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By Jeff Mottle

Virtual Reality in Arch Viz - Hype or Reality?

The Resurgence of VR

Anyone who has been around the visualization industry a while knows VR is certainly not new. In fact the HMDs (Head-Mounted Displays) as we know them today came about in the 1960s and saw a somewhat disastrous resurgence in the 1990s in the consumer space. 



When the hype started all over again a few years ago with the release of Oculus’ DK1 (Developers Kit 1) Kickstarter, I have to admit I viewed it with a healthy amount of skepticism.  So much so, it was not until mid 2013 that I even bothered to give it a try, despite having walked passed crowded Oculus booths a number of times in my travels to events around globe.  Like so many technologies in the 3D/CG field I’ve seen over the last 21 years, I chalked the DK1 up to yet another soon to fail technology - right there next to 3D televisions. What I am witnessing in our own field has really taken me a bit by surprise and it seems this is a technology that is not going away any time soon. Its path is certainly not paved in gold, but I think it actually stands a chance this time!



Architecture is generally one of the most technology laggard fields around, so when I started seeing around 50% of the architectural firms and visualization studios purchasing DK1’s, I was a bit taken aback.  What was it this time that made this not only a seemingly viable technology, but a technology that even the most technology averse companies were wanting to purchase and put into practice? 



Throughout 2014 and into mid 2015 I slowly watched more and more companies experimenting behind the scenes. Many not even knowing how it would be used in production. By late 2015 a critical mass of new technology companies jumping behind the VR movement, coupled with actual internal and external client projects successfully being developed within our own field, appears to have been a recipe for success.  I’ve even spoken to one company who told me the revenue they are currently generating on the VR side of the business is surpassing their bread and butter imagery work in terms of profitability.


NVIDIA VR Experience Pods at GTC

NVIDIA VR Experience Pods at GTC - line ups for hours. 

Why VR, Why Now?

Unless you’ve tried VR it’s really hard to put into words why it has so many people excited and why it feels so amazing. Two words that I think describe its usefulness in architecture are: Scale and Presence.  Two things that also neatly sum up what we feel when we experience architecture in the real world.  This ability to experience a space we can’t visit, or one that does not yet exist, is the basis of nearly everything professionals in the field of architectural visualization do on a daily basis, so really VR is quite complementary and takes what we do to another level.

So why is VR having a resurgence now and why might it be here to stay this time?  Quite simply the technology required for us to start to developing near reality experiences did not exist until very recently.  Even as recently as ten years ago we did not have a 1080p display small enough to fit an HMD. We can thank the mobile phone market for pushing that forward.  Another big catalyst for VR has been the advancements of real-time computer graphics compute power.

Both NVIDIA and AMD have announced video cards that are orders of magnitude faster than their predecessors.  Companies like Oculus, HTC, Microsoft, and dozens more are simply packaging an ecosystem and hardware in a way that can leverage these advancements in a way that supports VR experiences.  

Oculus DK2 at the End User Event

Microsoft Hololens at the End User Event

Challenges Ahead

While the business cases and initial successes with VR in architecture are positive, there remains many outside forces that will dictate whether VR will stay.  AR (Augmented Reality) HMDs have a long and successful presence in the industrial/commercial space, but VR, for now, is primarily being targeted to the consumer space, and it’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario at the moment.  People don’t buy HMDs en-masse unless there are titles, and game developers don’t develop big titles unless there is a large enough market to support it.  Which brings us to the number one issue I see with VR HMDs in the consumer space - price.  



By far the best VR experience is currently the HTC Vive, but at $800 that is far from affordable at the consumer level, and that’s just the HMD.  You are going to spend at least another $2,000 for a PC capable of driving a VR experience, which puts this out of reach to all but the most avid gamers and professionals.   NVIDIA recently estimated that less than 1% of all PCs on the market in 2016, will be able to run a VR experience.  So the question now becomes, how long are these VR hardware developers willing to wait for an audience and how big does that audience need to be for it to be profitable?  And more importantly, will the commercial side of the industry factor into their equations?  HTC just recently announced a Vive Business Edition, so it’s clear they understand the market exists, but is it enough?  

Leap Motion gesture control in VR

Autodesk Stingray

From a form factor point of view, size, weight, and untethered experience are all high on the list of improvements that need to happen, in addition to increased screen resolution.  



From a technology stand point of view, all of the pieces of the puzzle are there, but the business model and hardware refinements are far from resolved. I think the next 24-36 months will be very telling.  Gartners, an industry analysis company that plots new technology trends, places VR just exiting the Trough of Disillusionment with a 5-10 year horizon to reach the Plateau of Productively.  I had a chance to speak to one of the analysts who helps determine where these technologies fall on the graph and I commented how I was surprised not to find it at the top of the hype curve.  He said, they debated if they should “reset the clock” and place it there, however the current position reflects the decades of work that came before, even though the industry was literally in a holding pattern for 20 years.  

Gartners Emerging Technology Hype Cycle 2015

How is it being used now?



It’s still very early days, but I am seeing new companies popping up almost daily announcing they are working with VR on client projects.  Architectural firms like Gensler are using it to gain buy-in on design proposals from their clients and to help internal design discussions.  Some visualization companies are taking existing projects and porting them to VR and to help developers better understand their spaces.  

Over the coming months, our plan is to develop an entire series of articles around the use of VR/AR/MR in architectural visualization, including in depth discussions about what it means from a business perspective and what opportunities exist, and how this technology might impact our field.



In the interim, we’d love to know what you think, what you’d like to see, and to tell us what your plans are for VR/AR/MR in your business in 2016 and 2017.  

We’ve put together a very quick survey below and will be publishing the results as soon as we get a good number of results.  Hopefully within the next few weeks.  Only takes 1-5 minutes to complete.

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Is incredible!Now you can experience multiplayer in Zero-G with Echo Arena, the new VR sport of the future from Ready at Dawn and Oculus Studios. The future of games ....https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xPRIocr8ts
Hi There are different possibilities with all HMD's as they have all grown their own ecosystems, some people might need more realistic results that cannot be achieved by mobile, but there are many people that would use lower end VR such as Cardboard. With WakingApp's ENTiTi for VR/AR content creation platform, we aim to close the gap by enabling users to create experiences out of the content they build with their CAD/3D software, and to be able to render it for different kind of platforms such as Vive, Rift or Cardboard. Please let me know if you need any help with this :)
There in lies the problem. If a client comes to you for a domestic visualisation, and wants a 3D model and renders done in a week say, and you would like to give them an option for being able to take the model home and look around it, and have a good think about how much money they want to spend on there home, at the moment, is this possible? Out of max? The pipe line is still too long for it to be profitable. Phil
I think it depends on the expectation. I did some quick exterior renders for a friend in Lumion recently of his house that he is having built so that he and his wife could look at the material scheme they had chosen before purchasing the materials. Since Lumion can put out a stereoscopic 360 pretty easily and there are free mobile apps to view those, I just sent a google cardboard with him as well along with instructions for viewing the stereo 360 render. They were very appreciative and very impressed with it, they showed it to their builder and now he has asked for an estimate for doing this with all of his plans. It does take a little longer to render this type of output, but it really doesn't take much more preparation otherwise to get a foot in the door with stereoscopic 360 VR. To scale up to Unreal Engine, yes, there is a lot of technical set-up involved, which is too costly at the moment in my opinion, but I think we are getting close to a better solution for this. If you can invite the client to your office and you have the appropriate equipment, IrisVR Prospect is a great way to get them into a model without any additional set-up involved, albeit with a lower visual fidelity than a fully cooked Unreal scene, but certainly good enough to get a sense of things.
There in lies the problem. If a client comes to you for a domestic visualisation, and wants a 3D model and renders done in a week say, and you would like to give them an option for being able to take the model home and look around it, and have a good think about how much money they want to spend on there home, at the moment, is this possible? Out of max? The pipe line is still too long for it to be profitable. Phil
Interesting! and that card is what 200$? The more people can afford vr-capable pc, the better (as a vr arch viz developper)
Looks like it's around there. Agreed. The sooner the price of running VR comes down, the better chance this all stands of gaining the adoption it needs to succeed long term. Just to run my Vive set up, I'm in it for almost $3K.
Interesting! and that card is what 200$? The more people can afford vr-capable pc, the better (as a vr arch viz developper)
I'm not sure the radeon 480 puts the 1080 to shame...afaik, besides the price, the 1080 is clearly more powerful... They're all super good cards tho!
Chaos Group pushed out some stats yesterday that shows the performance per dollar is better in some cases on the 480. By 35%. These were CUDA/OpenCL tests and I've not looked into any performance benchmarks for games yet.
I'm not sure the radeon 480 puts the 1080 to shame...afaik, besides the price, the 1080 is clearly more powerful... They're all super good cards tho!
[/QUOTE] Yeah, me too. It seems the video card race is back on though. AMD just released a new card that is putting the brand new GTC 1080 to shame. It's just a matter of time...[/QUOTE] Here comes the Metaverse - I feel embarrassingly under prepared!
Yea that's fair enough. I can't wait until we can get the same resolution/visual quality from real-time VR as we can get with the huge res pre-renders currently. It seems to be getting pretty close in real-time in general - just seems like its going to be another while before we get this quality in a HMD.[/QUOTE] Yeah, me too. It seems the video card race is back on though. AMD just released a new card that is putting the brand new GTC 1080 to shame. It's just a matter of time...
[/QUOTE] For sure you can get a sense of presence with Gear VR and its really quite good too.. My comment was really based around the fact most people who use GearVR in architecture view 360 images and video, not true 3D environments that you are immersed in as you would be with other HMDs. While it's somewhat of an argument of semantics, most people who have been involved with VR for a while (like 20+ years) don't consider this to be true VR.[/QUOTE] Yea that's fair enough. I can't wait until we can get the same resolution/visual quality from real-time VR as we can get with the huge res pre-renders currently. It seems to be getting pretty close in real-time in general - just seems like its going to be another while before we get this quality in a HMD.
Hmmmmm not sure I agree that the GearVR can't do real VR.
For sure you can get a sense of presence with Gear VR and its really quite good too.. My comment was really based around the fact most people who use GearVR in architecture view 360 images and video, not true 3D environments that you are immersed in as you would be with other HMDs. While it's somewhat of an argument of semantics, most people who have been involved with VR for a while (like 20+ years) don't consider this to be true VR.
Hmmmmm not sure I agree that the GearVR can't do real VR. Surely a real sense of Presence is much more important than just being able to move around. I have tried many architectural VR experiences on the Vive that were fully real-time interactive but they looked crap and I certainly didn't feel like i was there. However when I experience a full res stereo 360 I often feel genuine presence in that space. I also disagree that it's cheap - an $800 phone is not cheap in my eyes. I've just started ranting about this here: vrandarchitecture Lots more ranting to come.
Our company in Brazil has been offering VR solutions for real estate and architecture since 2014. Today we have a ultra-realistic graphics platform that allows walking around, viewing properties in 3D perspective from out-side, create high-lighted points of view and customize several different options of floors and walls. All is ready interaction with Mouse, Touch Screen and also the main VR platforms: Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It's worth checking out our work at a big conference ein Brazil a few days ago: https://www.facebook.com/iteleport3d/videos/1167681839929310/
Just out of interest, do you get travel sick at all? I personally haven't felt sick watching 360 videos, but I have never been travel sick (well apart from a time on fishing boat, but that's another story!).
On a GearVR watching 360 video or images, I do not get sick. On a Google Cardboard though I do because the optics are so poor. Oculus DK1 I got mild sickness due to the refresh rate, but not on the DK2 or on the Vive. However, if I virtually walk around a space with an HMD, without physically moving (as you can with room scale VR), I will get sick within a few minutes. I also got sick on the Vive when I was dropped 3 stories from a platform (same principal as the above). Of course everyone is different, but most people get sick in these cases. I don't get motion sickness from cars unless I am reading, but when I go diving and there is a 6+ foot swell on a stopped boat, always get sick. I even discovered I get motion sickness under the water from strong currents when there is little to no visual reference. You can read more here here
Why leave the navigation up to the user? Does a good sales man go "here you are, have a look, I'm going for a brew"?.
My only point is that with HMDs when you virtually move someone (ie walking) without physically moving them, regardless of who has control. People get sick.
Just out of interest, do you get travel sick at all? I personally haven't felt sick watching 360 videos, but I have never been travel sick (well apart from a time on fishing boat, but that's another story!).
Why leave the navigation up to the user? Does a good sales man go "here you are, have a look, I'm going for a brew"?.
My only point is that with HMDs when you virtually move someone (ie walking) without physically moving them, regardless of who has control. People get sick.
There are a number of things in there. I see AR with paper targets and I see mobile based real-time, but not what I could call VR. If you want to use a GearVR you need to "teleport" yourself between 360 cubemaps. There is no way on the GearVR that I know of to navigate. You would not want to even if you could. If you want to see someone throw up really quick on ANY HMD, give them the ability to navigate without actually moving (ie. walking around) That's why you almost always have people teleport between locations and then look around (think Google StreetView).[/QUOTE] It is a good point you made. I think that in the past it's been difficult to navigate like you explain. In the present day there are many ways to navigate through full 3D VR on your mobile device including buttons on your headset, and a simple handheld controller https://youtu.be/AayyTFCeXDA?list=PLYIFoBS_-TmuLQoT2snFpR2RsHFyxFg2I I just may be a nerd but I think in the future every computer is going to be mobile. The only barriers are graphics processing and battery life. If you keep the poly count low you can overcome the first barrier to running any vr and 3d application[/QUOTE] Why leave the navigation up to the user? Does a good sales man go "here you are, have a look, I'm going for a brew"? Think about how to engage your users.
Anyway here's my take on VR, have a read let me know your thoughts... Virtual Reality is Here
I think GearVR is awesome. While technically not VR (it's 360 imagery or video). By far the lowest barrier to entry and you still get that sense of immersion. For sure this is the easiest and cheapest way to get clients excited.
It's not just 360 videos and imagery, the Oculus store and Google Play have a massive library of VR apps and games. We've found it a bit difficult to get VR from Unreal to the GearVR, but 360 videos and stereo images are dead easy. I think the lack of availability to the masses has been VR's downfall in the past years. People then needed huge gaming PCs, and a way to load the programs (no broadband), and I just hope we're not falling into the same trap as the last generation. That's why I think mobile VR is the future, and tech will undoubtedly speed up and become faster, whilst still being mobile.
lol. Good point! I think I do 3D so often that it doesn't bother me one bit. People seem to get sick just watching me work,lol

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Why is VR having a resurgence now and why might it be here to stay this time?

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About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA