Meet the Architects at the Forefront of the VR Revolution

“Clients have said that the VR experience was much more realistic than expected.”

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

It’s official: For architects looking to communicate their concepts to clients, virtual reality is no longer a novelty act. For evidence, you need look no further than global architecture and design firm Corgan, whose storytelling department is pioneering a virtual system to give future occupants a truly immersive preview of their prospective buildings.

To gain a firsthand perspective of VR’s increasing prevalence in the profession, I ascended the elevator to the 54th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City, and peered into the future with the help of HTC’s Vive headset. Corgan’s demo offered more than a tantalizing glimpse of in-progress projects, as traditional visualizations do — it provided a fully immersive experience, allowing me to walk around and through a highly detailed 3D model as if it were already constructed.

As well as trying out the tech, Architizer sat down with Brandon Carmichael, Corgan’s Executive Creative Director, to talk about the challenges in making VR a core asset for architects — and the vast potential that both virtual and augmented reality holds for the profession.

Assisting with putting on the headset that integrates a range of sensors, presenting slick visuals to the user’s eyes.

Paul Keskeys: What led Corgan to start experimenting with virtual reality technology as a tool for architectural storytelling?

Brandon Carmichael: Our VR experiment started through a combination of personal passion and Corgan’s supportive company culture.

I’ve always been obsessed with gadgets, gaming and making videos since I was a kid. Luke [Luke Boney, Carmichael’s team member] and I have probably played every single gaming platform known to man, so naturally, we developed a huge interest in VR when it started to become mainstream in the gaming world. When we realized the potential and storytelling possibilities that VR had for Corgan, we brought the idea to our leadership team, and began building out a program from there.

Corgan’s culture also really fuels the idea of innovation. Executives have often said, “Bring us something we’d say ‘no’ to.” They encourage us to experiment. As we continued to show our interest in the potential of VR, we were really supported by the organization to pursue it.

Luke taught himself to code VR by reading manuals at night and by visiting VR forums, and we spent countless hours programming and playing with the VR program at night. The whole team came together because this was something we were really passionate about.

Participant in the VR experience. A screen shows the “outside” team where the user is in the space in order to help with navigating.

What’s your VR setup in terms of hardware, software and workflow?

We love HTC Vive VR equipment but have all the other VR flavors and a couple of different software programs. We started out as an early user with Iris VR and have been working closely with their team to beta-test their program called Prospect. We have a close working relationship with Iris and are constantly sending them feedback and requests for features in future updates.

Prospect is great because it allows the architect to convert a Revit or SketchUp file into VR in a matter of clicks. From there, our team can see and get a real sense of space and what the building is really looking like. We can explain and show clients what things are going to look like, and we can try out new designs that would have not been possible without this kind of visualization.

While using Iris’s software is very fast and easy we have been using the Unreal game engine to create photo-real environments. Using Unreal we are able to create much realistic experiences with accurate lighting, large realistic textures and a lot more control over the whole experience. The possibility becomes somewhat limitless when working in a real game engine with the ability to create animations, and to create custom user interfaces that can control anything in their space.

We have used the process of Photogrammetry for years but normally to capture very small things for various projects. It is a process that takes normal photos and creates a 3D model. With the new VR movement, there has been a lot of innovation in Photogrammetry. Many people are using it to create entire environments for a destination-like experience, such as a mountaintop or a visit to a famous place.

A user experiences Corgan’s VR system. The screen in the background showcases navigation capabilities available through the handset tool bar.

We have started experimenting with the same. Capturing an existing place or getting context for a VR experience adds so much into the scene. Being able to look out the window of your not-yet-built office and see the view you have is pretty amazing.

Our work flow depends on the project, but all of them start with receiving the model from the designers. If we will be doing a demo in Prospect it is a very quick process. We take the model and [use] the plug-in for Revit or SketchUp to test it in VR. We spend a few moments turning off things that are unseen to help speed up the model. If the project is a photo-real project, we get to do what we are best at, which is storytelling.

We will start by outlining the purpose of the experience and create a walkthrough around that purpose. We decide where the user will go, what they will see and what they will interact with. From there we start creating the environment — we import assets, add lighting, texture and sounds and code things to be interactive or to animate. Lastly, there comes lots of testing and trying to break things. After we are happy with everything, we are ready to deliver.

What have been the greatest challenges in the adoption of this technology within your practice?

We like to say that we are living on the bleeding edge of technology, and many times when you race technology, you hit some sharp edges. Our greatest challenge would be dealing with the variety of projects; each one has been different. Completely learning new software that we would normally never touch in our field has been a challenge. There have been lots of late nights studying and watching many hours of tutorials to get to a point where we can make our projects come to life.

Rendering experience walking into the main entry in the future Mannington customer experience center in Atlanta, Ga.

Which projects have you used the technology with, and has it changed the design process itself in any way?

We used VR in a recent project for Mannington, a flooring manufacturer. We redesigned their customer service center in Atlanta, and allowed them to experience their design in VR. When we asked Mannington about the experience afterward, they shared many positive anecdotes regarding the design process, and said, “There were a couple of items that we had not fully registered when we saw the space in renderings; however, they jumped out when we saw them in VR.” They were so impressed that we are actually helping them put a VR room in their studio for their customers to use.

We’ve also used this technology with some aviation customers who have seen similar benefits in being able to see scale, the building’s interaction with sunlight and immediate feedback to design elements.

How have your clients reacted to the experience?

Client feedback has been extremely positive. Many clients have said that the VR experience was much more realistic than expected. Clients have also been very surprised by the degree to which they are able to physically sense the space, scale and even lighting throughout different times of the day.

Amongst several other benefits and experiences, VR can illustrate how the sun lights a space at different times of the day, as well as showing textures and interior design features in the unbuilt space.

Beyond the surprise of how “real” the VR experience is, VR has allowed us to be true storytellers with our designs. Great design creates real emotional connections, and VR allows clients to experience those “wow” moments that really create connections with the space and the design team. We’re able to take our designs to a whole new level.

Clients have also noted that the VR experience greatly enhanced the level of communication with us and within their own teams. By experiencing the space in VR, their understanding of the space was strengthened, and helped to eliminate any future confusion or disagreement. Mannington also said, “It made the communication with the Corgan design team richer — we all shared a more common language as a result.”

What potential do you think VR has within architectural practice in the coming years?

The potential for VR in architecture is huge in the coming years. We’re just getting started, and it’s taking off quickly. In a matter of a few months, we’ve given more than 500 demos of the capabilities, and the requests continue coming. The client feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Because of VR’s ability to truly immerse someone in an environment, the user is able to see so much more than he or she would in a 3D rendering. People can even form an emotional connection with the space.

Further to this, Augmented Reality (AR) isn’t far off from becoming a product, as VR has. We see huge implications with the use of AR, too.

All images by Kurt Griesback, courtesy of Corgan