Words by STEPHEN COUSINS AND KATIE PUCKETT
With the latest digital modelling technologies, we can immerse ourselves in building and city designs, marshal vast quantities of data and conceive of places we never thought possible. Prepare to step inside the most realistic game you’ll ever play …
Calum Sinclair is standing at the edge of the motorway, cars speeding by. When he spots a gap in the traffic, he runs out, snatches a piece of construction debris and races back to the safety of the hard shoulder. He’s learning to do a “dash and grab”, a dangerous manoeuvre that he’s never done before. Then he makes a fatal misjudgement.
If this was real life, Sinclair would probably be dead. Fortunately, he’s safely seated in his office wearing a VR headset, shocked but unharmed. Being run over in virtual reality is a deliberately overwhelming experience: “The camera really shakes so it makes you feel a bit bizarre,” says Sinclair. “It’s something you’re going to remember, and it needs to be. Before it would have been ‘read this four-page document about how to collect something from the middle of the road’. This is a lot more engaging.”
Sinclair is not a highway engineer, he’s a specialist in immersive technologies and he joined WSP after a degree in visual effects and a masters in “serious games” — the application of gaming technologies to real-life problems. He never expected to be working in the built environment, but it’s a career trajectory that’s set to become more common. An industry long derided as Luddite is beginning to adopt a range of powerful tools from the gaming and entertainment sectors, while technology firms seize on the wider potential applications for their inventions. Rapid advances in digital modelling and visualization, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), big data and 3D printing, are transforming everything from on-site training to city planning. They enable forms that could never have been conceived of or built, internal environments that respond intuitively to users, and an unprecedented degree of analysis of design, construction and performance. Together they hold the promise of better designed, more efficient, more pleasant buildings and cities.
The virtual realm
The most immediately obvious benefit is clearer communication. VR brings technical drawings to vivid life and makes them comprehensible as never before: you don’t have to imagine what a 2D plan might feel like in real life, you’re right there. For clients and the public, this helps to prevent unpleasant surprises and expensive or impossible alterations at later stages, improving the product and the experience. For the project team, it can make collaboration easier and more effective.
As well as safety training aids, Sinclair has produced VR simulations and interactive walkthroughs for a consultation on an NHS hospital and a configuration tool for a new apartment building in France. Medical staff were able to roam freely through the virtual spaces flagging up issues in the design and suggesting improvements, while apartment buyers customized the finishes in their new home and could immediately see the impact on their budget. “That’s the power of gaming engines: they work in real-time,” he says.
Another advantage is graphics. It looks better, so it’s really good for visualizing and communicating a design. Not everyone is going to jump into Revit engineering software and just start making changes, but anyone could open The Sims and build a house. There’s no reason why it has to be that complex.”
On the New Slussen urban transformation project in Stockholm, which aims to be one of the first in the world to deliver all design information digitally, a fire protection engineer from Greater Stockholm Fire Department donned a pair of VR goggles to carry out a 1:1 scale safety review inside the lock channel. Using two joystick controllers he was able to navigate through the complex and examine how ambulance personnel would enter to carry a person out after an accident, and check corridor widths and stairway angles. “Drawings wouldn’t have been able to give the same mental understanding of the spaces,” says Johan Stribeck, business area manager for BIM/VR at Tikab, lead technology consultant on the project.
“In less than a minute he understood how to move around and had started his review. In 30 minutes he had finished his work and was quite impressed by the technique.”
Architect Foster + Partners used VR to review the design of a large building on the site. “Although many issues could be uncovered using drawings and a physical model, VR makes it easier and more immediate,” says project partner Ricky Sandhu. “For example, we had an internal debate about a roof garden on the building. I wanted to create a form of allotment, others wanted a thick forest. When I was in the VR model I realized the trees would obscure beautiful historic views of Gamla Stan [the old town]. We turned off the trees and all of a sudden we could see the vista. That kind of thing is really powerful.”