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Virtual reality technologies will transform architecture

Virtual reality technologies will transform architecture

THURSDAY, February 25, 2016

ONE OF THE CHALLENGES of the architectural profession is the difficulty in explaining and clarifying to clients, developers, or fellow architects how a project will look or feel.

Currently, communication of design objectives occurs through plans and models. Taking full advantage of these methods does not guarantee a complete understanding of the architect’s vision. 
Rapid advances in computer technologies have enabled computer-assisted three-dimensional modelling, which has become a standard tool within contemporary architectural practice. Three-dimensional modelling has moved the communication of architectural intentions closer to the ideal, but it still has limitations. Computer-based 3D models are unable to express movement within a space, and the flatness of the screen imperfectly captures the experience of space. 
Virtual reality (VR), the computer-generated simulation of an interactive three-dimensional environment, allows us a 360-degree experience of architecture. Using a head-mounted display, a user can acquire the ability to “fill in the gaps” that plans or physical models are unable to convey. Users of virtual-reality technologies almost unanimously report that the sensation of being in virtual space is like penetrating an alternative universe. 
VR technologies have been with us for a while, but in the recent past, fabricating a screen of suitable size without compromising on image resolution had not yet been achieved. The creation of the VR headset was a critical advancement, but the price of early models was out of reach for most consumers. 
It was only in 2014, with the introduction of the Oculus Rift headset by the company Oculus VR that a consumer market for VR emerged. Similar products by Google, Sony and Samsung followed shortly. The proliferation of VR products stimulated further progress to the point where even smartphones can now interact with VR headsets. 
The workings of VR are simple. An image display is positioned close to the eyes while lenses work to adjust the focus. A 3D image, one slightly different from the other, is projected at each eye, tricking the brain into seeing depth. 
In virtual reality, continuity of depth is maintained even when the user swivels his or her head. This is achieved by utilising a gyroscope sensor, which rapidly registers changes in movement.
VR is increasingly in use in the service of architecture. With this technology, developers and clients are able to wear VR glasses to transport them into the realistic, three-dimensional world of their commissioned or proposed project. They can walk into the building, examine design details, experience the arrangement of space, and “walk” freely through as if they were actually at the finished site. 
Modelling architecture by using VR is not as complex as it seems. Rendering applications such as Photosphere 360 can produce immersive environments, which can be further introduced into additional software, many of them free, to manipulate the VR experience. 
VR headsets today are extremely affordable and anyone with a smartphone can acquire additional tools such as Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard is a platform developed for use with a head mount for a mobile phone. 
The headsets are built out of simple, low-cost components. Once the kit is assembled, a smartphone is inserted in the back of the device and an app splits the smartphone display image into two, one for each eye, resulting in a stereoscopic or 3D image with a wide field of view that simulates actual sight. 
In the future, further advancements in VR technologies and their popularisation will bring even more innovative applications. VR has the potential to influence the architectural design process as well as the presentation of projects to clients. Clients in turn may use VR to market their developments, from homes to offices to hotels. 
We may soon be walking through a model apartment when deciding to purchase a condo or evaluating a hotel room before booking, assisted by VR headsets without even leaving our homes.
CHAVANONT KHOSAKITCHALERT is with the department of architecture, |faculty of architecture, Chulalongkorn University.