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The Benefits of Virtual Reality in Architecture Design

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Maybe it’s my Midwest roots, but I’m going to be honest—I don’t consider myself a Virtual Reality (VR) expert. I say this because I know enough about VR to realize just how much there is out there to know. This field is moving so quickly and progressing at such a rapid pace that people are dedicating their entire careers to it. I consider myself an architect who is an avid VR enthusiast, excitedly trying to keep up with the progressions while advocating for the use of this amazing tool amongst my peers and clients.

Technology in general has progressed rapidly over the past few decades; we’ve all heard the common, “back in my day” statements about the now antiquated technology, from not all that long ago. The first time I put on a pair of VR goggles in college, I immediately felt nauseous and it lasted through the rest of the day. Although VR became a focus of my studies, I could only be in a headset for about 5 minutes a day in the beginning. The technology just wasn’t far enough along to combat my propensity for motion sickness. Now, however, I can work in a headset for hours with no problems and I can tell you from personal experience, it’s not my motion sickness that’s improved.

Because I believe so strongly in the tool, I want to help people understand it and take advantage of the capabilities. VR can and is being used for so many different purposes. Personally, I’ve seen first-hand how beneficial it can be when designing healthcare environments. I’d like to break down what VR exactly is and how to use it effectively.

What are the Benefits of VR in Architectural Design?

I’ve noticed that people who are unfamiliar with VR can sometimes think it’s more complicated than it actually is. We are accustomed to viewing 2D images created from a single camera. The magic of VR is easily created by adding another camera—one for each eye. VR digitally recreates the way we see the world every day. The cameras are showing each eye a slightly different image and tracking it in space. A lot of current VR products, including consumer ones, have this technology built into headsets so it’s meant for anyone to be able to use it without a high degree of technical knowledge or software; it’s the equivalent of kids using Nintendo with the same level of user-friendliness.

When designing built environments, architects and interior designers utilize a variety of tools. Drawings and renderings, while very useful for getting an idea for the vision of a space, only represent a single moment in time. VR on the other hand allows for a more immersive experience, giving users an idea of how a space will feel, providing the ability to walk through it before construction begins.

Through training and daily work, architects gain increased spatial intelligence. That said, being talented and being perfect are two very different things. For that reason, I would argue that there are still big benefits from utilizing VR internally. I’m sure even the most experienced and successful architects can think of spaces they’ve designed that didn’t quite turn out how they pictured in their minds. VR allows us to not only more accurately design spaces that match our perceptions and our client’s goals and desires, but also helps eliminate mistakes or change direction before construction. For example, when designing Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin (OAW), our client had a question about how the finishes would look so we put together a VR model. During the presentation, the client was able to see the space to approve the finishes in real-time, but then while walking through the model, they were also able to review the initial layout of the PT gym and easily give direction on modifications to best suit their needs. Reworking the layout during the design phase was infinitely easier and more cost effective than if the client wanted to alter things during or after construction.

Another example of the benefits of VR was in the design of the surgery suite renovation for ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital. The surgeons wanted to be able to access all equipment from both sides of the patient bed. Instead of providing unique rooms for each scenario, the proposed solution was to rotate the bed and adjust the equipment accordingly. We worked with the medical equipment vendors to model the space to include exactly what equipment the surgeons will have and where, to ensure the bed could still rotate and they will have access to what they need. When we presented to the surgeons via VR, they were able to virtually stand in their future operating room, understand reach ranges, lines of sight and ultimately confirm the design. The experience gave them confidence and reassurance as we moved into construction.

Examples like this remind me of the enormous advantage we have today with VR ­– something I’m sure many past architects wish they could’ve had access to and would marvel at now. If you are currently doing a building project or about to start one and haven’t yet tried VR, I’d recommend asking your architect if it would make sense to try out, it just may make a positive impact on the final result.

How to Use VR Effectively in Architectural Presentations

You may now be thinking, “Ok, VR sounds great. Now how do I use it effectively?” Check back for my follow up insights on how to get the most out of this tool in architectural presentations and where I see this technology headed.

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Zak Kvasnica, AIA, NCARB
Project Architect

Zak Kvasnica, AIA, NCARB, is a Project Architect with the Healthcare Studio at EUA in Milwaukee, WI. Outside of work, Zak spends his time fixing cars and woodworking.

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