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Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is being more widely adopted within the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, plus throughout many of the related design professions including landscape architecture, interior design, stage and product design.

The tree frog uses ingenious ways to protect itself from drying heat and the midday sun

Presenting architectural projects in virtual reality.


Virtual reality (VR) is one of the hot topics in architecture. Many users are experimenting with architectural virtual reality or are already using it in their daily business.

The experience of a virtual walk through is superior to the already great experience of seeing your project in 3D on a large screen or a projector. It enables you to get a feeling for space and design, which you are not able to get through other ways, not even with an architectural model. Today, Excitech can help you realise a vision that every architectural project can be experienced in virtual reality.

We work with a number of partners engaged in VR, including Autodesk with Revit Live and StingrayEnscape, HTC, Oculus, Dell, HP, and BOXX Technologies

Virtual Reality (VR) On Demand

We have developed a variety of training courses, workshops and experiences to educate, inspire and guide you through the many options and complexities of working with virtual reality in the architectural, engineering and construction space. 

Although many design organisations appreciate the benefits of VR, the justification to invest in it can sometimes be difficult due to many contributing factors. Our Virtual Reality On Demand service provides you with the tools and knowledge to guide you through the experience of VR in your own business. 
 
To learn more, contact your Account Manager, or call us on 01992 807 444 and speak to one of the team. 
 

Brave New Virtual World

In February's edition of AEC Magazine, Greg Corke explores this brave new virtual world.

With the availability of affordable headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, VR is now within reach of AEC firms of all sizes. 

It’s an all too familiar scenario: an architect enters a building for the first time and the space doesn’t quite match the vision of his or her design. However beautiful a static rendered image may be, traditional design visualisation can only convey so much, even when the scene is rendered at eyelevel with furniture for scale.

I’ll go to my own projects and I’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s a lot bigger than I expected.’

At Gensler, design director and principal Hao Ko knows the feeling. “You still have to make a translation in your mind, in terms of how tall this space is going to feel,” he says. “More often than not, I’ll go to my own projects and I’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s a lot bigger than I expected.’ You still have those moments.”

This, he says, is where virtual reality, or VR, comes in – and others in the industry are starting to reach the same conclusion.

VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have the power to change the way architects design and communicate buildings before they are built. The wearer is instantly immersed in a true three dimensional environment that gives an incredible sense of scale, depth and spatial awareness that simply cannot be matched by traditional renders, animations or physical-scale models.

A VR experience with an HMD can fool your brain into thinking what you’re seeing is actually real. The WorldViz ‘Walk the Plank’ demo at Nvidia’s GTC event in April stopped me dead in my tracks. Even though I knew I was standing in an exhibition hall, I literally could not step forward for fear of falling. The sense of presence was overwhelming. It felt like I truly ‘existed’ in the scene and, from then on, the fight of mind over matter was well and truly lost.

This sensation of actually being inside a building also makes VR an incredibly powerful tool for communicating design intent. Clients, in particular, often don’t have the ability to understand spatial relationships and scale simply by looking at a 2D plan or 3D model. VR can evoke a visceral response in exactly the same way that physical architecture can.

“We just had a client where we were showing some conceptual renderings and they were having a hard time [understanding the building],” explains Mr Ko. “The second we put goggles on them, it was like, ‘Oh yeah. Build that. That’s great. That’s what I want.’”

VR can play an important role at all stages of the design-to-construction process, from evaluating design options and showcasing proposals, to designing out errors and ironing out construction and serviceability issues before breaking ground on site.

Even at the conceptual phase, VR can be an effective means of exploring the relationships between spaces – the impact of light on a room at different times of the day or year, or views from mezzanine floors. With a physical scale model or BIM model on screen, you still have to imagine what it would be like to exist inside the space. With VR, you actually experience the proportion and scale.
 

VR software


VR environments for architecture and construction projects have traditionally been created with powerful professional VR development platforms, such as WorldViz Vizard or Virtalis Visionary Render.

But with VR now set to go mainstream, so-called 3D game engines, often used to create first-person shooters, offer a powerful, low-cost (and sometimes free) alternative for architectural VR.

Autodesk Stingray is a relatively new game engine that was built from the BitSquid engine that Autodesk acquired in 2014. It offers a live link to Autodesk 3ds Max, which is great for design viz specialists familiar with the 3D modelling, rendering and animation software. However, Autodesk is also exploring ways to make the technology more accessible to architects and other users of Revit. They have now released a push button Revit to VR application called Revit LIVE.

Enscape is a real-time visualisation tool designed to work specifically with Revit. The software can be used on a standard display or in VR.

From BIM to VR


Most CAD and BIM models feature extremely detailed geometry, which is not needed for VR. Fully interactive VR software also has extremely high performance demands, so some form of model optimisation is required when bringing BIM data into a VR environment.

This is one area where specialist VR consultancies earn their keep with finely tuned processes for tasks like simplifying geometry, adding lighting, fixing gaps in the model and culling objects that will not be visible in the scene.

“Our clients have the models, we have the headsets, the graphics engines and the knowledge of how to stitch all these together,” says Scott Grant, CEO of Glasgow-based design viz specialist Soluis.
 
Soluis’ immersive dome.

Once the model is inside the VR environment, things like materials, lighting, furniture and other small details that make the VR experience feel real are added. Additional programming work can be done to make the experience more interactive, such as enabling clients to experiment with design options, materials and lighting. Architects can flip between design schemes without leaving the VR environment.

Workstation hardware for smooth VR


Virtual Reality demands extremely powerful workstation hardware. While most modern CAD workstations should satisfy the minimum requirements for CPU and memory (3.30GHz Intel Core i5 4590 / 8GB RAM or above), they will likely fall well short on graphics.

Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require a graphics card capable of sustaining a minimum frame rate of 90 FPS per eye. Anything below this and the user is likely to experience nausea or motion sickness.

VR not only pushes the computational limits of GPU hardware, but can place huge demands on memory size and memory bandwidth as models need to load into GPU memory quickly.

Nvidia has now released three professional 'VR Ready' GPUs, the single slot Quadro P4000 (8GB), and the dual slot Quadro P5000 (16GB) and Quadro P6000 (24GB).

In many cases, a simple graphics card upgrade will turn your CAD workstation into one capable of running VR. However, this depends on what type of machine you have. Most VR-capable graphic cards need two PCIe slots, an auxiliary power connector and more than 150W of available power. You need to make sure your CAD workstation can satisfy these demands.

Nvidia has also launched a ‘VR Ready’ program to help users buy a workstation that is capable of running professional VR applications. 

Workstation manufacturers Dell, HP and Lenovo have all announced ‘Nvidia VR Ready’ professional workstations. The HP Z240, Z640 and Z840, Dell Precision T5810, T7810 and T7910 and the Lenovo P410, P510, P710 and P910 all come with Nvidia-recommended configurations, as well as an Intel Core i5-4590/Intel Xeon E3-1240 v3 or greater CPU and a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift HMD. In January 2017 Dell launched a 'VR Ready' All-in-one workstation, the Precision 5720 with AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100 GPU.
 
Interactive ‘photorealism’ with Nvidia.

Conclusion


Since the arrival of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, VR hype has gone into overdrive. But to dismiss these exciting new VR technologies as a fad would be a mistake. For AEC firms in particular, the benefits can be huge.

We all know BIM can optimise the delivery of buildings by providing greater efficiencies at all stages of the building lifecycle. But BIM does not encourage exploration of form, space and aesthetics — the human elements of architecture — as VR can.

While there is currently a big emphasis on using VR to wow clients (and it does this exceedingly well), the true power of the technology will be realised when the architect or engineer takes control and it becomes an essen tial, integrated tool for design.

It is one thing to model a building in a 3D CAD system, but using VR to experience how it will feel and function can take design to a whole new level. Architects can exist inside their designs, encouraging bold new ideas and more iteration.

Add design/review into the mix for optimising design or ironing out on-site construction issues and VR gives a whole new meaning to virtual prototyping.

Of course, for all of this to go mainstream, VR needs to be quick and easy. Control needs to be put in the hands of architects and engineers. They need to be able to take buildings into a VR environment at the click of a button so that they can make informed design decisions at the exact moment they are needed most.
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