As well as using such 3D tools for 3D architectural modeling, walkthroughs and 3D architectural rendering or realistic computer-generated images, the introduction of BIM a few years ago encouraged further uptake of 3D modelling tools within the architectural design domain.
However, BIM despite its many benefits does have its limits. Firstly, the architect or designer cannot fully immerse himself in his design with traditional 3D models. Secondly, and in some ways the biggest challenge, the end client who certainly cannot understand 2D drawings or architectural drafting sheets quickly, also struggles to visualize the eventual design solution, even with the aid of 3D images and 3D walkthroughs. 3D models and BIM models are also not able to allow the client a real appreciation of spatial relationships as 3D rendered images and walkthroughs usually provide a third person, an eye level view where spatial relationships are difficult to apprehend.
Virtual Reality (VR) in construction is a tool that it is starting to bridge some of the gaps highlighted above. The ability to experience a self-controlled route or journey and experience in a proposed environment is something that was restricted to gaming just a few years ago. Being able to put an architectural design or a range of concepts into such an immersive environment starts to provide many benefits that would otherwise not be possible which is also known as VR in architecture. The remainder of this article is concerned with design team members (architects) and also the customers or end clients.
Considering architects first, whilst the architect has been comfortable enough in the past with his 3D walkthroughs and 3D eye-level images, the potential of being immersed within his own design with the ability to make constant changes is a step ahead. Whilst VR has up until recently felt like a solo experience, design and design commenting is a more collaborative experience and therefore it opens up more opportunities when combining VR with architectural design. The ability to mark-up and make suggestions for changes in a model, especially with other users being present in that same of your model, opens up a whole new field of opportunities for the architect. For example, having the option of changing the lighting or the orientation of a building on a given plot and appreciating that change within a 3D environment allows instant feedback and common experiences that can lead to effective design iteration. Using VR in architecture will also help the architect and his team to understand the construction, usability and serviceability of certain areas and again these can be highlighted for improvements in design.
For customers and clients, the ability to move around a 3D environment is much more realistic as it allows them to feel that they are standing within the building rather than looking at it from a distance. Most customers will not be too worried about detailed aesthetic appearance, they will be more concerned and will gain more benefit and appreciation of the spatial realism that is offered by VR. From the designer’s perspective, being able to use VR with the customer will ensure direct feedback based on actual experience is obtained and design issues that may not be apparent until much later on, can be ironed out.
In both cases, the use of the VR in the design process is a way to achieve buy-in amongst the design team or from the client. In order to achieve that buy-in, feedback is required on a regular and instant basis, as and when design updates are made. This means that the challenge for VR is to provide instantaneous and real-time BIM to VR and back to BIM capability. It would be of no use were an architect to produce a version of his BIM model, wait for a VR model to be created by a third party and then look at the VR model, as by then a new model may already have been created or significant updates added to the previous model. In essence, BIM and VR need to have an instantaneous feed to one another is to maximise the usability and the benefit of architectural design.
Instantaneous BIM to VR does have some limitations at present however and these are primarily hardware and software related.
Whilst the cost of HMDs (head mounted display is) is coming down every year, the cost of the hardware to run the VR models is still fairly excessive compare to the cost and specification of a CAD machine.