Virtual Reality for Collaboration and Communication, Not Just Presentation

Figure 1: DePaul Cristo Rey High School

We have all seen the amazing things Virtual Reality (VR) can do with a fully developed model. The use of single point 360, an immersive experience with an Oculus Rift, or even augmented reality showing a model sitting on a table are all great ways to “show off” the design and finished materials, but how far back can we go? When can VR become a tool to help us better understand the client’s design ideas?

Before we answer that, let’s talk about the different realities. VR is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment with which we can interact. That simple definition makes no reference to color, texture, or finish. In the simplest terms, VR is shape and form that can be seen and interacted with. Augmented Reality (AR) is the technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world. Again, no reference to finish. Mixed Reality (MR) is the merging of real and virtual reality to produce a new environment and visualizations where physical and digital objects coexist and interact in real time.

Some would say MR and AR are the same. As you can see by the definitions and explanations, there is no mention of finishes. This means VR can be used as soon as we start to model. The challenge is setting a clear expectation for the client of what they are viewing, and controlling the direction of the engagement.

Figure 2: Image from CR-Architects

How can we start using VR as soon as possible to foster collaboration and communication, and what are the benefits? According to the explanations above, in theory, we could model two walls and call it VR. While this might be possible, I would wait until you have a good layout of the environment. Let’s imagine we are designing a single-story office environment with four offices, a conference room, and small break room. While in Schematic Design (SD), we could use VR to look at shape and layout, but it’s best to view the space from above and void of color and finishes.

Your VR interaction doesn’t have to be based inside the space, walking around the office. You could use VR to look at the layout of the office, conference rooms, and the location of the break room from a distance that allows you to see scale by adding doors, windows, a couple desks, and chairs. The VR should be void of color and finishes, so the design is the focus, not the color of the chair. You could have a printed floor plan to show dimensions and callouts, but think of the VR as a foam core, glued-together model that can be rotated and studied.

What if the project is much larger? Find common parts to the design or special points of interest such as a lobby or waiting room.  A hotel, dorm, or medical facility will have repeating elements that can be modeled and studied without designing the entire space. These spaces will later become pieces of the model puzzle. You can also create a library of common spaces. Small, individual, fully finished models of hotel or dorm rooms can be a great tool to initiate a discussion regarding project needs. Typical patient rooms or recovery rooms can also get the conversation started and give the client different layout options to view.

Figure 3: 3D Typical Room

Past projects can also be used to build your 3D VR typical models library. Being able to study them in a VR environment lends itself to getting to the final design faster. In my experience, people view a space differently based on their use of it and a 3D VR perspective allows for a more detailed view of that space than a two-dimensional plan. The ability to rotate the perspective enables a more acute view for the client.

Prior to using VR to collaborate with the client, it’s important to set an accurate expectation of what is going to be seen. When using the term “Virtual Reality,” some believe they are about to see the finished product. At the start of the interaction, set the expectation that what you are going to view is a VR representation of form and shape, not finish and color. The intent is to better study the space and its use.

Also, I recommend using an agenda to set the direction of the meeting. A “Path Meeting” is set up using an agenda and a 2D printed floor plan. Set symbols or markers on a printed 2D floor plan to show the areas of discussion during your meeting. With VR, it is easy to get off track as you pass something on your way to the next point of interest. You can always note the comment and address it if you have time at the end of the meeting, or use it as a new point of interest at the next Path Meeting.

As your model develops, you will need to build a workflow to support the development of finishes and color. Sometimes, the final color or finishes are not known and, similar to having an IPD, LEAN project, it helps to get those decision makers involved in the process as soon as possible. As walls are created for use in the model, take a couple extra minutes to add the color. As elements are added to the model, add the finishes. You might have to go back and change the color or finishes, but it will be simpler once you build this process into your normal workflow. You will need to add images to the materials so they show up best in a VR engagement.

Organize these images as you would your Autodesk® Revit® families. Create a materials folder structure in the same place as your family’s library and set up the structure to ensure materials are easy to find—i.e., stone in its own folder, fabric in its own folder, and so on. Once the workflow is set up to enable adding finishes as you model the project, there will be much less time needed at the end of the project to “fluff” for the final full-color “presentation” of the building.

VR utilized for MEP is also a valuable benefit. Engineers can more accurately see the systems running through a space and design a solution that best fits that space. Collaboration between the architect and engineer on a project is more efficient when they both see how they will impact each other. In a IPD, LEAN project, virtual reality is an amazing benefit.

There are many software programs available that you can use to develop your VR process. They all work differently and it’s best to give them all a try and see what best fits your workflow, or identify one that you can simply build a system around. There are four main software programs I use to achieve different levels of VR and different interactions. The primary modeling software I use is Revit and the VR and AR software programs I use are Enscape, Twinmotion, and Hyperspaces.

Figure 4: Image from CR-Architects

Enscape is the primary VR software used for the earliest stages. It is very simple to use and allows the user to do “Live Design,” which is the ability to see the VR model and make changes in the Revit model simultaneously. As you make changes in Revit, the VR engagement will update itself, eliminating the need to close and relaunch the VR. Enscape also allows for an export of a standalone VR experience. You can give the VR experience to your client without requiring them to buy any software to view it. The export runs independent of Revit and Enscape.

In addition, Enscape has a variety of settings you can change while the VR model is open. This allows you to see these changes happen instantly, including time of day, depth of view, and clouds. These instant changes to the Enscape settings only apply to the environment, the world the model sits in, and how you see that model. You will need to make changes to the Revit model to change the color or finishes of elements.

The process to get a Revit model in Enscape is simple. First, set up camera views of the areas you wish to see in VR or use a single 3D view from Revit, then hit “Start.” Enscape will render the model and produce the environment with which you can interact. You can then use the WASD keys or an Xbox controller to move around the VR model. Other keys and the controller have functions you can use to adjust time of day and switch between walking and flying.

Enscape also gives the user the ability to use an Oculus Rift. The Rift is a fully immersive experience of the VR model. I have found that having the Rift allows others “feel” the space. For example, I have been told that a particular room did not look big enough, but when the Oculus Rift was used, the viewer could virtually get into the room and observe that the room was large enough. It takes practice to make the interaction with the VR model smooth, but using it in-house to review the design as you build the model will teach you how to maneuver around the VR space.

Figure 5: Enscape settings

Figure 6: Augmented reality

yperspaces is a tool used for AR. The process for Hyperspaces is more entailed, as the model must be exported to the Hyperspaces site and each AR interaction must be built. You can then use a smartphone to see the model sitting on a marker, or you can use it on a printed CD set. If there is a room or construction detail that has been modeled, you can create a Hyperspaces QR code, place that code on the CD set, and use the floor plan as the marker. A contractor can scan the code with a smartphone and see the 3D model sitting on the CD set. The viewer can also move around the AR model or turn the sheet and the model will rotate. I have created full floor plans in a Hyperspaces interaction and when the QR code is scanned, the floor plan comes off the printed CD set as a 3D model. This is great for fixture placement, marketing of the space, or simply basic understanding of how a cabinet is placed above a counter.

Figure 7: Twinmotion software)

Twinmotion software is primarily used for presentation. The summer 2017 release of Twinmotion made some great strides in the development of this software. Twinmotion can give a photorealistic presentation of the Revit model. The viewer is able to see rain and snow fall, people walking, and cars driving. You can create videos moving around the space that are 360 comparable, so as the camera moves through the space, you can turn the camera.

I frequently get questions about computer systems. It does not take a super computer to use VR. I have used the new Microsoft Surface Pro to run a standalone VR export from Enscape. Different VR software require different levels of computing power, so I recommend doing the research. With the software I listed, the Revit standard requirements are enough to work with the VR engagements. The Oculus Rift does require a higher level computer and video card, but I do not use the Rift that often. A large TV or projection and screen are plenty to showcase the VR models in a Path Meeting.

Virtual Reality for collaboration and communication is a great way to engage the client. It is a simple way for the client and designer to work together to achieve the best project. The best description I have heard of an architect and client interaction after using VR was, “It was that moment of aha! That moment when the client got it. They did not fully understand the design intent from 2D printed floor plans or renderings. It was not until we showed them the model in Virtual Reality did it all came together.”

Using VR in the early stages of your project helps you connect with your client and get to the final design faster and more efficiently. Use VR in-house for model and design reviews. In the end, Virtual Reality will become a powerful tool in your design toolbox.

Rick Burchett has more than 16 years of experience with CAD software and more than 30 in architectural drafting. He has been a BIM Manager for over 10 years and started working with Revit when it was first acquired by Autodesk in 2002. Serving as a member of Autodesk’s beta test team, Rick strives to stay in the forefront of technology. He serves as the Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) Leader at CR architecture + design (, where he works to create an even more collaborative client experience with immersive 3D platforms for communicating and planning every facet in the lifecycle of a building.

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