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Architects' New Virtual Reality

Seeing is believing. Your eyes would never lie, right?

Not exactly. Not when you're talking about virtual reality systems. What you see isn't really what you get. The beauty of virtual reality, or VR, is that it can make you see things that aren't really there. And architects are using VR in all sorts of ways to help their clients.

VR technology has changed a lot from the way it was shown in movies from the 1980s. The kinds that architects use today don't let you "enter" another dimension through the use of a fancy helmet and high-tech gloves.

"VR technology has advanced quite a bit since. In architecture, we call it 'visualization,' or 'digital architecture,'" says Yew-Thong Leong. He is an associate professor of architecture. He is also the director of his school's digital media lab and coordinator of the digital architecture and design program.

Using VR, architects can help us see what historic buildings or ruins probably looked like hundreds of years ago. You could find yourself "touring" the Indian pueblos of the American West or cathedrals in Europe. VR has also been used in the design of skateboarding parks to get those fancy turns and ramps just right.

Nancy Cheng is a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. She says that VR is also being used for such things as:

  • Entertainment, by designing virtual rides
  • Military simulations
  • Helping people overcome their fear of heights, or their fear of enclosed spaces
  • Testing how easy or hard it will be for a person in a wheelchair to move through a building

"The sky is the limit," says Linda Jacobson. She runs an architectural firm in California. "At UCLA, for example, there is an 'urban simulation team.' It is building a virtual reality model of the entire city and county of Los Angeles for all kinds of planning processes. In San Francisco, my company recently built a virtual reality model of a skateboard park."

Other uses Jacobson points to are:

  • Emergency response planning
  • Ergonomic evaluations
  • Training environments

Can an architect make a decent living by working only with virtual reality?

"Anything is possible, with the right marketing and positioning," says Mike Rosen. He is an architect who heads his own firm in Philadelphia. He also runs a software development company with offices in the United States and Japan.

"You can make a living with VR now," Cheng says, "by working for a Hollywood studio, or creating simulations for NASA or a military agency. Some research projects have funding to explore VR."

According to Leong, you can certainly make a living. But your paycheck won't come from the usual sources. "Architects have found a way to provide their expertise to non-building industries, like film and marketing," he says.

Leong adds that in 1996, George Lucas was the single largest employer of architectural graduates. "He discovered that architecturally trained animators designed better virtual sets for his movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. A large percentage of the sets for that movie were virtual, or digital, sets. And they were designed and built with architectural software."

Hollywood isn't the only industry making use of architects' VR skills. "Real estate companies and developers are using architects to create virtual environments of buildings to show buyers the finished product," says Leong.

"You can now design your kitchen virtually by 'installing' fixtures, appliances and cupboards into the virtual environment to see how the new kitchen will fit with the decor of your existing building."

If designing with VR sounds like something you'd like, your first step is to earn an architectural degree. "Nowadays, nearly every architecture school provides such training," Leong says.

"Graduates are unemployable if they do not have such computing skills, as all architectural firms now employ computer-aided design software. Drafting tables are now considered artifacts of the past."

Not all architects agree with that. "I am an architect and AutoCAD expert, who cannot justify using virtual reality software for most projects," says Elaine Gallagher Adams, who works in Denver. "The biggest drawback is the learning curve. The software is pretty tough to learn, and the average architect just doesn't have time to learn it. It's a bit like flying -- you need a lot of 'time in the air' to get really proficient.

"I find the most knowledgeable users are the interns right out of school. But then their skills get rusty pretty quickly unless they specialize in VR."

Even so, she adds, "If the architect is extremely [good with] the software, he or she could probably make a living while practicing architecture."

Leong, however, sees this situation changing rapidly. He believes that by the time today's high school students enter college, things might already have changed to an amazing degree.

"Computerization will increase in use even more in architects' offices," he says. "There are now new technologies inspired by VR, such as 3D computer monitors and sketchpads that are available as design tools for architecture."

That sounds pretty high-tech. And high-tech gadgets often come with a high price tag that is out of reach for many. But price isn't the only bottom line. There's also competition.

"The architectural process is more productive and accurate when it is computerized," Leong says. "Even smaller firms are [using VR] software, as it provides a competitive edge equal to a larger firm."


American Institute of Architects
This site has a continuing education section

Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture
This group has about 200 members

Great Buildings Collection
Take a virtual walk through some famous buildings

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