Is Remote AR/VR Collaboration Really Ready?

Written BY

Emily Friedman

March 18, 2020

There are many challenges of quarantine but one that augmented and virtual reality might solve is the challenge of remaining productive while working from home in isolation from your teammates and clients. And, yet, augmented reality glasses aren’t yet an everyday consumer device or even an everyday tool in the workplace, save for certain tasks in a range of industries and for remote support in the field; and while Oculus Quest and Valve Index have sold out several times, not every home has a virtual reality headset. So, during this time and for the foreseeable future, we find ourselves leaning on solutions like Slack, Zoom, Google Docs, and the classic conference call.

AR/VR is already a reality, however, for remote design collaboration. Perhaps it’s because existing visualization technologies translate easily into XR or because immersive tech really lends itself to that kind of work (design). In any case, the AEC industry can serve as inspiration for applying AR/VR to other collaborative tasks:

Designing a building is an increasingly collaborative process. The core design team might consist of an architect, a few engineers (structural, mechanical, services, fire) and specialist designers (landscape, interior, acoustic); and they might be supported by various experts and advisers like an urban planner, a sustainability consultant, and an expert in health and safety. Contributions may also be made by contractors and suppliers. These individuals come together, discuss options and restraints, and revise the original design until a final one is agreed upon. Much of the work undertaken – the multiple design possibilities expressed in a sequence of technical drawings and models – is rejected or aborted in the process.

Visualization technologies like computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) help architects plan projects and communicate ideas, but they’re not always successful in doing so. For one, the software is highly complex and the digital drawings and models produced are still confined to a two-dimensional screen, which makes it hard to get a real, accurate sense of how a design will look, function, and take up space in the real world. CAD and BIM have certainly technologically enabled designers but the reality is blueprints on computer screens static renderings like drawings and plans are still used.

The drawbacks of those technologies is a rather lengthy and expensive design process that inevitably leads to costly issues down the road. The problem lies in using 2D documents and 3D models – both digital and physical scale models – to simulate form and space, understand spatial relationships and capture the experiential qualities of a building, which must impact the design. The existing tools just aren’t optimal for expressing the architect’s vision or tweaking a design. There’s a lot of room for unanticipated design flaws that will have to be corrected once building has already commenced, errors arising from the architect’s own oversight as well as from other stakeholders being unable to clearly imagine the design. Multiple iterations of a design, miscommunication between stakeholders, trial and error = inefficient; but new realities enable designers to better and more easily visualize ideas and make more informed decisions, avoiding costly scenarios like customer dissatisfaction and tear downs/rework during construction.

Virtual reality allows a user to virtually inhabit a space in three dimensions. This virtual space can be based upon (even identical to) a real-world environment. So, for instance, at the outset of the design process an architect might go out and capture a physical environment (the property) and recreate it in VR and then design within that virtual space with infinite ‘room’ to experiment and test out different design concepts—all from the comfort of his or her office or studio. One might also take a design developed on an architectural platform like Autodesk and produce it in VR, allowing the entire design team to virtually inhabit and manipulate a building that does not yet exist.

That is a much more powerful and effective means to visualize ideas and evaluate design possibilities. An architect can translate a CAD model into an interactive walk through: Instead of viewing blueprints of 3D models on a 2D screen, she can put on a headset and virtually experience an architectural plan; achieving a far better sense of scale, the physical limitations of a space, how someone will move through a building, how a particular design component will look or function, and the flaws in a design that might not be realized without multiple scale models or after construction is already underway.

Augmented and mixed reality can also help enhance and speed up the design process, with the trickle-down effect of minimizing delays at the construction stage due to design errors and changes. AR and MR present their own unique opportunities to view and manipulate digital representations or facsimiles of physical realities, but these representations are not immersive. Apple CEO Tim Cook has compared AR and VR, saying that augmented reality “gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see.” Virtual reality, on the other hand, “sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience.” So, while VR is great for solo design and walk through's, AR and MR are perhaps better for group design and collaboration.

Mixed reality, for instance, can be used to simulate a meeting or collaborative space, allowing design professionals to work together in-real time, viewing and interacting with the same virtual model or with holograms superimposed on a physical model or integrated into physical space via a Microsoft HoloLens headset; and they don’t have to be in the same room to do so. Essentially with AR/VR, the process of design reviews can be completely virtualized–-all existing visualization tools and the 3D models can be ‘pushed’ beyond the 2D screen into virtual environments or projections on physical models that designers can interact with(in) in real time.

So, why aren’t you and I collaborating on a marketing campaign in a virtual workspace? Why are virtual office spaces still mainly conceptual and in the realm of finance? If multiple people can collaborate on designing a massive building, each wearing a headset in the comfort of his or her home, then why are we not using augmented and virtual reality for non-design work collaboration scenarios? Why has it taken a global quarantine for us to seriously contemplate AR- and VR-enabled remote work-from-home and question why we aren’t already collaborating as avatars instead of sending text messages and having chains of phone calls? There are platforms available today – collaborative ones like Spatial and MeetinVR as well as personal computing solutions (for a virtual home office)-- but perhaps we’re not yet ready to trade in the water cooler talk for such a completely different style of working?

Image source: Spatial

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