Virtual Reality: Design Tool or Change Agent?

Excerpted from the BAC's Summer 2018 Practice Magazine

Virtual Reality

The ability to visualize ideas has always been essential to successful design. Getting the proportions of a space right, choosing the best surface textures-these are basics designers face every day that require them to mentally put themselves into their designs. Take the design for the lobby of a public building: the visualization challenges are compounded when you add different lighting conditions, traffic flow into and out of the lobby, and the presence of a few people or a crowd. Then consider that there may be others involved in the design who need to visualize the concept as well, and eventually clients who will need to understand it to approve it. As the design process becomes more complex, the accuracy of visualization decreases, and the more people engaged, the less likely they will all have the same perception of a design. Detailed drawings, models, 3-D renderings-these help, but they have their limits.

Imagine instead that you, the designer, can go into a world where your idea comes to life-you can walk through it, looking left, right, up, down. You can feel the proportions of the space-is it inviting or dwarfing? Is it bright or blinding on a sunny day? If your floor and wall materials don't feel right, you can try something else, and see the effect all around you-immediately. Then imagine you're doing this with your full design team, walking through the space together, sharing ideas in real time. And when you're ready to present to your clients, you can, literally, walk them through your design and know, with confidence, that they see exactly what you see.

Welcome to Virtual Reality.

While primitive forms of virtual reality (VR) have been around for decades, advances in VR software and significant reduction in cost have made VR design applications relatively affordable and easy to use. Adoption in the design professions is taking off. A 2017 study by Chaos Group, a leading computer graphics company, found that 28% of architects were currently using VR in their work, and 28% were experimenting with it. Because of cost issues in the past, large firms are leading the way, with 62% already using VR and 21% in the experimental stage.

David Morgan, B.Arch '17, got involved with VR while an undergraduate. For his thesis project he studied the use of virtual space, and impact it has on our physical space. His instructor, Colin Booth, B.Arch '10, brought him into the firm where he worked, Sasaki Associates, to apply VR technology to different design projects within the firm. Morgan had a natural curiosity towards how technology and fabrication effects our built environment and was encouraged to pursue an intensive study of VR, eventually landing a job at Sasaki right after graduation supporting the VR specialists in their Strategies Group. "It's amazing how quickly you can put this software to use," says Morgan. "Right out of the box, with the goggles on, you snap right in and see what your design looks like. You don't get the same level of polish you would with renderings, but you benefit from real time spatial analysis." Morgan helps Sasaki designers host virtual tours of projects they're working on, and has seen how effective it can be to have designers point out to their team, inside the virtual building, key aspects of their work. Morgan believes that at the pace that firms like Sasaki are experimenting with and adopting the technology, VR will quickly become a normal part of design firm workflow. "Of course you have some hold-outs," says Morgan with a laugh. "Some old-timers have told me VR could be a crutch. I understand that's what hand-work carpenters said when they invented the first table saw."

Aidan Ackerman, the BAC's director of Digital Media, is certain VR will play an important role in design going forward. "It's taking off in the profession," he says, "but it's still not something most students can afford. We want to make this a democratic resource that everyone can learn and use." Ackerman is partnering with Toronto-based VR software company Yulio to bring the technology to the BAC. He believes VR will help students get better feedback on their work, and that feedback will help them improve the quality of their thinking at both the conceptual and the detail level. "We're concerned, though, that the VR environment can at times be a little too beguiling," he says. "It may be easy for junior designers to jump to the visual level before they've really tackled the fundamental design issues." He and other educators at the BAC will be closely monitoring how students' use of VR affects their designs.

Ackerman and the leadership of the BAC are considering more than the obvious uses of VR as a tool for visualization among designers and clients. "It's great for demonstrating multiple options, different perspectives on the same space, before and after," says Ackerman. "Yes, that helps designers get to better solutions, faster, but we're looking beyond this-can it be a tool for creating a more inclusive design process? Could it be a way to share ideas across cultures?"

Ben Peterson, the BAC's director of Practice Instruction and Student Support, encourages students to meet and speak with stakeholders. "When we design with communities as collaborators," he says, "we need to engage on a level playing field from the very start." Peterson feels that VR could be a tool for bringing community voices into design decision-making processes, to make them more transparent and ideally more inclusive. "Rather than using VR to sell ideas to users, how could we employ VR as a tool for generating dialogue about alternative, imagined possibilities?" he asks.

Using VR for community engagement can help increase people's receptivity to new ideas. Recently students at the BAC used VR to showcase a carless Newbury Street. While skeptical at first, pedestrians and drivers who had the VR experience were much more interested in alternative uses of public space. María Bellalta, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the BAC, believes that VR can be a powerful tool for sharing ideas and understanding across cultures. "When we agreed to develop an exhibit on water with Centro Metropolitano de Arquitectura Sustenable in Mexico City," says Bellalta, "we wanted more than a static exhibit-we wanted to create a dynamic way for visitors to confront circumstances that might be difficult, based on their own prior experiences, to imagine." Working together, Bellalta and Ackerman designed a VR component to the exhibit so that visitors in Mexico City could have a first-hand feel for issues in Boston and vice versa.

VR can play a role in historic preservation, as well. Eleni Glekas, the BAC's director of Historic Preservation, can see many applications for her field. "At the simplest level, we can give people access to endangered environments, like the Caves of Lascaux, which have been exactly recreated in VR," she says. "We can also use VR to show people what historic environments looked like before they were altered or damaged." One of the challenges facing historic preservation is adapting historic structures for contemporary use. "Repurposing an old building for office or school use," says Glekas, "might entail substantial modifications for the health and safety of users today. With VR, we can make those needed changes and still preserve the original in a virtual world for users to see and appreciate."

Ackerman believes it's important for the BAC to challenge thinking about VR. "It's only natural for people to fall back on traditional uses when they confront something disruptive like VR," he says. "We want students to see that VR can be more than a better visualization tool, it can be a tool for change. By using it to bring more diverse perspectives into design, to make the process more inclusive, to share ideas across cultures, VR can have a much greater positive impact on the world than people imagine today."

Click here to read the full issue of Practice Magazine.