As recently as five years ago, integrating virtual reality (VR) into design workflows required custom programming using a game design engine—that is, building a video game to take users into immersive 3D worlds. The cost and technical challenges involved in converting BIM into VR environments prohibited all but the most digitally savvy firms from investing the resources to make it a core aspect of their practices.

However, with availability of low-cost VR headsets, third-party hosting sites, and VR experiences created directly from BIM programs, including Autodesk Revit and Trimble SketchUp, more firms are leveraging the technology as a design and presentation tool. Here, several architects discuss how to incorporate VR and AR into the design process to make projects come to life for clients while saving significant project time and costs.

Develop a Strategy
Bryan Chun, a senior associate architect at Hickok Cole in Washington, D.C., says firms of any size should consider using VR for several reasons. First, these mock-ups can help clients visualize the depth and scale of spaces with greater clarity than with 2D drawings or renderings. These descriptive capabilities were important in guiding Chun’s client’s decisions in 80 M St. SE, a proposed mass timber addition to an existing seven-story building in the district’s Navy Yard neighborhood. By seeing a range of ceiling heights at scale (the two floors of office space in the project have proposed 17-foot ceiling heights), the client was better able to assess “the value of an additional foot of floor height and make good financial decisions,” Chun says.

For younger clients who “grew up on video games and are now becoming the decision makers,” Chun adds, the visceral sensation of walking through a virtual environment might be the differentiator that wins their business.

Before launching a program, firm leaders should decide where VR and AR fit into their practice's workflows. Prior to Chun’s involvement, Hickok Cole’s in-house iLab micro-grant program made the technology available firmwide. Hickok Cole project architect Carlyn Cullen, AIA, and design technology specialist Howard Mack have also developed VR models of the International Spy Museum, also in Washington, to give stakeholders a sense of what visitors would encounter when walking through the museum. Applied early in the project, this approach helped alleviate client concerns, such as the concern that children might climb an expressed steel structure in the atrium.

Expand its Application
For designers, VR can provide the point of view to notice unresolved details, for instance, how a mechanical unit might be integrated into a space or how a baluster might look from various perspectives. However, it can be used as a sales and marketing tool.

When associate designer Brandon Eickhoff first began working at the San Francisco office of William Hezmalhalch Architects (WHA), arrived at the firm from University of California, Berkeley in 2014, VR was far less ubiquitous. In a meeting with principal Mitch Lucero, who directs the WHA's rendering studio, Eickhoff proposed creating VR models for residential developers who could present the mock-ups to prospective buyers. The idea eventually found its way to the 2017 Pacific Coast Builder’s Conference, in San Francisco, where attendees could view a three-story Tustin, Calif., townhouse in stereoscopic vision through an Oculus Rift headset or populate their smartphones with a 360-degree renderings via a QR code, highlighing both the firm's and the developer's work.

Eickhoff estimates that VR is now used in 20 to 30 percent of WHAs' residential projects. “I don’t know if anything will replace the feeling of being inside a model home, but [VR is] an awesome way to get yourself familiarized with the scale, perspective, and experience,” he says.

Start Small
Launching a VR program does not require significant monetary resources or hiring costs. WHA’s virtual reality studio began largely as the extension of Eickhoff’s passion project, with the purchase of a $400 Oculus Rift headset, a $200 Oculus Go headset, and a Chaos Group V-Ray renderer to add photorealism to visual models. At Hickok Cole, Chun already had the tools he needed in place with access to Trimble SketchUp's modeling software and a $150 monthly subscription to Sentio VR’s presentation platform. Clients are charged for the service based on billable hours and VR models delivered, which has created a new revenue stream for the firm.

The ubiquity of affordable technology and products has also allowed large firms like Edmonton, Alberta–based Stantec to forego a formalized VR department. Because designers are so well versed in BIM technology, the transition to VR/AR has been an easy jump, says Brendan Mullins, an associate in the firm’s Los Angeles office. Stantec provides Google Cardboard viewers (available for $15 from the Google store) to all employees so they can experiment with ideas, view work with a smartphone, and market their designs. Though the firm does have a Visualization Group to provide guidance on custom apps and solutions, most VR presentations are realized with the help of internally available guidelines. “A lot of people assume this is very advanced technology." Mullins says. "But it’s really about [the robustness of] your BIM models. If you have that, the only thing you have to do is buy a headset and make sure your computer can run it.”

Curate the Experience
Perhaps the biggest key to success in implementing VR is making sure clients are comfortable actually utilizing the technology. David Hamel, a 3D visualization group manager at Boston-based Payette, has witnessed many users get motion sickness in VR. Others simply don’t like the sometimes disorienting sensation of wearing VR goggles.“The biggest challenge I would point to is the actual experience people have when they go into VR," Hamel says. "If this is somebody’s first time, we try to be sensitive to that before we put the headset on.”

Coaching clients on the least dizzying ways to navigate through space, for instance, teleporting to locations in a building, rather than walking to them, can improve the quality of the experience. Lounges with dedicated hardware and software—such as a 10-foot by 10-foot square room at Hickok Cole outfitted with VR headsets and a 60-foot monitor for those not in the VR to watch a 2D version of the experience—can also help put users at ease, while making presentations more sociable.

This article was originally published on BUILDER's sister site, ARCHITECT.