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Architectural rendering and the advent of virtual reality

The impending introduction of VR into the mainstream presents massive opportunities for the design and construction industries. Here’s how to start planning ahead.

The future is here, and it’s name is VR.

Virtual Reality is storming into the mainstream in ways previously thought to be reserved for science-fiction, and it’s fixing to change the way we experience multimedia. Samsung, Valve, and Facebook-backed company Oculus have already rushed to the market with powerful machines that have miniaturized VR and placed it in the comfort of your living room. And while there’s a long road ahead to making the technology cheap enough to put in every self-respecting techie’s basement studio apartment, this year marks a milestone in the quest to make this truly new experience accessible to the masses.

Google has even provided a makeshift stopgap that MacGyvers your phone into a VR headset with a few pieces of cardboard and about a half an hour of time. And if you didn’t catch that obscure early 90’s TV reference, just know the VR movement is no longer a fantasy. It’s here. And it’s arriving with the force of a rogue wave poised to destroy everything you think you know about visualization.

In this article I’m going to explain exactly what VR is, and how it’s going to change how architects, designers, and 3D rendering artists produce and show off their work.

What is VR?

Oh, stop acting like you don’t know. But for the few of you who’ve been living under a rock that transports you 50 years in the past, here’s the long and skinny:

VR - or virtual reality - is exactly what it sounds like: a form of media that transports you from this reality to a virtual one. VR has you wearing a headset that act as a pair of goggles, effectively transforming your eyes into portals to another world. This type of experience is nothing new, as virtual devices have been around in limited and primitive forms for the past few decades (cough Virtual Boy cough). Only recently, however, has the potential for the technology uncorked in a way that has made it relatively affordable and accessible.

Many different industries have begun investing heavily in the advent of modern VR headsets in order to bring new experiences into people’s homes. The most obvious being the movie and video game industries. Valve - a software company famous for the Half Life and Portal video game franchises - recently released their very own proprietary VR headset called Vive (manufactured by Samsung HTC). Sony will be jumping into the pool later this year when they release Playstation VR, which will be compatible with the hugely successful Playstation 4. These companies are banking on the eventual mainstream adaptation of the technology, and their risk is likely to reap ridiculous rewards.

Another industry that will benefit greatly from the introduction of VR is the design, architecture and construction sectors. While the applications aren’t immediately as obvious as the movie and video game industries, designers will soon be able to rely on a never before seen level of immersion when presenting clients with otherworldly visualizations (literally).

Visualization and the Benefit of Virtual Reality

A good designer makes things easy to understand. They used to tell us in architecture school: “if your grandmother can’t understand what she’s looking at, you’ve failed.” It was probably said with more swear words and a tone typically reserved for boot camp, but it was nonetheless an effective form of motivation. In most instances, the people who you’re communicating your design with don’t know triangular composition from two-point perspective. The job of a designer isn’t just to make something cool, it’s to make something people “get.”

In recent years, technology has afforded designers and artist the tools to present works of architecture and product design with life-like clarity. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee a successful presentation, but makes it easier to explain the merit of the thing by doing little more than showing them a realistic depiction of what it is. That’s the baseline in 2016, and anything less will land you in a gutter with your portfolio haphazardly strewn about your lifeless body.

Virtual reality fixes to take things a few steps further. Give your client a VR headset and watch them start handing you pots of gold as you show them exactly what lies at the end of the rainbow. Designers and artists will have the tools to literally insert somebody into the design. Imagine being able to physically walk through un-built work of architecture that has been painstakingly built in software like Maya, 3DS Max or Rhino. You become a character in the video game that doesn't have to explain the thing because it’s right in front of you as if it were already real.

It’s a powerful vision, to be sure. But it goes even further than simply showing someone what something is. The advantage of building experience in the virtual world is the ability to tailor-make that experience based on specific tastes and preferences. Picture this: a real estate agent is trying to pre-sell a speculative home that is yet to be complete. Previously, they had to rely on static images of a few interior shots that showed off the potential of the spaces. These images are nice, but rarely convey the feeling of actually living there. Now imagine the prospective client moving through the house themselves with furniture, paint colour, and wall art inserted to match exactly what they are looking for. Suddenly you have a presentation that will convince them to buy because they can actually feel themselves living there already.

Now, that type of application is years from being a reality, but the potential is clear. This is the future of the business, and it’s not as far away as you might think.

What Does This Mean For You?

Opportunity, that’s what! I’m guessing if you frequent this blog it’s because you are, in some way, involved in the design and visualization business. VR could very well become the gold standard for the production of high-end visualizations and 3D art. Rendering artists have already been tasked with moving from static images to video, and will again need to take the reigns of this new technology. There is a big old treasure chest filled work, which might not sound like treasure at all until you realize what it could mean for your career. Unfortunately, we work in an industry that demands a constant re-education of the newest tools, tricks and techniques for producing the most impressive visuals possibly with today’s technology. In the next 5 to 10 years, this means VR.

It’s not all bad news though. The prospect of being able to show off your work in a way everyone will immediately understand is a tantalizing prospect. Not to mention a fun one. Being a rendering artist typically means you love what you do, so the thought of doing more work and learning new things in order to be better at that isn’t such a hard pill to swallow.

If you aren’t a designer or rendering artist and you’re just here because you love the way I write, virtual reality for you means...well...the future of media consumption, that’s what!! You may not be able to afford a $500-$600 headset today, but you can look forward to those prices dropping dramatically as things become easier to manufacture. You’ll probably have to wait a little bit longer to walk through the rolling hills of The Shire from the comfort of your living room, but that reality is already walking up to the door.

A Virtual Future

It’s hard to say exactly how far virtual reality is going to sink its teeth into the masses. There is a tremendous amount of financial and public opinion momentum behind the VR movement, but we’ve all seen fads like this vanish before popularity took hold. There seems to be legitimate buzz behind the technology, and with such a widespread awareness that unique virtual experiences are out there, it’s just a matter of time before people get their hands on it. The question will be: is using VR so mind blowing it replaces the way we currently consume media? Could VR simply go away like the 8-track and the 3D TV?

I have no idea, but there’s reason to believe the contrary. Time will tell whether or not the design and construction industry moves to a full-scale adaptation of VR. That type of movement could be a ways off, but larger firms are already starting to toy around with the tech. Rendering artist should take notice, because before long they could find themselves in a market that not only accepts VR, it demands it.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently said in all likelihood we are all part of a grand computer simulation built by a race of beings who have technologically evolved well beyond our current understanding. It’s an interesting thought provoked by one of the world’s leading minds. Whether or not his outlandish statements hold merit, our current course of technological advancement seems to have few bounds to how far it can take us. VR appears to be the next step in that evolution, and could open up truly game-changing possibilities when it comes to how we understand the world.

Get some popcorn and sit back for the future. Because the future is here.

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