If you’ve ever seen someone wearing a big set of goggles on their face, waving their arms around like they just walked through a spider web, then you’ve seen someone experiencing virtual reality (VR).
So what were they looking at? Most VR goggles have two small screens in them. The screens are showing the same image, but at a slightly different angle. This tricks your brain into thinking it’s seeing something in 3D.
These VR goggles have actually been around in various forms for a number of years now. They have primarily been used for gaming. In the past few years the screens have gotten much better, and the computers that run them are immensely more powerful than before. Playing a game, or having another VR “experience,” is incredible.
Just this past year I tried out a pair of these VR goggles. When I placed them on, I was standing in a virtual construction site. It was a fully framed home. I was able to look in every direction and see each and every framing detail. I had two wands in my hand and I was actually able to write notes about the framing details directly on the model. For very complex building structures, this could be an interesting way to understand what you’re building before you ever pour concrete or drive a screw.
While this experience was unbelievable, it was a bit disconcerting at the same time. When wearing the goggles, you’re completely visually cut off from the rest of the world. Not only can you not see what’s in the room around you, but often times you can’t hear as well because you’re wearing headphones during the experience.
Let’s put VR aside for a moment and talk about “augmented reality” (AR). The idea is that reality, i.e. stuff that you’re looking at, can be “augmented” with something from a computer. There are a few different ways that this can happen. You can wear a pair of augmented reality glasses like the Microsoft Hololens. This is a pair of goggles that you place on your face. Instead of two opaque screens in front of your eyes, however, it’s just clear glass. An image is projected onto the glass that you can see. The effect is that you can view a 3D model, but also see and talk with everyone else around you.
The idea is that a designer, an architect and a homeowner could sit around a table and look at the same 3D model on a table instead of a 2D plan. Remember back in the day when architects used to make scale physical models of homes and buildings? This is the same thing, it’s just a 3D model that’s ‘virtually’ sitting on the table.
I’ve had several opportunities to try out the Hololens and it’s an incredible experience. You don’t feel cut off from the world, yet you still get the immersive 3D experience. The demo I used had a 3D model linked to SketchUp, so the designer and homeowner could alter the model and it would change right in front of everyone’s eyes! Imagine designing your next kitchen this way!
Augmented reality technology like this is getting cheaper and easier at a pretty fast rate. Aside from the goofy looking headsets that you have to wear for it to work, I really think we’re not far off from this being commonplace technology in our industry.
There’s one more augmented reality device that I’d like to talk about. This one doesn’t involve goggles, just your iPhone or iPad. It’s a sensor called the Structure Sensor that you stick on the back of your phone. Inside this sensor is a camera with some depth sensors on it.
You can walk into a room, wave your iPad around and get a 3D scan of the room. The model you get has every dimension in the entire space. This means that there’s no guesswork later when deciphering your field notes. This feature by itself isn’t augmented reality, it’s just capturing a 3D model of the room. This is the first step to augmented reality, however. Once you have that scan of the room, you can use the iPad and the structure sensor to visualize what something would look like in the space.
This can be used to walk into someone’s home and show them what a new couch, cabinet, appliance or even wall color would look like there. The iPad is a window into that virtual world. It’s not a static image, either; you can walk around holding the tablet to get any view you want.
This could be incredibly helpful for a client who just can’t visualize something. Heck, as a designer who CAN visualize stuff, this would be great for me, too!
The Structure Sensor is powerful, reasonably easy to use and it’s not that expensive. However, what if I told you that you might already own a powerful AR device?
About every year or so, Apple does a big update to its operating system on the iPhone. This year they announced something called
“AR Kit.” This software update will allow the phone to understand the physical space around it. While the Structure Sensor can scan the entire room, the new iPhone update can only identify flat surfaces like a tabletop, floor or wall. That doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, though.
A lot of the early demos are just games and such, but the possibilities for us are pretty compelling. With just a software download, you may be able to take that smartphone that’s in your pocket and turn it into an AR device that can be used to show someone what their new kitchen will look like before anything is ordered.
So, what’s our AR/VR future going to look like? Well, I think virtual reality is wonderful for games. The image quality is superb and video games are often an experience that you don’t mind having while being cut off from the rest of the world. For the rest of us design professionals and homeowners, though, I think AR is the wave of the future.
Bringing clients into your office and having them wear some AR goggles to view their new home could not only be an amazing experience, but a really helpful one, too. They could “stand” in their new home and experience it before a single piece of wood is cut.
Out on a job site, a phone could be used to show proposed design changes easily. Not only is that great for you when talking to a contractor or architect, but it’s also an excellent way to show your clients exactly what they’re getting.
There’s a “The future is so bright, we’re gonna have to wear AR shades” joke here, but I’ll let you do a better job telling it than I can! ▪