Augmented and Virtual Reality for Architecture, Engineering and Design

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 20, 2016

What is the potential for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in the AEC industry? How might viewing virtual objects integrated into one’s physical environment or immersing oneself into a virtual world benefit the AEC sector? In this article, we will focus specifically on the use of augmented and virtual reality technology on head-mounted displays by architects, engineers and designers in the building design process.

There is potential for both AR and VR in all stages of bringing a construction or engineering project to life; pretty much every enterprise involved in a large project could utilize these technologies to improve their own working methods and also in communicating with one another. In the actual building phase, for example, AR could be used to help project managers view plans and schematics overlaid on top of real structures, to allow workers to view step-by-step instructions for how to install something, and even to train future operators of a building. But before construction even gets going – in the initial design process – AR and VR could change the way architects, engineers and designers conceive of, collaborate on, and revise designs.

First thing, let’s talk about what goes into designing a building, including current visualization tools; and let’s define the different “realities,” i.e. AR, VR and also MR (Mixed Reality). Architects and engineers “trade in” the creation and manipulation of the real world, of real environments, real structures; so, essentially, they have to dream in three dimensions and then translate that vision into a two-dimensional representation which is then translated again into a real, three-dimensional space.

The process really begins, however, with collecting information, with visiting a site (or multiple sites) and documenting existing conditions. This information, as well as client demands and requirements, is put into consideration as the architect or engineer begins to brainstorm and develop a preliminary design. In addition to the property or site itself, the designer must think about how the final building will be used and experienced, including how people and objects will move through the space and what materials it will be composed of. Next come graphics, illustrations, plans, diagrams, elevations, even small scale models—lots of paper and lots of time using complex software go into getting the designer’s ideas into a format that can be shared and presented for input and feedback.

For a typical medium-sized or major commercial commission, the design is rarely a one-architect deal. Designing a building is an increasingly collaborative process, so while the initial creative idea usually belongs to one designer, the final design is a team effort (“it takes a village.”) 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 advisors 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 to plan projects and communicate their 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 – for collaborators and clients as well as the architects themselves – 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 architects and engineers but the reality is that designers are still viewing blueprints on computer screens as well as paper; they’re still using pictures and drawings and plans, and it’s difficult to conceive, revise and execute a project based upon static renderings.

The drawbacks of those current technologies make the process of design reviews rather lengthy and expensive; and inevitably lead to issues down the road, during construction, that cost dearly. 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 the client and construction team not being able to clearly imagine the design. On the bright side, new technologies – AR, VR and MR – can help at all stages of a building project, from conception to revision to execution, improving both the individual and group design processes.

Wearable tech, AR/VR, IoT—they’re all about eliminating inefficiencies, bridging knowledge gaps, and streamlining processes in a business. An architect’s work is no different. There are inefficiencies in the design process: Multiple iterations of a design, miscommunications between architect and client or between design team and contractor, trial and error = inefficient. But new realities enable architects, engineers and designers to better and more easily visualize ideas and make quicker, more informed decisions, avoiding costly scenarios like customer dissatisfaction and tear downs/rework during construction.

AR, VR and MR are all related:

  • Augmented reality is additive, overlaying digital content onto the real world. The user is aware of and can still interact with his environment. Devices include the Sony SmartEyeglass, Recon Jet, Epson Moverio BT-300, Vuzix M300 and, of course, Google Glass.
  • Virtual reality is immersive, creating a computer-generated environment that replaces the real world. The user interacts solely within this virtual world. Devices include the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive.
  • AR and MR are used somewhat interchangedly, but they are different. Some describe mixed reality as a kind of hybrid between the other two technologies. MR superimposes convincing holographic images onto reality; the holograms are integrated into the user’s environment, can be manipulated, and are even responsive to the real world. Devices: Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap.

So what do these technologies allow designers to do? Architects can actually use AR/VR to design buildings, not just to better convey their ideas or collaborate with others but to create and make design decisions. 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 could go out and capture a physical environment (the property he is designing for) 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. The architect could also take a design developed on an architectural platform like Autodesk and produce it in VR, allowing him – and others members of the 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 one’s 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, he can put on, say, an Oculus Rift to virtually experience an architectural plan; achieving a far better sense of scale, form and space, of the physical limitations of a space, of how someone will move through a building, of how a particular design component will look or function, and the flaws in a design that might not otherwise be realized without multiple scale models or even until construction had gotten underway. In addition, the owner/customer and the construction team will be able to more comprehensively understand the building design before it is executed thanks to virtual reality technology.

Augmented reality and mixed reality will also help enhance and speed up the design process at the outset of a project, 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 recently 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, AR and MR are perhaps better for group design and collaboration.

So, for instance, mixed reality can be used to simulate a meeting or collaborative space, allowing the various professionals who make up the design team on a complex building project to work together in real time, viewing and interacting with the same virtual model – or rather with holograms superimposed on a physical model or integrated into a physical space (like the building site) – via a HoloLens headset; and they don’t have to be in the same room to do so. Essentially, with AR/VR/MR, the process of design reviews can be completely virtualized–all existing visualization tools and the 3D models they create can be “pushed” beyond the 2D screen into virtual environments or projections on physical models that designers can interact with(in) in real time.

In conclusion, the ability to immerse people into virtual worlds – specifically into digital simulations of proposed buildings – will be a game changer for the AEC industry. New realities – augmented, virtual, mixed – offer a new, far superior level of real-world scale, proportion and perspective over current tools. These technologies will empower architects, engineers and designers to become more innovative by freeing them from the limitations of 3D models in 2D formats and bringing their 3D dreams to life.

Stay tuned for our next post, in which we will share some of the top use cases of Augmented and Virtual Reality for architecture, engineering, and design.

Further Reading