March 31, 2016

The first consumer-ready Oculus Rift headsets (commonly called Head Mounted Displays, or HMD’s) available to the public are shipping this week, a momentous milestone for the growing use of virtual reality (VR) technology, which is experiencing a resurgence after failed experiments in the 80’s and 90’s. Since recapturing the public’s attention on a large scale in 2014 when Facebook purchased Oculus VR, virtual reality has never been widely available to consumers – until now.

We started experimenting with virtual reality around 2010. Back then – just six years ago – the only option was to hire VR developers to build very custom commercial applications. The early days of VR were limited by both location and cost. You often had to physically travel to a VR company’s special room in order to step inside your virtual reality, as well as pay for the custom VR development and room rental.

Fairly common within the industry today are virtual mockups – small scale, highly detailed BIM models representing the same details or rooms that we’ve historically created as physical mockups. These limited virtual mockups have to be communicated via computer screen or projector, and they essentially take 3-D information from a BIM model and flatten it back down to a 2-D presentation. The result is a mockup that you can view, but not experience. Adding virtual reality, by way of a HMD, to a virtual mockup promises to give end users more of a ‘feel’ and connection to a space than a 2-D drawing ever could. It also opens up participatory design discussions with opportunities to virtually insert end users into a 3-D space that they can walk around and experience.

For example, at a major renovation project for Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCUHS), DPR was faced with the challenge of showing the design and layout of operating rooms within the 85,000-sq.-ft. project to doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who were constantly on call at the Level 1 trauma center. There was no space in or around the hospital for a physical model, so DPR created an immersive virtual reality mockup by using the Oculus Rift. All we needed was a laptop and a headset, which allowed us to put our end users inside a full scale, highly detailed operating room environment. This allowed us to solicit invaluable design feedback from the people who would be using the hospital most.

The way virtual reality develops within the next year, and how the industry reacts to it, will shape VR’s place in the construction and design process. Maybe in five years or so, doing live design modifications (moving walls, furniture, finishes, and more) within virtual reality environments will become a commonplace within our industry, further enabling opportunities for creative design. Today, VR is most commonly used for visualization, but in the future, it could be leveraged more for real-time analysis and problem solving. It could be ubiquitous, an integral part of every construction process.

This week is more than a turning point for virtual reality – it’s just the beginning. 

A staff member at VCU uses an Oculus Rift headset to view the design and layout of the renovation. 

An example of a VCU virtual reality mockup that hospital staff members were able to virtually experience.