© Daniel Long

From a balcony two floors up in a canal-side apartment block, I can see a brightly painted narrow boat on the waterway below. I take a few steps towards the balcony railings. “Keep on walking!” dares a voice behind me. With some hesitation I do so. Instead of tumbling into the water below I am suspended in mid-air. The balcony on which I was standing, the red-brick building, the canal, boat and people below exist only in virtual reality. I am wearing a VR headset, an HTC Vive — more often associated with gaming — and this student accommodation block in Boulevard Walk, Nottingham, designed by Leonard Design Architects, has not yet been built.

Virtual walk-throughs of a development, long before a single brick has been laid in the real world, are an increasingly common part of an architect’s bid. “What we [as architects] do is intangible, so any way of making it more tangible is a good thing,” says Hin Sim, associate director at LDA. “We still draw plans and make 3D models out of wood or styrofoam but virtual reality offers a unique, immersive experience where you can appreciate the size and shape of a space.” The life-size virtual model can be viewed in different seasons and times of day, allowing the headset-wearer to see the track of the sun in relation to the building and to see where shadows fall.

UK-based LDA has used a VR walk-through to gain approval for an ambitious shopping centre in South Korea. “Many clients for these big infrastructure projects are in their fifties and have never tried on a VR headset before,” says Sim. “They enjoy the experience.” It doesn’t always help to sell the project, though. “Some people get a bit dizzy from [virtual] heights,” he admits.

As both hardware and software become better and cheaper, a VR walk-through may become standard, at least for a significant commission. London-based Andrew Lucas Studios provides architects with VR skills and equipment. “Sales in the first quarter of this year are equal to all of last,” says sales director Hamza Abbas. “For large projects such as one-off multimillion-pound homes or hotels, architects are increasingly being asked for a walk-through. Sign-off time is quicker when clients can experience their project in immersive VR.”

Yet not everyone thinks that donning what look like ski goggles often tethered to a computer with a cable while holding hand controls and wandering around a room fitted with sensors is the best way to visualise a new building. For a start, the client has to travel to the architects’ office or set-up space. Oasis Studio, a Sheffield-based architectural services company, offers a more mobile experience called EyeSiteView: virtual tours of show homes viewed on a TV, tablet or phone screen, like looking at a 360-degree photograph.

“The problem with wearing a VR headset is that it’s a very personal experience. Our system is more accessible,” says Paul Deakin, director of Oasis. “There’s no fancy headset or software required.” His visualisations stitch together real photographs of the location with computer-generated images of yet-to-be-built properties. Prospective buyers navigate the property, or street, in much the same way as on Google Street View. Those who want a more immersive experience can connect their smartphone to a basic 3D viewer, such as Google Cardboard, though such low-cost options are not as immersive as an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

While VR is coming of age in sales and marketing, the technology has only recently started to be employed by architects in the design process. Canada-based architect Dan Sobieraj used Yulio software, which converts 3D content into VR, while designing a tiny home that he has gone on to build. “We could determine if the loft and the washroom felt too small or cluttered and maximise the amount of daylight entering the house,” he says.

The technology also lends itself to the design of spacious arenas. SODA architects, in partnership with Andrew Lucas Studios, is using VR in the design of a Soho theatre. “Once you put on a VR headset, you feel how big a space is; you experience the human scale in a way that you’d never get from a [2D computer] model or render,” says Katie Nicholson, architectural assistant on the project. “We can sit in different seats in the VR model of the theatre and see the view of the stage from various places in the auditorium.” Architects are also using VR to tailor their designs to people with impaired vision or perception, for example in creating “dementia-friendly” spaces.

The ability to tinker with a design within the virtual world is limited at present. Superficial changes such as choice of colours or materials are straightforward but anything more complex usually entails a designer going back to the drawing board and importing the new design into a VR headset.

Whether immersing yourself — or watching, bemused, while someone in a headset interacts with an unseen world — VR is adding a new dimension to the job for architects. “It's exciting and fun,” says Jason Burke, who specialises in computer design at Arup. The international engineering firm has been experimenting with the Microsoft HoloLens headset, which enables wearers to see 3D “holographic” images superimposed on the wearer’s surroundings. “You can still see your legs and the floor, which means you’re less likely to feel dizzy than if in a totally immersive experience of an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive,” says Burke. “And, as the headset is wireless it doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer so it can be used anywhere,” he says.

This version of VR, where a 3D image is superimposed on reality, is known as “augmented reality”. Arup is investigating how VR and AR can be used in its processes, from ensuring that planned railway stations have enough space for passengers to circulate to checking the safety measures in a virtual water treatment works. “We can have hundreds of designers in offices around the world, all walking inside the same virtual 3D model at once,” Burke says. “It’s the future of design.”

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