Time machines and instant superpowers: how virtual reality is changing architecture

The much-derided virtual reality has found an unexpectedly useful niche in the world of architecture, writes Steve Ranger. And there is more to come.

Most technologies claim to make your life easier or better, but only a few offer you an instant superpower. Who wouldn’t want the ability to time travel, or to fly over buildings?

Virtual reality has been Silicon Valley’s next big thing for decades, but it has consistently failed to win over the masses. The ‘Metaverse’ was Silicon Valley’s most recent underwhelming attempt at making VR mainstream, and Apple is taking another swing with its Vision Pro headset due out next year.

Related reading: Does Apple’s Vision Pro have a business case?

But while broader interest in virtual reality has mostly ebbed and occasionally flowed, architecture has consistently been associated with the potential of VR. There’s even a popular show on British TV where architects use VR headsets to showcase potential house makeovers to eager clients.

How Virtual Reality can help design

Architects have always built models of new buildings to turn 2D pictures into miniature versions of reality, but that doesn’t always help. After all, you mostly end up looking at the building from above — like a bird or a giant — rather than from the inside. VR allows architects and clients to see the buildings at the right scale, from the inside, before they’re built.

“Most architects can see a floor plan and some elevations and picture it in their head because that’s what they’ve been trained to do for all these years, but if you haven’t done that it’s very difficult,” said Graham Nicholls, Principal Architect at motorsports design company Driven International.

“You can see a flat picture and think ‘I like the design, I like the colours’, but you put the VR headset on, and you really feel how big the space is going to be. That’s something that a flat drawing can’t communicate to you and I think that’s really important,” he said.

VR architect design
Designing in VR brings buildings to life for both architects and clients

Related reading: What is augmented reality?

This emphasises that much of the attraction for architects is not just around what VR can do for them – but what it can do for their clients.

Dale Sinclair, Director and Head of Digital Innovation at engineering and professional services firm WSP agrees that while designers are trained to think in 3D their clients are not.

“I think a lot of designers forget that,” he said. “I see a plan, and I can instantly see what that design is but I don’t think that a lot of designers understand that most clients probably haven’t got that same vision when they look at a plan.”  

All of this makes VR a handy way to give clients access to the architects’ superpower — without the years of hard work.

All of which begs one question: why hasn’t virtual reality caught on?

Blocking walls: why Virtual Reality hasn’t taken off

According to a survey of architects conducted by the Royal Institute of British Architects back in 2019, a third were already using some form of immersive technology like VR or AR. Another third said they would be using it within five years.

How Technology is changing Architecture
Responses from the 2019 RIBA survey. Credit: © RIBA

But with that deadline looming, those predictions now look way too optimistic. VR and AR certainly have found a niche, but it’s far from standard across architecture practices.

Much of this stems from the same reasons that have held back VR adoption more generally. The headsets are still too heavy, are too expensive — and make you look too weird. And the pandemic has made people more cautious about sharing any equipment, especially something as intimate as a sweaty, face-hugging headset.

Related reading: Can these AR glasses replace screens?

For all this, VR is more than a gimmick and some of the reasons for the lack of take-up are cultural, not technological, insists Sinclair.

“The scale of change is quite slow because a lot of people are still comfortable with the technologies they use,” he said. “A lot of people are pretty wedded to what they’ve been doing their whole career.”

Virtual Reality as a time machine

Despite this hesitancy, if VR is going to take off anywhere outside of gaming, it’s going to be in architecture. That’s because it helps designers and their clients see something that doesn’t yet exist, but will at some future point – an ability that led one of the architects quoted in the RIBA survey to describe VR as a “time machine”.

Used well, VR can create a richer understanding between client and architect, putting them not just on the same metaphorical page, but in the same virtual space.

“How cool would it be as a client if your architect sent you a headset and over the weekend you can just be sitting inside your new house, walking around, even configuring things and options and then you send the file back on Monday and you’ve selected the colours and the finishes?” asked Sinclair.

Giving clients access to the VR model is not without new challenges. Creating a book full of design images to give to the customer allows the architect to decide which views the client can see – and which they can’t. In VR, customers can look at anything, from any angle, which means more effort must go into the model building at a practical level.

It might also mean that clients feel more engaged and able to challenge the architects and designers more. Giving clients the superpower of seeing their design in 3D might embolden them in a way that will change the relationship between the client and the professional.

“I think we’ll get some new funny professional boundaries,” said Sinclair.

The future of architecture

Architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha see his creations using Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset, HoloLens
RIBA Royal Gold Medallist (2017) Paulo Mendes da Rocha sees his creations using Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset, HoloLens © 2018 Microsoft Corporation

Much of the focus is on VR, but in the longer term, augmented reality (AR) could have a big impact too. Overlaying a redesign on an existing building will be a great tool for understanding changes, for instance.

Or consider the planning process. It’s much easier to see how a new building will affect a skyline or a street scene if you can view it directly using an augmented reality headset.

Still, for all its benefits, it’s unlikely that VR and AR are going to replace the pen and paper for architects any time soon.

“There’s still a place for hand sketches and there’s a whole design process to follow and virtual reality is a little piece of that process,” said Nicholls. “It’s not like you put on a headset on day one and do it all in VR.”

Steve Ranger
Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is an award-winning journalist who writes about the intersection of tech, business and culture. In the past he was the Editorial Director at ZDNET and before that the Editor of silicon.com