Get Real

Virtual Reality is making a leap. Will landscape architects be ready?

By Brian Barth

Early next year, Oculus—a company recently purchased by Facebook from its founder Palmer Luckey for $2.3 billion—is expected to release Rift, the first mass-produced virtual reality headset. With a price tag around $300 to $400, the Oculus Rift will allow video gaming enthusiasts to slay each other in an immersive, true-to-scale, viscerally realistic three-dimensional world—a world where gamers on any continent can join each other inside their goggles.

Gaming junkies are far from the only crowd salivating for access to the technology. The software industry is falling over itself to produce new web and media applications for the Oculus Rift, ranging from immersive 3-D movies (think IMAX inside a pair of ski goggles) to tutorials on how to properly dissect a human cadaver to combat simulations for the military. At its core, virtual reality (VR) is an advanced way to experience a 3-D model of anything a designer can come up with; naturally, architects, engineers, and landscape architects are also standing in line for a chance to plug their designs into the new technology.

Computer engineers have been chasing the idea of VR since the mid-20th century, but the current incarnation is a quantum leap in two ways: one, the price is better; previous versions were priced for well-funded university research labs, not design firms. And two, new modifications address a long-standing problem with VR headsets, which is severe, debilitating nausea—a VR brand of motion sickness—in a large percentage of users. The nausea resulted from a lag between the movement of your head and eyes and what the VR display showed inside the goggles, but recent improvements in the technology have cleaned up this problem.

The Oculus Rift (and other competing products, such as the HTC Vive headset) are currently available only as developer kits for software engineers, meaning few designers have integrated the technology in their practice. Rick Harrison, of Rick Harrison Site Design in Minneapolis, is one of the few who has. Harrison is a surveyor and land planner as well as a software entrepreneur, and he is developing VR-ready 3-D modeling software, called LandMentor, that he hopes to launch soon after the Oculus Rift becomes available to the public. In a profession dominated by meetings with developers and city council members who often have difficulty grasping how a 2-D, or even a 3-D, model, will look and function once built, Harrison has found that the technology has improved the communication process immensely. “It is not what you expect. It gives you a sensory feeling unlike anything you’ve ever had before,” Harrison says.

Cultish comments spout readily from early adopters of VR technology—“This is a teleportation device,” said Facebook’s chief technology officer, Michael Schroepfer, in a recent New York Times article—but it remains to be seen how the Oculus Rift and related software packages will actually affect the design professions. “You have to have it, you have to experience it,” insisted Harrison during our phone call.

Several days later a package arrived in the mail: Harrison’s laptop computer, the beta version of the Oculus Rift, and a device that looks like a webcam, but has an opaque lens (it turns out this is an infrared sensor that tracks the movement of your head while using the headset, helping to prevent motion sickness). It takes a few minutes to plug everything in, but before I know it I’m flying through a subdivision that resembles the imaginary world of The Simpsons. I immediately see why the Oculus Rift is not yet on the market: The graphical quality is reminiscent of video games from the early 1990s. (Though Harrison assures me the resolution will be much improved with the upcoming version of the Oculus Rift.)

At first I feel as if I’m looking at a computer screen with 3-D glasses, but when I rotate my head behind me—and it’s not the wall of my office there, but a glistening, albeit pixelated, lake with sailboats on it—at this point, I, too, am at risk of joining the cult. I have no doubt that once the visual quality improves a bit, and it’s possible to import a design without having a degree in computer engineering, any designer would want to use this technology. It is an unmatched communication tool for visual information.

Landscape architects who are accustomed to working with rendering farms, outsourced companies where graphic designers create animated fly-throughs or walk-throughs based on their design, may soon find that many of those companies will have the ability to create VR-compatible 3-D models as well (Village Features is one already offering the service). For firms that want to work with VR in-house, IrisVR, a company founded in 2013 by two recent graduates from Middlebury College in Vermont, has created software that allows designers to drag and drop files from 3-D modeling programs such as SketchUp, AutoCAD, and Revit into an application that allows them to be viewed through a VR headset.

“It’s not just a tool to show the client the end result, like how renderings are typically used,” says George Valdes, product vice president at IrisVR, who has a degree in landscape architecture from Florida International University. “It’s actually more of a feedback process. You can bring in your clients and have them experience the space and then work together to [determine] expectations.”

IrisVR software is currently available to design firms as a beta version, but will be launched publicly as soon as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive become available. The current version allows users to set their height to provide the most realistic sense of scale when they’re navigating a site, plus a few bells and whistles, like changing the time of day and time of year to visualize the effects of shading in a design.

Within the next year, Valdes says, multiple users will be able to access the same model from anywhere in the world and see an avatar of each other as they walk through the design together, while chatting about the project via phone. There is also an application in the works that allows users to interact with the design inside the VR model using gloves, wands, and other handheld devices being developed in conjunction with the headsets (such as the Oculus Touch and HTC’s Tilt Brush). Members of a design team or clients will be able to write notes to each other and sketch out ideas on the fly. “That allows for editing and the kind of collaborative features that are made possible by VR, which could then be exported back into your modeling software as a review layer,” says Valdes. “You could end up drawing the wire frame for a bench.”

The inherent wow factor of VR technology makes it a seductive tool for firms to sell their design work, but some designers worry that salesmanship may one-up the potential for VR to improve design outcomes. John Danahy, founder of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto, has spent much of his academic career exploring the ethical parameters of technology in design. He has been actively developing 3-D simulation technologies for landscape architects since the early 1980s and has used virtual reality systems extensively as a participatory planning tool, helping people visualize the ramifications of different design and policy choices. Danahy’s view is that the new developments in VR technology will serve a broader social purpose to the extent they are used “as a prosthesis for design thinking….and to educate a group of people to think for themselves [by] teaching them a language for seeing the landscape.”

Danahy says the use of visual simulation tools in landscape architecture has been too focused on real estate marketing, “or what I would call getting-your-approval marketing,” he says, rather than problem solving. “I think animations are the root of many problems. It’s like watching a movie—you only get to see what the director and the people in the cutting room decided you could see. That’s a completely didactic experience. When someone is promoting a concept, they don’t want people to see the negative. They want people to see only that perfect rendering.”

Instead, Danahy proposes what he calls “the show-me principle” as an ethical framework for using simulated reality on projects where the public good is at stake. “If the Oculus Rift is used correctly,” says Danahy, “every person is free to say, ‘Show me there, show me what it’s like from my bedroom window, show me what it’s like from my favorite place to sit in this park.’ If and when we get to that point, the culture of design decision making will be turned on its ear.” With software potentially allowing VR simulations to be edited with relative ease by the designer, it’s easy to see how this new rendition of VR could contribute to an iterative, responsive public process.

The possibilities for engaging the public around ecological change using VR are of particular interest to Danahy, who can rattle off a long list of research projects he would love to see happen with the new technology as it becomes available—showing residents of coastal areas what their city would look like under different climate change scenarios, for example. The visceral response provoked by the “realness” of virtual reality might have greater sway over public sentiment than images projected on the wall of an auditorium, especially among young people who have grown up with digital media. In that way, says Danahy, landscape architects would “shift from the mentality of a master planner to a much more complex role as a collaborator or a catalyst of a social process.”

Pete Evans, a professor of architecture at Iowa State University who uses the Oculus Rift and computer-assisted virtual environment technology with his students in design reviews, agrees that it should be seen as more than just a fun design tool, but as a tool that can change the way the environment is perceived by both the public and practitioners. “When you open the door to being able to provide an experiential setting for communicating and collaborating on design, then I think everyone is in a better place,” he says. “We have to encompass everybody in that conversation, including people who are not technologically experienced.”

The life-size models inside a VR headset certainly invite exploration by nonpractitioners, and the broad availability of the technology will mean the public can explore design proposals that affect their community from the comfort of their home, or even at publicly accessible viewing stations at the sites in question. A variety of VR headsets that use smartphones to serve as both the viewing screen and the computer to run them are also entering the market, meaning designers could approach public engagement in a different way. Google Cardboard, which is literally made of cardboard and sells for as little as $5, is the most widely distributed smartphone-based VR viewer thus far.

And if the advent of the VR Age isn’t enough to keep you up at night imagining what the future will bring, know that AR—augmented reality, which is technology that projects holographic images into a room, allowing viewers to remain present in their physical environment—is on its way. Early next year, Microsoft will release a developer’s version of the HoloLens, a cordless, transparent headset that, in theory, will one day allow designers to manipulate a virtual model of the landscape with their hands. The liberation of not being tied to a computer monitor and mouse would certainly have broad appeal, as would interacting in VR without the rest of the world being blocked out by dark goggles.

Brian Barth is a Toronto-based writer with a background in environmental planning and landscape design. He is currently working on a book titled Invisible City: A Natural History of the Urban Landscape.

2 thoughts on “Get Real”

Leave a Reply to Alex Thomson Cancel reply