Seeing is Believing

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality has been a staple in interactive gaming since the early 1990s. However, only recently has the technology begun to penetrate the design industry. In spring 2016, design giant IKEA launched its Virtual Reality Kitchen—a consumer experience enabling users wearing headsets and hand-held controllers to interact with products, open drawers, flip through a virtual catalogue and even cook the company’s iconic Swedish meatballs.  

While Google’s TiltBrush, also released in spring 2016, offers a unique way for artists to move between two and three dimensional environments—“painting” in 360 degrees with an almost infinite depth—VR technologies are providing powerful ways for designers and consumers to engage, develop and experience the built environment beyond brick, stone and board. 

VR, Norm Li, Yulio, CET
At NeoCon 2017, Configura launched the CET Designer 8.0 and its ability to create 360-degree panoramic rendering

Toronto-based architectural visualization studio Norm Li has been working with virtual reality for the last five years, specifically targeting architects, interior designers, brokers and developers. Norm Li’s VR platform can be viewed and used on any device with access to Wi-Fi—laptop, tablet and even your smartphone as well as VR headsets like GearVR and Oculus Rift—to allow users to virtually explore digital models of unbuilt developments at home and abroad. From recent implementations for Dream’s Brighton Community in Saskatoon to a web-based virtual model of Streetcar Development’s Broadview Hotel in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood, showcasing detailed surface and lighting treatments, the VR platform connects the architectural experience to the increasingly technology enmeshed consumer.  

The mobility and affordability of these VR technologies may provide new ways to interact and engage with future buildings—from pop-up installations to direct engagement with buyers—apart from the all-too-common presentation centre. “We want to bring that same experience into the development industry,” says Kimberly Valmeo, director of marketing at Norm Li. “Whether it’s picking the finishes of your future home or seeing your soon-to-be office space come to life, our VR platform [click below] allows the masses to experience their future space in the easiest and most immersive way possible.”

Kitchen sink, faucet and accessory manufacturer Blanco also sees virtual reality as a tool to transform how design is marketed through their augmented showroom experience. Unveiled at the international kitchen fair in Cologne in early 2017, visitors were able to experience an entirely virtual kitchen populated with the company’s latest products while exploring the design of sink and mixer taps—virtually interacting with the specially created presentation island.  

Alongside displaying products, the company believes that their virtual showroom is only a small component of VR’s potential use for designers. “Blanco is also convinced that kitchen planners will find virtual reality is the perfect additional tool—for instance, for demonstrating to customers the benefits of a particular plan even more impressively in a way that goes beyond the classic display,” says the company’s press team.  

Stephen Fai, associate professor at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS), considers the implementation of VR technologies as a way to engage architectural history in new and immersive manners. Fai recently led a team of students in developing a virtual tour of the Senate foyer, antechamber and chamber at the historic Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. 

VR, Norm Li, Yulio, CET, Haworth
Configura’s CET Designer 8.0 creates a 360-degree panoramic rendering for Haworth products

Officially unveiled on March 1, 2017 and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, the tour consists of a series of 360-degree 3D animations produced from photographs, laser scans and photogrammetry taken over the course of multiple site visits. Also included in the tour are “hotspots” for further reading or listening on the architectural substructure, elements, sculptures and furniture included within the virtual model. As virtual reality renderings become more commonplace in design schools, CIMS’ illusory building is only a taste of how these technologies may intersect with architecture, education, public art and history. 

VR, Norm Li, Yulio, CET, Steelcase
Configura’s CET technology creates a virtual showcase for Steelcase products

Yet virtual reality softwares are poised to re-define how designers conceptualize and execute their projects. As the Swedish company Configura has shown in a recent collaboration with Toronto-based VR platform Yulio, virtual reality applications can enable designers and clients to problem solve in real time, before any foundations are laid. “Designers and their clients are using VR to predict design errors before a project actually begins construction, making for a much smoother construction phase,” explains Nicklas Dagersten, Configura’s Chief Product Officer. 

Configura’s collaboration with Yulio builds on their recently released CET Designer 8.0—a program that provides the ability to generate 360-degree walk-thru videos—which also includes developments to their Virtual Viewer VR Extension. The extension allows users to immerse themselves in virtual environments using affordable VR headsets (Google Cardboard and Homido MINI) as well as Wi-Fi connected devices. These programs provide designers the capacity to generate digital models, walk clients through designs and collaborate by making critical design decisions more efficiently than before. Additional advances in both virtual and augmented reality may allow these digital models to be projected onto physical sites—enmeshing the physical and virtual—further streamlining complex construction processes.  

What might happen if these technologies were used to not only simulate spaces, but their emotive qualities too? Melbourne-based Liminal VR and Liminal 360 CEO Damian Moratti, who delivered a lecture on VR technologies at IIDEX 2016 in Toronto, works at the intersection of virtual reality and neuroscience to generate experiences that not only augment reality, but emotional states as well. 

Configura’s recent collaboration with Toronto-based Yulio “democratizes” VR through the use of inexpensive 3D headsets such as Google Cardboard.
Configura’s recent collaboration with Toronto-based Yulio “democratizes” VR through the use of inexpensive 3D headsets such as Google Cardboard.

While creating photorealistic virtual reality projects for developers, community engagements, historical recreations and even brand activations, Liminal 360 has also developed empathic experiences intended to alleviate loneliness and anxiety for long-term patients in hospitals. “VR is a medium that affords us the ability to control every aspect of our environment and create experiences that allow us to choose how we feel,” Moratti says. “We’re developing experiences that activate emotional and cognitive states.” 

Yulio iOS app
Yulio iOS app

Whether re-imaging how buildings and furnishings are marketed, architectural history is experienced, problems are handled during the design process and on site or the optimal emotional impact of a place is achieved, these practices engaging virtual reality software only scratch the surface of the technology’s potential reach as a communication tool for the architecture and design industries. “I can see some point in the future where designers will work in a headset to actually design,” says Norm Li. “It’s the way of the future.”