Virtual reality has worked its way into daily life at some Omaha-area architecture/engineering firms.
Also known as VR, virtual reality is a computer-generated reality viewed through a headset that situates small video screens about an inch from each eye, yielding a three-dimensional effect.
“You’re completely blocking out the real world and making the virtual world basically what you see,” says Nathan Novak, a systems administrator with Leo A Daly Co.
Novak says his firm mainly uses VR for client presentations. Previously, presentations were accomplished using drawings.
“Everything would be flat—two-dimensional—just lines everywhere,” Novak says. That method made it difficult for clients to visualize projects.
A few years ago, Leo A Daly began using a building information modeling (BIM) program called Revit to produce three-dimensional representations of drawings.
“Instead of just lines, you place walls, and then you can place textures on the walls,” Novak says. “So now you can actually see that there’s a wall here, and the wall is going to be blue. You can see that there’s a door here, and you can see what the door material is made out of.”
BIM programs such as Revit help perform “clash detection”—ferreting out design problems prior to construction.
“Once construction starts, any sort of change is much more expensive,” Novak says.
Creating a VR environment from a Revit model requires an additional step.
Raj Prasad, chief technology officer for HDR, says his firm uses Revit and similar tools to build 3-D models, then takes that information into products such as Unity (a gaming engine), Unreal Engine, or HTML5.
“Some combination of those is what we use to take the model that’s generated from Revit to create the VR experience,” Prasad says.
In many industries, VR is a prototyping tool, and that’s also true in architecture and engineering.
“The way we say it is, ‘We’d like to have our clients experience the end results before actually building it,” Prasad says.
He says VR is catching on rapidly. “We are pretty actively leveraging virtual reality on our projects, in different phases.” Among those projects are bridges, transit centers, and hospitals.
Novak says Leo A Daly has used virtual reality for pumphouse designs, water pumps, and piping, among other projects.
“As long as we can build it within Revit, we can bring it over into virtual reality,” he says. “And we’re trying to expand it out even further into some of the other applications outside of Revit.”
VR also can be used in the quality assurance [QA] process.
“Did we model everything properly? Is there something that’s a mistake that we have to come back and fix?” Novak says. “The QA can be toward the end, but really we QA as we go.”
Making it easy for customers to experience VR environments is another factor that firms consider.
“You don’t have to be in an office to have a virtual reality experience. There’s ways you can experience that in anybody’s office, and that’s really the philosophy that we’ve adopted,” Prasad says. “We want to make sure that, if a client desires it and wants it, we can take it to them versus having them always having to come to us.”
One option HDR has used is to provide clients with a Google Cardboard—a simple cardboard frame with lenses that can be used with a mobile phone to experience VR.
“I’ll call that the lower-end VR experience,” Prasad says.
Among higher-end headsets are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both of which have been used by Omaha-area firms.
Though use of VR is growing, it has limitations.
“At this point, it doesn’t replace using your computer and Revit and that sort of thing to do our modeling,” Novak says. “I believe that’s something that will be coming in a few years, but it’s not possible yet.
He says that, although available headsets are high definition, their resolution isn’t enough to replace computer monitors.
“When you look through the headset at the display, most people are going to notice that you can actually see the individual pixels. That’s called the ‘screen-door effect,’” he says. The effect makes text very difficult to read.
“I think we’re still a few years away from being able to switch from coming in, and sitting down at a desk, and looking at monitors all day to coming in, and putting on a headset, and going into VR, and doing your work,” Novak says.
Does Novak think the use of VR will increase over time?
What does Prasad see as the future of VR? “The best way to answer that, is, think Star Trek or Star Wars.”
Prasad noted that when Star Trek appeared in the mid-1960s, its technology seemed far-fetched.
“People were like, ‘This stuff is hundreds of years down the road.’ And here we are,” he says. “This is reality.”
Within the next five to 10 years, he foresees VR being used in all project phases, and as a way to keep workers safer by accomplishing some hazardous tasks virtually, such as bridge inspection.
“If I’m looking out 10 [years] and then beyond, I would say we’re going down the path of holographs and holograms,” Prasad says. “Imagine, if you will, that you take a VR experience and send it directly to a 3-D printer.”
Examples could include a bridge pylon or a wall in a water treatment plant.
“Once the client and the chief engineer approve it, that goes to a 3-D printer. Now you’re taking modular development that—kind of like a Lego, almost—you can pull it all together. And hallelujah, you’ve got a bridge or a water-treatment plant.”
“The future, as you can imagine, it’s awesome,” Prasad says. “It’s fun, it’s wickedly cool.”
This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.