A key part of my role as Digital Development Manager at Quadrant Design is to explore new technologies and innovations and evaluate how they may benefit us or our clients. Some of the most notable arrivals in the past couple of years have been reality of the virtual and augmented kinds. So what are they? And how do we use them?

The concept of Virtual Reality has existed for decades – stretching back as far as 1935, some 40 years before the very first personal computer, in the short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. It’s only with recent technological advancements that what was once science fiction has become capable and affordable enough to hit the mainstream consumer market.

Augmented reality on the other hand is a much newer concept. The iPhone 8 Plus released in 2017 is more than 20 times more powerful than the iPhone 4S which appeared just 6 years earlier. It’s this colossal advance in the performance of the devices in our pockets that makes AR possible.

Headset Go

When the HTC Vive was released I was at the bosses desk like a geeky ninja with a shopping list and puppy dog eyes. It wasn’t a small outlay – the goggles themselves a much less significant investment than the gaming laptop required to power them. However the opportunity to share our concepts with clients in a new way and immerse them in their space was just the type of technology we wanted to embrace.

The software offered much less than it does now but it was still amazing – everyone in the office loved it. At the push of a button we can explore our own designs from the viewpoint of a visitor which is incredibly powerful. We use it in-house as a design tool which works really well – especially in smaller spaces where the scale is often difficult to fully appreciate from 2D plans alone.

 

Using it in-house was the easy bit. Getting some of our clients to embrace it was a little more challenging.

User Disconnected

I totally get it. The majority of people have never tried on a headset before and don’t necessarily want that experience to be watched by a meeting room full of their peers with front row seats.

Our biggest issue, however, is the disconnect. Typically we’re using VR in a presentation and the feedback we’ve gotten from some clients is that by putting on a headset and teleporting to a different space you no longer feel part of the meeting itself.

VR does tend to leave you feeling a little queasy too – particularly after extended periods of use. Walking around a space without actually moving your legs is something our brains have not yet become accustomed to.

Then there’s the learning curve – the first five minutes for a first time user typically consist of turning controllers up the right way whilst offering to help get them down from on top of the table.

These are all gripes that vary from individual to individual though, and VR is still a key tool in the design process for many of our clients who embraced it from the start and now couldn’t imagine life without it. Michael Westenbrink from The Swan at Streatley talks about how we’re using VR to aid their design process:

Looking at drawings is one thing but the VR is another level all together, it’s amazing to see a piece of paper brought to life and even better to spot those little details you did not see on those drawings necessarily…. VR has to be that final part of the development and design process to ultimately exceed the expectations and create an amazing guest journey

But how can we use technology to better communicate our designs to those who aren’t fond of the in-headset experience?

Player two has joined the game

That’s where Augmented Reality comes in. AR allows us to present the same 3D content in a more transparent way. We retain many of the advantages of VR – realistic lighting and textures topping the list – with the added benefit of offering a universally familiar interface – no user needs to be shown how to aim their phone at something.

Simply move the camera around the plan to explore the space, exploring finishes and evaluating the space in a way that just isn’t possible otherwise. You can have interaction too – tap on a hotspot to jump in to the plan and view the space in 360 degress from a particular point.

The arrival of AR was a key driving force behind the decision to begin developing our own app. Our clients can load up our app, point the camera at a floor plan and see their scheme rise like magic from the paper in all its 3D glory.

There’s no hardware outlay either. Anyone that has a smartphone less than 3 years old can most likely enjoy some form of AR. The main benefit here of course is a vastly more expansive potential user-base. There will be an estimated 4.25 BILLION AR capable Apple devices in circulation by 2020. And that’s just Apple!

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it

It’s easy to see why these technologies could be seen as gimmicks, particularly in the architectural field. In reality, we’ve found that they’ve both allowed us to communicate, explore and develop designs more effectively whilst achieving new levels of engagement.

There are financial benefits too. We use VR to identify clashes on large-scale projects before a spade has touched the ground – far earlier than would be possible traditionally, saving time and money on site.

AR allows us to present concepts in a new way and help clients that may struggle to visualise a scheme from technical drawings better understand our proposal.

So which is better?

Neither. And both.

VR is still a little hampered by its hardware. You need a powerful computer to run it with two sensors in the room, ideally at high level. The high-bandwidth cable that tethers you to the machine restricts the feeling of freedom. That will all change soon – wireless headsets with built in computers and room sensors are on the horizon and they will alleviate most if not all of the hardware limitations we’ve encountered so far. All that aside – if you want to your user to fully experience and understand your space VR is the only way to go, and it works brilliantly.

AR has no hardware limitations. Anyone with a recent smartphone can reap its rewards with the right software. The transparency is a huge benefit in certain situations – passing an iPad or two around in a meeting room whilst people explore the virtual model in the middle of the table encourages creative discussion. However the process of getting content in to AR is significantly more laborious than simply opening your scene in VR.

So VR is currently a bit cumbersome but offers a level of captivation not possible with a handheld device. AR requires a little more preparation and lacks the total immersion of VR but can be experienced by anyone with a tablet or smartphone at no cost and can be experienced by multiple users at one time.

VR and AR. Got it. What’s next?

MR. Or glasses if you prefer. The Hololens has been in development for years now – I got to try an early version out recently and the potential of Mixed Reality is monumental. In AR the digital content is overlaid. In MR it is integrated in to and responsive to the natural world. A virtual ball under your desk, for example, would be blocked from view unless you bend down to see it.

Here’s Microsoft’s visionary presentation about collaboration on a construction site. You can spot an issue, connect with the design team and solve the problem together. The example they’ve used isn’t the best – I’d like to think I could solve that one on my own – but you’ll get the idea.

So I wait with baited breath for Mixed Reality hardware to hit the mainstream. In the meantime the boss gets nervous every time I approach his desk.

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If you’d like to learn more about our app or discuss any of these technologies drop me a line at jamie@quadrantdesign.co.uk

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