Innovation

Architecture firm uses virtual reality to help clients make design decisions

Indiana-based architecture firm TEG puts clients inside buildings that haven't been built yet to help them plan projects.

Virtual reality is often touted for its ability to take people to places they can't go for any number of reasons. Maybe it's a place that doesn't exist anymore, or one that never will. Or, a place that doesn't exist yet.

It sounds fanciful, but for one architecture firm in Jeffersonville, Indiana, it's the perfect use case.

TEG Architects is using Samsung Gear VR headsets to show clients 360-degree renderings of building projects.

Virtual reality first made its way to TEG because 3D illustrator Charles Crochet had been interested in VR for a while, even requesting an Oculus Rift Developer Kit 2 for Christmas two years ago.

In August 2015, he and fellow 3D illustrator Jason Gibeault attended the computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, where they learned more about the technology and started thinking about how they could use it.

They began the process of figuring out what they needed to do to put clients in buildings that hadn't been built yet. That included making a pitch to buy equipment. Crochet and Gibeault showed off Google Cardboard to a higher up in the company without knowing he had a depth perception problem.

"Even though he does have that situation, he still understands that other people look at it and go nuts, so why not take a leap of faith — it's only $100," Crochet said.

SEE: Virtual reality for business: The smart person's guide

Along the way, the price tag did climb as the computers they had weren't powerful enough to render the scenes. Crochet and Gibeault worked on this initiative in their free time, and during this process, presented it to one of their clients, Thorntons.

Thorntons is a chain of gas stations and convenience stores in Louisville, Kentucky that's been around since 1971. For the first time, they decided to build corporate headquarters. TEG is their lead architect on the 100,000-square-foot space, said Rodney Loyd, Thorntons' chief development officer.

"My reaction was like every other person that I've witnessed try it for the first time. Everybody says, 'Wow,' every time," Loyd said.

Having the 360 view helped TEG and Thorntons communicate.

Loyd said that to this point, architects have the ability to show clients 2D drawings, even 3D printouts, and discuss colors and various design elements, but the inevitable ask is to add imagination in order to really understand the space.

"There was nothing that allowed you to get a sense of what it was going to feel like," Loyd said.

VR also helped reveal quirks of the design that may have been lost on paper. Loyd talked about planning sight lines. A monumental staircase disrupted the sight line from the front to the back of the building because it was too wide. Figuring this out helped them make the decision to narrow the staircase and open up the view.

Thorntons actually went out and bought four Samsung Gear VRs of their own. Loyd said they use it not just as a design tool, but as a way of communicating the project internally.

"It helps everybody else see what they're getting and begin to think about how to use the space and how to be productive in it," he said.

Incorporating a new technology into pre-existing workflows is not without challenges. TEG found that more design details have to be decided and implemented in advance, before showing the 360 images to clients. Otherwise, it just doesn't look right, and it's not really effective.

"By the time we have everything figured out, it's closer to the end of that process, but to use virtual reality as a decision-making tool, you want it to be presented to the owner earlier in the process. So, how do you accelerate all of your design forward to get good information into the virtual reality?" said architect Kyle Wilson, TEG vice president.

They also have to negotiate keeping different formats of the plan up-to-date so that changes made in their design software also appear in the VR models, and vice versa.

In sum, VR can be a time suck.

Still, they're working on refining what they do.

"It's allowing [clients] to make good decisions. You want less surprises. You don't want to get to the end of the process and have a building or a space that isn't what you thought it was going to be," Wilson said.

Loyd said they've been thinking of how else to use VR. Thorntons has an experimental space called Store X where they try out changes that they might make to their stores.

"Instead of having them rebuild everything in the store and take the time to do that, and the expense, and rent this additional space that we have to be able to do that — can we take that process and put it in virtual reality?" Loyd said.

It could save them the time and money of multiple iterations.

"It helps me gain confidence we're building exactly the right product we promised the organization. I know exactly what it should look like when I show up. You just cannot replace that," Loyd said.

Also see

TEG's rendering of a operating room can be viewed in 360 degrees.
Image: TEG

About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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