2016 Was A Watershed Year for VR in Architecture and Design

With the democratization of virtual reality, architects and designers are discovering new potentials for the technology—and already looking to the next step.

Some World Games, an installation created by the studio Farzin Farzin for New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, allowed viewers to virtually explore and experiment with 41 historical prototypes for living.

Courtesy Miguel de Guzman

2016 may well be remembered as the year virtual reality (VR) finally went mainstream. In March, the Oculus Rift, the first consumer-oriented version of the VR headset, was released. A month later, the HTC Vive followed in its wake. Just this past October, Google unveiled Daydream, a headset that works with Android phones—at $79, a less expensive and more accessible alternative (the Rift, for example, can cost ten times as much). There’s little doubt that, in the coming years, the technology will continue to improve as the price drops.

While the entertainment industry and the tech behemoths (particularly Facebook) are hard at work developing the technology and expanding its potential applications, the architecture and design industries have also been early adopters. At every major industry event this year—from the AIA National Convention to the Venice Architecture Biennale—and at some high-profile exhibitions, including Pierre Chareau at New York’s Jewish Museum and Closed Worlds at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the VR headset had a strong presence. The quality of the experience, however, has been varied, because the technology is still nascent.

The most obvious application of VR to architecture, of course, is enabling clients to experience a design intuitively, rather than in the abstract. National Office Furniture, for example, is using VR to allow clients to digitally preview its products in the context of its showroom. The VR experience of an architectural model can express scale in a way that a rendering, no matter how good, cannot. Architectural firms—such as AECOM, HKS, IA, SHoP, and SOM—are already using VR to interface with clients. At the urban scale, the technology could soon be used to present large-scale projects to citizens and garner community feedback.

But VR’s potential isn’t just client-facing; it could forever alter the design process itself. Gensler, a pioneer in VR research, hopes that its architects around the world will soon be able to meet virtually, not on a screen but standing together inside models of the projects they are designing.

Ennead Architects is a proponent of a new field called “immersive analytics,” a multidisciplinary initiative that seeks to convert data into virtual experience, to “humanize the data,” in the words of Ennead’s Brian Hopkins. The firm is using VR before a project’s completion—for example, to test out and modify the interplay of daylight in a project (visualizing elements that are impossible to see with the naked eye)— and after, to analyze post-occupancy behavior. The designers have even gone so far as to program AI avatars that simulate circulation; in the not-so-distant future, they say, those avatars will use real-time data and track the movements of actual building users.

And this hints at the most exciting possibility for VR: the true melding of virtual and physical space. As VR technology improves, so do augmented reality technologies (indeed, Pokémon Go was just the beginning). When these technologies finally merge, you have to wonder: What role will architects and designers play?

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