospect. Clunky, slow and expensive, it wasn’t able to provide a level of detail that was useful to the design process. That has changed.

“The difference between what was available 10 years ago and what is available today is night and day,” Mrozewski says. “From affordable wireless headsets to software that has streamlined the creation of imagery, the technology available today has allowed more designers to access the benefits of VR without needing a dedicated, high-end computer.”

“There are still individuals and organizations using traditional methods in design, which include time-consuming meetings and costly virtual staging and mockups,” Wu says. “Humans are on their devices now more than ever. Clients and customers are always looking for cheaper and more convenient methods, and technology provides that for them. Building professionals and interior designers should use AR/VR technology to accelerate the design process and increase profits.”

“Retrofit projects are a perfect application for AR/VR,” Mrozewski says. “While working on the National Blues Museum, we developed 360-degree renderings and loaded them into wireless headsets. The client was able to stand in a particular spot in the existing space and, through the headset, see the finished project from the exact same vantage point. That project was located in a historic building in downtown St. Louis, so it was a significant transformation. Using the VR headset, one could quickly see how we were incorporating existing building elements into the new design.”

Closing in on the Future
Although AR/VR may appear to be a tool only for design and engineering, the technology has the potential to make big impacts all the way down the chain.

“I would love to see contractors using AR/VR in the field more before and during construction,” Mrozewski says. “Most of the questions we receive during construction are due to items simply being overlooked on the drawings. If you look through a current set of architectural drawings, this is understandable due to the level of information we are required to convey. Every architect I’ve talked to that uses detailed 3D models and VR has agreed that if we could simply hand that model to the contractors, it would make everyone’s job easier. This is still unrealistic for most projects today, but it does seem possible in the near future.”

The technology and uses for AR/VR have come a very long way, but there do remain some barriers to entry, including cost and time.

“AR/VR devices are still expensive for consumers, which slows the technology adoption,” Wu says. “Building an AR/VR ecosystem can be expensive and risky, and developing AR models is time- and capital-consuming. Those looking to use AR might have a large expense at first.”

“The obstacles to using AR/VR are being eliminated as the technology becomes more affordable and available, but some obstacles do still exist,” Mrozewski adds. “Creating a 3D model that is detailed enough to work in VR takes a lot of time. With a static rendering, for example, you only need to fully model the elements that appear in a particular view. With VR, everything from every possible angle needs to be fully developed.”

Even with a few immediate hurdles, AR/VR continues to develop and is finding greater levels of adoption.

“Many real-estate platforms are utilizing VR devices to scan houses and then put the virtual 3D house online for visitors to explore,” Wu says. “It will continue to be used in real-life applications and continue to be integrated into the business models of companies of all kinds.”

“Along with the National Blues Museum, we’ve used VR headsets to navigate the details and communicate the designs of many projects with our clients, including restaurants, breweries, universities, offices and private residences,” Mrozewski says. “One recent example is a new Seattle-Tacoma public radio station, which occupies the first floor of the historic C.N. Gardner building in downtown Tacoma. We developed 360-degree renderings for our design team, primarily to understand how our design interacted with the complex broadcasting infrastructure required. It also gave us the opportunity to virtually inhabit and get a feel for the size and scale of a space, located 2,000 miles from our office.”

As the technology becomes more sophisticated, fast and affordable, it’s safe to assume AR/VR will become even more common to the design and construction practice.

“I’m looking forward to the future of AR/VR and the emerging developments that will give us more opportunities to make it part of our everyday design process,” Mrozewski notes. “These include things like more advanced wireless technology, reduced headset size, eye tracking, foveated rendering and increased lens resolution. Providing an interactive VR experience may be more time-consuming at this point, but it gets easier with each software update.”