Build: Technology is advancing the ways we create, and experience, our spaces

The Headset That Could Permanently Change Architecture

Not just for video games, immersive virtual reality is here and ready to forever alter the process behind building design.

Ekke Piirisild can move walls with just a flick of his wrist. He’s known to lift chairs with a finger, instantly teleport, and turn off light switches on the other side of the room.

Piirisild doesn’t have superpowers. He’s just the director of VRtisan, a London-based architecture studio using virtual reality to create real-time 3D architectural visualization, one of many design studios beginning to use immersive VR.

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Since launching their immersive VR program in 2016, the architects and designers at VRtisan have helped more than 20 clients focus on pre-construction visualization of their projects by taking their outlines and floor plans and turning them into fully operational 3D spaces. Using VR headsets, the program allows users to walk through the space as they would in real life, only with the ability to swap out things like walls and chairs with a flick of the remote.

This takes the design process from two-dimensional to fully interactive. Instead of looking at scaled-down views or aerial perspectives of a project, designers can blast everything into a real-life scale. This increases efficiency in design time, as architects no longer have to turn a 3D idea into a 2D model and then back into a 3D building. According to Piirisild, it can also help the more creative parts of an architect’s design process.

“At the moment, people are quite reliant on codes of practice telling them what type of relationships they should create for either inside or outside the spaces. For example, how wide a corridor should be,” Piirisild said. “But if you actually build that space directly in virtual reality, you’d make the correct decision yourself just from the amount of everyday life experience everyone has moving through buildings and spaces.”

The application for this technology goes far beyond design advantages, though. Some 350 miles north of the VRtisan offices, David Burgher is using immersive VR to design buildings for dementia patients.

Burgher is the director of the Scotland-based Aitken Turnbull Architects, which partnered with a CGI company and experts at a dementia center to launch the Virtual Reality Empathy Platform (VR-EP). The program provides a visual filter to simulate what someone with dementia sees in any given building, an intimate experience that helps architects design spaces for a disease they aren’t experiencing first hand.

“It really has been an eye opener,” Burgher said. “It makes you think completely differently about what somebody with cognitive and perceptual problems goes through, and you can see why somebody becomes frustrated and anxious and all those things that go along with dementia.”

More than 800,000 people in the UK live with dementia, a figure expected to rise to 1.7 million by 2051, and many of them suffer in unseen ways. There are struggles with color contrast, gauging distance, and a physical stooping of the neck.

The hope is that architects using VR-EP could then design a building based around those symptoms. Brighter lights. High-contrast carpet. Short hallways, and counters closer to the ground. Eventually, the program could be used for other incurable disabilities like autism, allowing affected people to live in spaces actually designed to make their lives easier. Instead of adapting to a building, the buildings could adapt to them.

“For this to be eye-opening is really exciting, because there’s no cure for dementia,” Burgher said. “We can make life better by compensating the environment for some of the impairments that these people have, and change the way that we think about working with people and with those who are living with dementia.”

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of BUILD, our discussion on how emerging technologies promise to change the way we design, create, and experience the places we live and work, from city centers to the remote villages of tomorrow.