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The real deal

Words:
Joe Robson

Doing is better than looking – push that wall out wider

Virtual reality might finally be becoming accepted. This year saw the launch of various VR headsets, mainly Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, allowing fully immersive movement in a virtual environment running from a PC. Navigation in Oculus is by standard game controllers such as for an Xbox, or in Vive by physically moving bet­ween a pair of sensors mounted up to 5m apart. The latter obviously gives a greater sense of engagement and involvement; your movements in the physical world replicated in the virtual. 

There are also less expensive, unwired versions into which you must slot your phone, such as the Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard, which essentially play back a 360° image or video. The main difference between these and the wired viewers is that they are single nodal point viewers, so while you can interactively turn your head you can only move through the environment by transporting to another node. 

Within the architectural community uptake of real time rendering has been slow – partly due to poor materiality, textures and lighting. But with qualitative advancement of gaming engines, notably Unreal (UE4), the potential is fantastic. Reducing overnight render times to a fraction of a second (real time output is 60+ frames per second), screengrabs of full resolution marketing images and animation can be outputted as real time by-products. 

The ability to use movement and gestures to shape the virtual environment around you is tantalising. Modelling while ‘inside the model’, pushing volumes and walls and openings around to sense instantaneously how that alters the space, feels like a gamechanger

We’ve been using UE4 for a while now, most notably for London Business School’s new premises. We were restoring (virtually) one of its rooms recently to create a fundraising image by building a 3D model, rendering and then creating a ‘traditional’ interior CGI. Once complete, although it looked great, the wide angle view just didn’t feel like the physical space we’d visited. But when the same 3D model was put into the headset it felt spatially identical to being in the room. How our minds interpret 2D wide angle photography vs perceived reality is a massive subject but the effect speaks for itself; VR feels so much more real. Not only is the quality a vast improvement, but the experiential possibilities are much more believable. The word ‘immersion’ is used a lot – rightly so. 

VR’s strength has yet to be fully appreciated by architects, alongside the Vive’s ‘paddles’ which allow the user to interact with the space. The use of a mouse/tablet is so ingrained that it’s difficult to imagine using another interface, but the ability to use movement and gestures to shape the virtual environment around you is tantalising. Modelling while ‘inside the model’, pushing volumes and walls and openings around to sense instantaneously how that alters the space, feels like a gamechanger; VR in VR. 

The wider potential is mind-blowing. Imagine combining your own immersion with others, where all put on headsets and meet in a virtual room – a form of 360° immersive Skype. Soon we will be able to walk around the pre-application scheme  with all the design team in a shared virtual environment, discussing and altering the design to  see the implications in real time. We are as close as we have ever been to achieving the state of lucid dreaming... 

Joseph Robson is founding director, AVR London


 

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