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The Evolution of VR and Immersive Media in Architecture and Interior Design

Welcome to the second installment of our "Visualizing Tomorrow" series, where we dive deep into the innovative technologies transforming the architectural landscape. In this session, we're exploring how Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive media are revolutionizing the design process at STG Design. Join us as we discuss the practical applications, advantages, and prospects of these cutting-edge tools with our experts Matthew Feaga, William Pellacani, Chenyu Tao, and Lukas Machaj.

Matthew Feaga: Okay, so to kick us off, STG has been integrating VR and immersive media into its processes for the last several years. Talk about how these technologies improve design processes.

William Pellacani: Probably the most important aspect of VR is that it allows us to quickly get a sense of scale. When we render images, they look nice, and we typically add a human figure for scale as an approximation. It’s still 2D, so it only tells part of the story. With VR, we can quickly see how the space will feel in real life pretty closely.

Matthew: Even for those of us who are trained to think in terms of 2D drawings, there can still be surprises when you go into a built space for the first time.

Lukas Machaj: Physically walking a space is more useful than orbiting around a model, especially in meetings with clients. Many of our clients are not trained to understand space from 2D drawings, so strapping into a headset and letting everyone walk around can bridge the gap in understanding.

Chenyu Tao: We can also add object interactivity if we use game development software to add another layer of immersion and understanding. Big picture, all of this improves design outcomes because it eliminates surprises and allows for decisions to be made earlier.

Matthew: Besides helping with scale and spatial perception, talk about how VR helps with design iteration.

William: Well, obviously we never only do one option and call it done. VR, especially with tools like Enscape, a real-time renderer, allows us to make changes on the fly. We can open a design model, whether Revit, Rhino, or Sketchup, and change materials or elements as we walk around in the VR headset.

Chenyu: We can preset different design options and switch between them instantly.  This saves time compared to going back to the drawing board every time something changes.

William: We’ve also seen people be more open to giving comments when experiencing VR because the design is so much easier to understand. Comments are given in conversation rather than days or weeks later in a PDF.

Matthew: Have you experimented with collaborative design software?

William: We looked at a few options like ARKIO and The Wild, which is now in the Autodesk family.  We set up a model between our Austin and Nashville offices to do real-time design iterations. It was cool and we had some fun, but we struggled to get people to use it beyond the initial “neat” factor.

Matthew: Why do you think that is?

William: One limitation of VR is its singular experience. At the moment, only the person wearing the headset can experience it in real-time. Some software solutions try to bring more people into the experience, but often, this means buying or using additional headsets, creating a barrier to entry in terms of equipment. Unless you have a headset, you’re looking at the headset feed on a screen, which is only slightly better than not using VR at all.

Lukas: From the designers' perspective, it takes time to learn new design techniques. For example, moving around and modeling while wearing a headset and using wands is a different way of thinking compared to traditional methods taught in school and practice. As VR becomes more integrated into architectural education, we'll likely see more architects and interior designers comfortable with these new technologies.

William: The control mechanisms can also impact user experience. For example, the Oculus uses wands and joysticks, while the Apple Vision Pro relies on hand gestures. The hand gesture controls might be more intuitive as they evolve, as they mimic natural movements, unlike traditional controllers.

Lukas: Another big issue is that a lot of the current tools are geared toward basic forms and masses. 3D sketching can be fun and exciting, but they are often more suitable for organic and sculptural designs, which may not align with the typical work we do, or they don’t help us far enough into the project to make it worth changing certain design processes. Additionally, there are limitations in terms of scaling and compatibility with architectural models.

Matthew: How do you see augmented/mixed reality and AI intersecting with VR?

William: Technologies like HoloLens, which allow you to see through the lens, can be helpful during the construction process to identify discrepancies between the model and what was built. We’ve seen interesting examples of contractors doing that on-site.

Lukas: I believe the lines between these technologies will blur more in the future. Each technology has its benefits, but they are currently quite siloed. As they start to mesh, I think they will become more versatile and intuitive to use.

Matthew: One thing we haven’t addressed is the nausea people commonly get while wearing a VR headset. How much of a factor are you seeing that be in adoption?

William: Motion sickness is a significant barrier. To address this, we expanded our services to be heavier in phone- and tablet-based augmented reality than we maybe initially thought we’d need to. AR is a good alternative because it’s still cool, helps visualize designs in real space, and runs on devices more people already have.

Chenyu: On top of that, many people don’t like wearing the headset because they are uncomfortable not being able to see the real world, and some become self-conscious in front of other people.

Lukas: We’re big fans of 360 renderings. 360 rendering allows you to view a space from all angles either on a screen or a headset, but it's a static 2D image projected around you. It's like a regular 2D image that's wrapped around a sphere, allowing you to spin around and see the space. Unlike VR, you can't walk around or interact with the model. However, you can stitch together multiple 360 images to create a virtual tour, similar to what's done in the real estate industry.

Matthew: What are the specific advantages of 360 renderings compared to VR?

Lukas: The main advantage is accessibility. 360 renderings can be easily embedded on a website and viewed on a variety of devices without the need for specialized equipment like VR headsets. They offer a more straightforward viewing experience, allowing users to spin around and explore a space without the complexities of VR. Additionally, 360 renderings are static, making them easier and more cost-effective to produce compared to VR environments.

Matthew: What about static renderings vs. 360 renderings?

Lukas: 360 renderings can be a more effective marketing tool than traditional renderings because it allows viewers to spin around and get a better sense of scale. Hosting these 360 renderings on a website can also make the experience more engaging for users, as they feel like they are interacting with the space.

William: Another benefit of 360 renderings or AR is that more than one person can experience it at a time, unlike VR, which is more singular in experience.

Lukas: Quality-wise, a 360 rendering can match a traditional rendering because the only thing that changes is the camera. Since it's a static image, all the detail can be maintained, resulting in higher-quality visuals than you can get with VR, which tends to look more like a video game. Creating artistic perspectives in 360 renderings can be more challenging because you can't make detailed edits in Photoshop like you can with still renderings. This also makes it harder to use them in books or printed collateral.

Matthew: Any bold predictions about the future of VR?

Lukas: Technologies like the Apple Vision Pro, which combines VR with the ability to see the room around you, are already blurring these lines. The next iterations of these technologies will probably continue to make the experience even more seamless.

Chenyu: I think this is an important function because with a traditional VR headset, it may feel uncomfortable as you need someone to help you move from one spot to another. But if we can toggle on and off the environment, we can combine a lot of experiences together.

William: Chenyu, you brought up a good point about the challenges of explaining VR instructions. I believe the adoption of mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality will increase as the general public becomes more familiar with these technologies. Apps that allow you to visualize furniture in your room using your phone camera are already helping people get accustomed to interacting with virtual objects in real spaces. This familiarity will likely lead to wider overall adoption of these technologies. Although the pricing of such devices is currently prohibitive, more affordable alternatives could accelerate adoption among the general public.

Matthew: I saw some statistics yesterday indicating that a growing number of young people are gaming on headsets year after year, so I think that prediction is probably right.

William: One trend I'm seeing is the move towards more compact and wireless VR and mixed reality devices, like the Ray-Ban smart glasses. These developments aim to make the technology more accessible and less bulky for users. AI could also play a role in improving MR quality and reducing limitations imposed by hardware and software.

Chenyu: I wonder when we’ll have real-time VR upscaling with the help of AI to improve the visual quality of VR environments.

Matthew: Fun question for the final question: Whatever happened to the metaverse? Will we see it again?

William: I think the metaverse is still a thing, but maybe not as impactful as people thought it would be. The idea of being in a virtual space with others isn't much different from Zoom, and it may even feel less personal.

Matthew: I’ll chime in on my own question. I think the metaverse was ahead of its time in terms of hardware. Once we have better headsets and people get used to wearing them, I bet it becomes a big thing pretty quickly. Avatar-based, interactive worlds like Second Life and the Sims have been around for 20-plus years, so the concept isn’t new, and we’ve seen how addicted people get to those. I’m not ruling out Ready Player One becoming real at some point.

Lukas: People might find it less personal because it eliminates the sense of touch and facial expressions. In the future, combining virtual reality with a sense of touch could enhance the experience, possibly using haptics.

Chenyu: For example, in virtual reality experiences like theme park rides, there are movements and touch sensations that make the experience feel more real. Integrating such elements into the metaverse could make it more engaging and immersive.

It’s clear that Virtual Reality and immersive media are not just trends but integral tools reshaping how we design and interact with spaces. Stay tuned as these technologies continue to evolve and become integrated with architecture and design.

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