Creating a Shared Experience: Virtual Reality as a Tool for Energized Collaboration
For those of us who didn’t grow up playing video games, Virtual Reality (VR) might at first seem like a design tool that requires advanced-level digital expertise and a great deal of work. My recent VR experience, however, has taught me that VR technology is a fantastic way to draw people into the design process. (The high-tech gamer headsets are just a bonus.) The technology allows us to collaborate and share our ideas in an efficient, engaging way that creates a vivid experience of walking through a space. In addition to being a lot of fun, VR is an excellent tool for building a shared understanding among team members and makes it easy for us to visualize and adjust the design throughout the process.
Incorporating VR from the earliest stages of design yields many benefits. VR allows us to create multiple iterations of early-stage concepts to explore the spatial experience quickly and efficiently, uncovering aspects of a design that might be difficult to see in plan. When we incorporate VR into our workflow starting with conceptual design, we can build the model gradually as we refine the design and become very familiar with the technology and navigation. With continuous adjustments throughout the process, the evolving model becomes a valuable and efficient tool for later-stage design selections such as furnishings and finishes.
VR is a very engaging tool for facilitating internal collaboration. It’s especially helpful for interoffice communication, as we can easily share screens through our video conferencing technology so that we’re all evaluating the same spatial experiences as a team. Designers tend to become invested in our own ideas, and it’s extremely helpful to be able to step back and invite colleagues into the conversation for additional perspectives. VR helps us communicate our design intent quickly and clearly to generate meaningful feedback. It’s also a powerful coordination tool, as it makes it easier to spot-check for potential construction conflicts in a virtual building walk-through before any issues arise in the field.
Return on Investment
Though VR technology requires an investment in both hardware and time, this investment adds significant value to the process through efficiency, communication, and confidence in the design. For example, I recently worked on a project with complex strategies for ADA compliance. In plan, the required ramps appeared to diminish the proposed grand stair at the entry. In VR, however, the design team immediately agreed that the spatial experience was as impressive as intended. Had we not been able to walk through the entry virtually, we would have sunk a significant amount of time into an unnecessary redesign resulting in a less effective solution. VR removed the doubt from the design and allowed us to move forward with confidence.
Added Value for Clients
An investment in VR translates into significant benefits for the client as well as for the designers. Virtual reality instantly creates a common language, allowing us to open a meaningful conversation with our clients about design. Clients are often unfamiliar with design terminology and find it difficult to orient and envision two-dimensional plan drawings. VR is an engaging way to unify our understanding as a team, allowing us to build excitement for the project, collaborate in real time, and make decisions efficiently. For a simple model, VR can be as simple as clicking a button on the existing Revit model. A detailed model with finishes might be an add service since it requires a greater time investment, but this completed model can serve as a fantastic marketing tool for clients. One multifamily residential client plans to invest in VR technology for his sales team to create leasing tours for potential residents. Once we add final finishes to the model, VR will allow the client team to gather feedback from marketing and real estate stakeholders early in the process as well as to entice potential residents to take a closer look.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway I’ve noticed in incorporating VR into my workflow is that it invites a human experience into design that can be lacking from traditional presentation plans and stacks of paper. Design can feel very serious but sharing concepts through VR immediately brings an element of play into the conversation which enlivens the process. The somewhat silly looking equipment is part of the fun; the designer can model it first, and there’s always laughter and curiosity that creates an authentic icebreaker activity for everyone present. Through this shared design exploration, the team becomes more familiar with each other, and suddenly design feels like a collaborative and inclusive effort.
Reviewing two-dimensional plans, sections, and details with clients is a critical step, but doesn’t necessarily generate strong emotions. VR, on the other hand, evokes wonder and excitement while creating a valuable experience of the design’s spatial qualities. Because everyone is experiencing the same space virtually, everyone on develops a unified understanding in real-time. Don’t let the goggles intimidate you: VR is fun, engaging, and eye-opening for designers as well as the client, and it has quickly become a vital part of my work flow.