JOURNAL

VR Anywhere at CO

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CO Architects’ Google Cardboard in action.

By: Nuri Miller

At CO Architects, there is a history of early technology adoption in service of design, going back to the founding of our practice in 1986. We embrace new ways of seeing and experiencing our projects, which is why CO was an early adopter of Revit for design and documentation.

While 3D design software has increased the capability for design iterations, project schedules continue to compress, reemphasizing the dependency on digital models.

Fully engaging participants in digital design is not without challenges, since everyone may experience the model in a very different way. Virtual reality levels the playing field by introducing a sense of human scale to digital design. It helps ensure that everyone can experience the design similarly, irrespective of their tech savviness.

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Google Cardboard makes VR both  portable and affordable. 

Web-based VR

In the early stages of CO’s VR development, we dealt with obstacles to wider adoption. Utilizing gaming engines like Unity and Unreal, free engagement was limited by a single platform, and the experience usually required the installation of an app.

Because of these shortcomings, we looked at web-based options offering their own proprietary solutions for sharing VR experiences. Many offered a similar service of consuming design models and producing pre-rendered 360 degree views for hosting online. Ultimately, we found that it would be best to look at the underlying technology and pursue a self-hosted solution for web-based VR.

Recent years have seen exciting developments for 3D online with the rise of WebGL. When Apple finally announced they would support the new standard, all devices and  browsers could support full 3D visualization and interaction with no app necessary. A popular solution to ease the adoption of WebGL has been ThreeJS, a series of Javascript libraries used to streamline WebGL development. It is currently used in new developments such as McNeel’s web 3D viewing exporter for Rhino, Iris, and Google’s early work in VR online, Chrome Experiments for Virtual Reality. There is also WebVR, a new web standard dedicated solely to VR and championed by folks at Google and Mozilla. While it is still a very early technology (available only in beta at this point), we anticipate it will be supported by all browsers in the near future.

VR Experiences

CO submitted a design for the University of Miami’s Student Housing Master Plan competition and engaged the jury with several VR experiences to provide an immersive view from inside the design. The submission included numerous diagrams and models to communicate the overall scheme. When the team needed to show a human element, they turned to our in-house Virtual Experience Designer to bring a sense of scale and interiority. Working together, a number of key locations were identified in the design and prepared for viewing on any device.


View from a terrace in the design for the U. of Miami housing competition. (If viewing on your smartphone a Google Cardboard icon will appear in the lower right.)

Process

At CO, we like to retain control of our technology and hosting solutions ourselves whenever possible. For example, on many current projects we use our own Revit Server solution to live-link consultant models with our own, and our approach to VR is very similar. Our current web-based VR viewer came from a process of investigating technologies that are open-source and opening available (with a bit of DIY modification).

A view of the competition scheme for the Univ. of Miami in the previous customized VR viewer using ThreeJS.

This initially led us to pursue a customized solution for panorama viewing using ThreeJS. It allowed us to use past work that was developed for the Unity gaming engine that had been rendered as a cube map. Eventually we switched to Google’s VR View for the Web whose entire code-base is openly available through Github.

A rendered 360 view of updates to our office space in the Google VR Web viewer.

Like so many in AEC, our go to solution for 3D design exploration is Rhino/Grasshopper. Much of our imagery from Rhino is rendered from our on-site VRay render farm. A typical workflow from design to VR scene can look like this:

  1. Start up VRay in Rhino and choose a “Spherical camera” from the available VRay camera types. Confirm that the final proportions of the equirectangular image are 2:1.
  2. If the image comes from a source that provides a cube map instead then convert it using the freely available cube2sphere Python script using Blender.
  3. Place the images on the web hosting server in the location with the VR viewer code. Compose the viewer url to include a path to the image in the query string. This would be the part of the url following the question mark symbol. See the example below for reference.

https://apps.coarchitects.com/apps/skybox/vrview/?image=images/16011-office-03.jpg&is_stereo=false

At CO, we are excited to imagine the potential applications of gaming and VR. In addition to bringing VR to anyone with a smartphone, we hope to see more game-like interaction built into our experiences for clients and the end users of the institutional projects we design. We invite anyone to reach out and share their own experiences applying these nascent technologies to building design and construction. We embrace transparency and would love to collaborate.

You can learn more about VR at CO here.

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