EXCLUSIVE: New virtual reality platform for architecture from NBBJ, plus Bruce Wright of SB Architects talks to CLAD about VR

The potential of VR has won the attention of global studio NBBJ, who this week announced a business partnership with tech startup Visual Vocal to incubate and develop a VR productivity platform that will initially be exclusive to them, before being made available to other architects. The firm claim they are the first design studio to support a VR startup inside their own offices.

"NBBJ's decision to launch Visual Vocal is representative of our ongoing mission to find more informative and inspiring ways to engage clients in the design process,” said NBBJ managing partner Steve McConnell. “This partnership will radically shift the way design feedback is sourced and integrated into projects, and the speed at which it can be done.

“As a result, we can more broadly and deeply engage project stakeholders than we could have dreamed in the past. It will deepen design discourse and bring together communities in new and exciting ways.”

Many international architecture practices are embracing the commercial availability of virtual reality (VR) headsets, allowing clients to step into their designs in a three-dimensional realm.

VR technology such as Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear are used by sectors from theme parks to advertising. Now they're being utilised by architects alongside Google Earth, Revit and SketchUp.

“Architecture is typically an analogue practice, and while we’ve been busy creating hand-drawn sketches and renderings, the rest of the world has been advancing at a fast pace on the technological side,” said Bruce Wright, principal of San Francisco firm SB Architects, in an interview with CLAD. “Now we are catching up by embracing new technologies and the results are extremely compelling."

SB Architects send VR goggles to prospective clients so they can walk through designs and experience the spatial aspects of a building much earlier in the development process.

“It’s like an insurance programme for them,” said Wright, “because they know exactly the look, feel, size and scale they’ll get for their money a long time before construction begins.

“For example, they can see what it would be like to approach one of our hotels, and how an interior space leads to a larger exterior experience. Seeing this in a rendering is one thing, stepping into the world of the design with VR is something else entirely.”

Tony Coates, a former games developer who now works as a real-time visualisation specialist helping architects adapt to VR and augmented reality (AR), told CLAD that studios must embrace the technology in order to remain competitive.

“Companies are beginning to realise how useful both VR and augmented reality are,” he said. “This will lead to an increase in demand, and architects and designers will need people who understand real-time technology to make the best use of it.

“My vision of the future is a merger of virtual reality and augmented reality, with a headset that will either overlay information onto the real world – looking at a new building as if it were there, seeing exactly where the pipes need to go – or completely submerge you into the virtual world. This kind of technology will really engage clients, so architects should start preparing now.”

According to Wright, the difference between standard sketches and VR is “like the advance from radio to television in the 1930s.” He warned that "clients love VR so much it's very hard for them to go back to accepting three dimensional renderings or flat 2D drawings.”

“In five years time, VR will be an expected part of a standard package with clients,” he said.

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FEATURE: Technology – Tech Check

The potential of VR has won the attention of global studio NBBJ, who this week announced a business partnership with tech startup Visual Vocal to incubate and develop a VR productivity platform that will initially be exclusive to them, before being made available to other architects. The firm claim they are the first design studio to support a VR startup inside their own offices. "NBBJ's decision to launch Visual Vocal
VR headsets allow clients to see prospective designs in an immersive 3D relam / Sean Airhart
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