It is fair to say that VR is no longer seen as just a fad. Long touted as the ‘next big thing’ by futurologists, VR is now the darling of the tech giants, with Google and Facebook among the companies making concerted efforts to bring VR into the mainstream.

Now that consumers and professionals alike can put their hands on high-powered headsets, several interesting applications for the technology are becoming apparent. One of the key areas where it is expected to have a game-changing influence is in interior and architectural design.

Playing into the needs of creative professionals, VR allows you to take a 2D plan or sketch and construct a living, breathing, computer-generated world that closely resembles the real thing. As a VR visualisation is built to scale based on technical diagrams, it doesn’t have the perspective problems that are associated with flat images. As anyone who has bought a property will be able to attest, estate agent photography can make rooms appear to be much larger than they are in reality.

By including live environmental effects such as light glare, wind movement and day-to-night changes into the mix, you can create a complex, detailed environment that can be explored in its entirety. This makes it the perfect way to illustrate exactly what a product or project will look like before it is constructed.

A flexible platform

There are two primary reasons why design-focused professionals should consider embracing virtual reality. Firstly, it is a brilliant customer engagement tool, allowing you gain instant feedback on your designs and make sure that clients are on board with your vision (and avoids time-consuming revisions at a later date). Secondly, it can be used internally as a design and proofing tool, allowing you to spot unintended flaws such as unexpected lighting issues that cause unwanted shadows.

Animation-focused VR design studios (such as Andrew Lucas Studios) are able to build visualisations upon files created using existing architectural software, or even hand-drawn sketches. This is a boon for professionals, as it means there is no need to adapt working habits in order to incorporate virtual reality into a project.

VR is an evolution on – rather than a replacement for – the likes of 2D plans, 3D renders and video walkthroughs. It gives the user much more agency to focus on the elements of particular interest to them – making it an incredibly useful tool for designing and demonstrating concepts.

VR cinema design by Andrew Lucas

VR cinema room design Andrew Lucas

Virtual rendering is becoming more and more indistinguishable from reality: one of these is a visualisation; the other is the project once completed. 

Picking the right equipment

The hardware demands that such virtual worlds place on the devices used to view them cannot be underestimated. A dedicated computer rig will be needed to run most applications, as a high-end graphics card is the bare minimum needed to deliver the required performance. While there are several headsets commercially available that run off mobile phones, none of these are powerful enough to run a high quality architectural visualisation flawlessly with free movement included (although it can be used to create an experience from a limited number of static viewpoints).

Right now, there are only two readily available headsets that can support such content: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. While the HTC is a slightly more powerful device, it does require a dedicated space to allow free movement. The Oculus Rift, meanwhile, is more portable and quicker to set up for use. For professionals planning to demonstrate their projects at external meetings using VR, this will be an important factor when choosing which platform to use.

Oculus Rift kit used for VR animation design

Adding interactivity

A substantial benefit is the possibility of adding interaction to a project, giving a user the option to view multiple elements such as furnishings, flooring and lighting sources in combination.

Ikea and Natuzzi are among select manufacturers that have already released 3D Sketch-up files of their portfolios that can easily be integrated into virtual reality scenarios; for instances where bespoke furniture needs to be included, this will need to be created from scratch, adding time to the VR design process.

That said, as more companies start to realise the potential of virtual reality as a visualisation tool, so the available content libraries will grow with them, which will simultaneously cut down on lead times and increase the creative possibilities for this technology.

Final design of property in VR by Andrew Lucas Studios

Is now the right time to leap in?

While it is understandable that some might look at virtual reality with a cautious eye, there is more to be gained than lost by adopting it for high-profile projects. For a relatively small investment, a design practice can profit from a tool that brings substantial benefits, both internally and externally. Not only can VR drive additional enthusiasm for the project on the part of the client by allowing them to see it in a realistic environment, it can become a valuable resource for analysing and improving on design concepts.

Like any new technology, there are still several areas where virtual reality can – and will – be refined. The current pace of evolution means that we can expect greater resolution, more intricate control and faster content creation over the coming months and years. Yet, much like it was for those who embraced social media in its infancy, there is a clear competitive advantage to be gained for those that elect to be early adopters of a technology that will quickly become an industry standard.

Anyone who has experienced a high-end VR platform for themselves will be able to testify to the immersive nature of this technology; for those that haven’t, several VR design agencies run continuing professional development (CPD) or demonstration sessions that explain in detail how virtual reality technology can fit in with existing business activities.