✱ Get Inside Your Project with VR

2016 is turning out to be a huge year for Virtual Reality (VR). I'm sure you already know this. The stars have aligned – the raw power of our pocket computers and the tools that allow us to create interactive experiences have finally matched up, and this is great news for architects.

This article isn't about the Oculus Rift ($599) or the HTC Vive ($800), both of which are technically more complicated. By that, I mean that they require a headset with wires, an expensive computer, motion trackers and a gaming controller to walk through your building. They are both amazing pieces of hardware, and I'll be watching closely as their development continues. I'm sure the prices will begin to drop as the technology moves forward.

This article is about a simpler, wireless technology that is accessible to far more people. I'm talking about Google Cardboard ($20 or less) and 360 degree spherical stereo panoramic renderings that many of you can already produce with the right software and view in a modern web browser.

Immersive VR Headsets 

Before I get to the Google Cardboard part of this article, I want to quickly talk about the Rift and Vive. I'm really excited about the technology these headsets are promising. They are, for all intents and purposes, fully immersive. The videos I've seen of people using them are fun to watch and imagine myself as a user. This is something I'm pretty comfortable with since I am an architect who makes a living imagining what users feel like in spaces before they are built. You can probably imagine why in turn I'm so excited about the possibility of these new tools. 

Here's an fun example. Turn down your speaker volume if you're in an office because the language has been bleeped out, and it might raise an eyebrow or two:


There are some really incredible experiences being developed to fully immerse users into other worlds. Architects have an unprecedented opportunity to jump on this technology and use it to our advantage. I've had high-power clients use these tools and quickly turn back into 6 year old kids. It's really fun and powerful to see them truly experience their buildings in this new way. 

With the release of Rift v2 and Vive, the resolution of the screens has doubled, and the processing power of the CPU's pushing the data to the headsets has increased by a lot. It is now possible to actually feel like you're in a nicely rendered, real time environment. Both sound and motion tracking are part of the system as well. They do require hefty computers with serious graphics processing units (GPU's) however, and along with the price tag, this is why they aren't as accessible to everyone. On top of that, the headsets are connected to the computer via wires that scoop over the back of the users' head, so being tethered to the computer is something else to consider. If we were to give a client a demonstration with the Oculus or Vive, they would need to come to our offices most likely, or we would need to have a substantially expensive powerhouse laptop and a lot of parts to tote along with us when we go to visit them.

Google Cardboard

In contrast, what makes the Google Cardboard so compelling is its simplicity. It runs on devices that practically everyone on the planet has in their pockets and purses already, there aren't any wires, there's no software to install, and it's laughably affordable at less than $20. Sounds too good to be true, right? I know... but it actually works. I have a project I've been working on to prove it, and I want to share it with you. All you need is a Cardboard viewer. Actually, you don't need a viewer. You can look at my project without it, but there are advantages to having a viewer in your possession. It just runs in a web browser – there's no software to install. You already have what you need.

Math & Science Building, STEM Center - Golden West College, Huntington Beach CA
Imagery and VR courtesy of HMC Architects

Once you open the website address to our STEM center project by clicking on this link or by clicking on the image above, you'll see a panoramic interior view of the space. You can use your finger if you're on your phone or tablet, or your mouse if you're on your computer to look around. This is pretty standard panoramic navigation. What's a little different about these panoramas is that there are several nodes linked together via the large white-bordered arrows you see hovering over the floor. If you tap on those when you're looking on your computer or hover the crosshairs in the Cardboard viewer over them for a couple of seconds, you'll be transported to another location within the space. You can actually tour the building by jumping from node to node!

It's magic

Let's take it a step further. There's an icon at the bottom of the screen that looks like a Google Cardboard viewer (where the green checkbox symbol is located in the image above). Tap that, and the screen splits in half displaying the synchronized stereo panoramas. This is where the magic happens. Once you've entered this mode, place your phone into the Cardboard viewer for an amazing 3d experience. With the slight shift of twin renderings about the width of a human's eyes apart, depth is enabled. Stereo panos coupled with the gyro motion tracking sensors in our phones allow us to look around inside our spaces in full 3d as if we are standing inside them. If you do it long enough (for about 5 minutes or so), you'll actually start to believe you're there. It's a mind-bender when you lower the viewer and you're standing in another space than the one you were just experiencing. 

$16.99 $39.99

I can't believe we have computers powerful enough to do all of this with us all the time. This is so exciting!

If you don't have a Google Cardboard viewer yet, you can get them on Amazon for less than $20. A word of warning: not all viewers are created equal. Yes, you can find them for less, but the lenses are crap in the cheap ones, and they are the most important part because they insure you can actually see what you're looking at. I've included a link on the right to a viewer that has great ratings and has nice lenses so you can see the space you go into without blurred vision.

Why should you care about VR?

I'm excited about these immersive environments for two uses. First, for presentations this is a killer way to communicate a design. As I've talked about before, it allows us to put our projects in our client's hands to let them drive. Clients don't want to watch you drive around their project in 3d. They should get to do it themselves. Second, I'm excited to use this as a tool during the design process. I don't need a fully photo-realistic rendering to make spatial decisions. I could easily be modeling space within my 3d program and spit out a clay model of the project so I could quickly get inside and check it out. For this, photorealism isn't necessary like it potentially is for a client presentation. I now have the ability to intimately and immersively experience shade and shadow, volume, light, the way spaces interact, and much more in a very different way than just by seeing it on a screen or on a sheet of paper.

In both instances, the barriers of 2d mediums are no longer a communication hindrance, and projects can be experienced and therefore understood without the need for a presentation. In other words, people just get it, and the work will for the most part be able to speak for itself. I couldn't be more excited to share architecture people in this way.

In a future article, I'll be talking more about the software needed to generate these types of panoramas so that you can do this too. It's a fast-moving technology where things are constantly changing, so I'll keep it as timely as possible so you can give your models a try and experience them for yourself. 

Happy viewing!

Special thanks to Chris Grant and Francisco Penaloza, both good friends and visualization gurus who have contributed to my understanding of this technology in huge ways. It is through their talent and drive that I get to show off our project in these amazing ways.

Create a Realtime Walkthrough of your Revit Project with Autodesk Showcase

Even though my thoughts in my recent article on realtime rendering came to the conclusion that I wasn't willing to spend a ton of time on the bleeding edge of that technology, I haven't ignored it either. The truth is that the idea for that article came from me spending a decent amount of time figuring out realtime rendering using Autodesk Showcase, which comes with either a perpetual license or subscription to some of their suites. The funny thing that you probably can relate to is that I didn't even know Showcase existed or what it did when I found it. Luckily the office I work in has this type of subscription and I had a presentation to create, so the stars aligned.

I ended up making a tutorial that takes you through the process of getting your model out of Revit and into Showcase with a lot of steps along the way to make a successful and very nice looking realtime model. It is now live over on the Novedge blog where lots of additional people other than Method visitors can see it. This works well because this is certainly not an Autodesk-centric site. So if you're interested in my process for creating realtime walkthrough's, please go check it out and let me know what you think.

Click here to head over to the Novedge blog and read my tutorial.

✱ Methodcast 21: Put Yourself & Your Clients Into Your Projects with Spherical Panoramas and iPano

✱ Methodcast 21: Put Yourself & Your Clients Into Your Projects with Spherical Panoramas and iPano

Have you ever wanted to let your boss, friends, clients or anyone for that matter get inside one of your designs before it's built? Of course you have! This tutorial will take you through the steps to produce a rendering that will let you do just that. 

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✱ How to Make a Sliced Solid and Wireframe Rendering in Bonzai3d


Here’s an example of one of those stylistic renderings of 3d models where there’s a combination of solid and wireframe halves coming together at a section cut in the model. I’ve been doing this type of rendering for a long, long time1 and I thought I’d make a video showing you how to do it too. It’s a fairly easy process that involves your 3d modeling program and an image editor like Photoshop.


Once again, this is one of those things you can do in several different modelers but it’s one of the reasons I prefer working with solid models in Bonzai3d because when you cut through the model, the objects are automatically filled and the Clipping Planes make it easy to make this kind of imagery. 

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to see what you can come up with. Maybe you can take it to the next level and make a sweeping, organic section cut through the model to make it even more dynamic.

1. Here’s an example from 1997, modeled in FormZ & rendered in Electric Image


✱ My Digital Sketchbook - Jot Pro + iPad and the Apps I Use

The new Jot Pro stylus for iPad is here. I was one of the backers on Kickstarter for this new product by Adonit and I love the fact that I was able to help support them reach their measly goal of $2,500 to get the project rolling. Instead, they had 4,975 backers that pledged a total of $168,532 which obviously gave them a successful funding. More importantly, it shows just how many early adopters there are that are excited about this product. If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, you should definitely check it out. I've helped fund two kickstarts so far and have been extremely happy with not only the companies that have come out with the amazing new products, but also with the whole idea behind Kickstarter itself.

Anyway, back to the Jot. Until now, I've hardly used my iPad as a sketchbook because the offerings haven't been what I have desired in a pen-like instrument. When drawing on paper, I prefer to use ink as opposed to graphite or chalk. I'm actually a bit more picky than that. I really prefer to draw with fluid ink pens as opposed to ball points. 

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✱ Using the iPad as a Design Presentation Tool

The other day I gave a presentation to a client. Sounds normal, right? As designers, we should be doing this often. But this time, I tried something new - hooking up an iPad to a digital projector for a full, high definition presentation. Let me be the first to tell you that it was beautiful. Let me also be one of the first to say that I can’t wait for this to be wireless over Airplay when iOS 5 comes out.

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✱ Preparing & Exporting Line Drawings from SketchUp

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In this video, I show you how to setup your model for exporting line drawings from views into Adobe Illustrator. Then I show you some tools & tricks in Illustrator for modifying the 2d drawings of your 3d models.