Realities of VR and AR in Architecture

By Alan Robles

img_2357Virtual Reality is all anyone seems to want to talk about these days and the discussion about it changing the very fabric of our personal and professional lives seems endless. But let’s reality check this purportedly new reality for just a second. Is it really going to change our perception of the world and our experiences of daily life by just strapping on a headset? Or is this yet another technology flash-in-the-pan?

With Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual reality (VR) we’re talking about enhancing the way we consume information and interact with it. And it’s not a wholly new concept. It’s an idea from the past that only exists today because of technological evolutions in supporting components—batteries, displays, sensors. Think about it like the evolution of music: we went from music performed live to music recorded on a wax cylinder, then vinyl record, tape, CD, and now digital file. Each progressive step making the experience of enjoying music more accessible and, quite simply, easier. With the advanced visualization techniques AR and VR provide, there needs to be this same type of progression and for right now, it’s not quite there. The evolution however, has been swift, and is getting even faster.

Between viable and successful there is a landscape riddled with potential obstacles. Two of the biggest are space and integration.


True VR requires a dedicated amount of “free” space so you’re not walking into furniture while you’re engrossed in the fantasy being presented to your eyes. Much recent content has focused on how virtual reality will change design forever only to read through a detailed description of things not practically aligned with something easy to integrate into current design practices. The idea of an office floor full of designers looking like mimes with invisible tools holding invisible objects and making expressive gestures is interesting as a concept but it’s challenged at the practical level. No one wants to dedicate a whole room to an activity that will only use the space a small fraction of time compared to other more traditional uses. VR technology needs to adapt to the space or the space needs to be designed to work seamlessly with the tech.


The real work of next gen VR and AR needs to address making the technology an easily accessible part of our daily lives. It’s still far simpler to use a mouse to point at a chair, click it, and move it on a screen than it is to go through the full scale reaching and grabbing motions VR requires to do the same task. Even VR controllers designed for virtual interaction don’t make the process any easier simpler than the point and click tools we’ve been using for decades.

The novelty of virtual interaction makes it fun. But novelty doesn’t equal productivity. And even in the way we entertain ourselves there’s an expectation that it will come easily and that there will be a productive result to our pursuit of leisure enjoyment. There are some great examples of commercially available and easily accessible VR technologies. Samsung’s inclusion of its GearVR adapters with its S7 model of phones is well designed and easy to access. You can pop your phone in and watch a movie like it was on the big screen or be in the middle of the scene as the movie evolves around you. But don’t try to move around. It’s simple and it’s effective and even the early VR games and experiences are entertaining. But engaging content in VR or AR is not replacing anything we’re currently doing. There’s no huge leap yet. Just a new option to the way we consume content.

Staying with VR in design, our explorations into integrating VR in our client facing spaces has revolved around using game controllers as a means of movement within the virtual space. It’s not the same experience but practically it’s an effective way of adding VR functionality to existing conference rooms. And for us the initial focus has been around creating presence within our design proposals. In addition to showing a rendering on screen or printed on a board we can put our audience in the places we’re designing so they no longer have to imagine what their space may look like, they can see it with their own eyes and have a simple and direct understanding of what we’re proposing. It’s been incredibly successful but it has not replaced anything we’ve done in the past, it’s been an enhancement. Something that we’ve been able to integrate practically and that has made the way we address “experience” in our designs a more accessible conversation.

AR and VR technologies are multifaceted in the opportunities they offer, but there’s still a way to go. Not every facet is currently practical to incorporate into our personal and professional lives. It’s very important to have a plan around how you’re going to adapt it into your own life. If you jump in without an idea you run the risk of being frustrated and disappointed. Professionally, if you don’t have a strategy to adapt it as a part of your process you will find it hard to be productive and effective. There’s a lot of promise and untapped potential in the VR and AR worlds. Great things are on the horizon and I believe that it will evolve into something incredible but for now it’s still the wild west out there.

Alan Robles is an experience designer with the retail studio at Gensler in Los Angeles. He works across all practice areas to support in the design and development of projects to increase the value of the in-person experience. 


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