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AIA: Looking at the VR (virtual reality) craze in Atlanta

In this AIA Atlanta Show Floor report we focus exclusively on all the Virtual Reality technology exhibited. VR was a huge theme in Atlanta and will be a continuing exciting field to follow.

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VR headsets were all the rage this year at AIA Atlanta. Not only were there several specific companies offering VR (virtual reality) technology solutions on the show floor, but there were VR headsets in several other booths as well.

In fact, it was in some of the other booths that the purpose and usefulness of VR headsets found some of their best implementations. At the CMD booth I donned a VR headset that enabled me to not only explore a BIM model in all its virtual glory, but I was able to query anything I looked at with a tap of a finger on a touch panel on the headset itself. Up came detailed BIM information on the item I was focusing on.

From Gaming to Business

The first time I heard about VR headsets was when Oculus Rift starting making some noise. Virtual reality as a technology domain has been around for decades but the early beginnings with VR headsets or glasses were fraught with many technical problems—including creating nausea in the viewer so bad that it would nearly traumatize them. All those problems began to wane when the Oculus Rift was born a few years ago.

Originally oriented at the gaming market, and still on track for a big 2016 splash, the Oculus Rift technology is still in its infancy in all its targeted markets. But the technology is really finding very attractive uses in industrial sectors like AEC. And there are many more VR headset devices emerging in the market, including an Apple patent for a VR headset as well. (more on that later).

VR at Atlanta

There were several VR solutions companies vying for architects attention at AIA Atlanta this year. We recap what we learned about all of them below.

WorldViz

WorldViz has been deeply involved in VR technologies for many years. I had a chance to talk to Kris Pitzek, about this Santa Barbara, California, based virtual reality technologies firm. VR like this is new in the AEC market but the company, he feels, has more depth of experience and more mature technology.

Indeed, the company’s roster of clients and customers include the likes of NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They have been working with many AEC companies, larger firms in most cases, placing complete VR environments within their offices. WorldViz is serious about the architecture market and has setup a dedicated website called architecture-interactive.com.

WorldViz offers what they call “turnkey” interactive visualization and simulation solutions. Donning an Oculus Rift and checking out their system was pretty cool. Their turnkey solutions are not inexpensive however. While they may be the most advanced in the industry an installation of a complete VR space in your firm (includes all equipment, headsets, sensors, computer equipment) would cost about $40,000.USD.

The company’s portfolio is used to create BIM Caves, Portable HMD systems, operating room mockups (virtually of course), patient rooms, and what they call the Design, Experience, Build workflow in AEC. Check out the video above to learn a bit more or go here.

InsiteVR

InsiteVR is another VR offering and the company was utilizing something a bit different in their space. While many know of the Oculus Rift, or the name, there are several other VR headsets out there (we go over this more at the bottom of this article), such as the Samsung Gear VR.

Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR uses a Samsung Galaxy smartphone as the display technology. It sits inside the headset. I didn’t even know it was there until after I experienced the VR session and they popped open the device.

Russell Varriale of InsiteVR says that customers want a simple VR solution and his company has the answer. With InsiteVR you create your 3D models in your BIM or 3D CAD solution. Then, you simply upload your model to the InsiteVR cloud app. That cloud app then converts the model into something smaller and more suitable for the power behind a smartphone device. Then the company does a QA test (with a human) on the resultant 3D data that will be downloaded to the app running on the Galaxy smartphone. Launch the app, snap it into the Gear VR headset and put it on. That’s it.

Varriale said that the decimation process (stripping the models down) isn’t perfect and some model data can get mangled up. A typical SketchUp model can be from 1 million to 13 million polygons. But mobile VR hardware runs into limits in the 1 million polygon range. He explained that for now humans double-check models in a QA test. But in the future, that test will be done by software. Like the first company we mentioned, InsiteVR takes fully responsibility for the VR experience outcome, by handling the model conversion, assuring its quality, and by supplying all the VR equipment to the end customer.

Like the other companies, they support SketchUp, Revit, Rhino, 3ds max and other formats. One of the unique things they bring is InsiteVR can measure where your clients look in a 3d scene, with heat map technology, so you can help evaluate your designs. InsiteVR is available now and plans range from free to a few thousand dollars depending on model complexity.

Check out the video above and click here to learn more.

irisVR

irisVR is another company that attended AIA Atlanta and was showing their VR wares in their booth. I first met this company at the Vectorworks Design Summit in Philly a few weeks ago. This company is developing end-user software plugins that work for specific BIM and CAD apps. Today the company has 400 plus clients using “early access” (another phrase for technology preview) plugins for SketchUp.

Jack Donovan of irisVR told me that Revit is also finished in-house and will be shipping next (a month or two) with Vectorworks and Rhino plugins following shortly thereafter. Those interested in utilizing the early access plugins can contact them directly on their website.

The irisVR folks are an exciting bunch of newcomers to the VR space. Aside from taking a more traditional, direct approach in the form of plugin software for a BIM/CAD tool, the company is working big time with HTC and Valve and has the new HTC Vive VR headset essentially working with their solution. The company’s plans include a range of offerings from a free version that is essentially a VR viewer to more in-depth solutions that work with BIM tools. To learn more visit them online here.

A Word About Game Engines

There are several VR headset companies, including some of the ones mentioned, that are utilizing game engine technology, such as Unity in particular. Hearing that a game engine is used as part of the software should make sense—that’s where VR started. Interestingly, though, the game engine is used for the physics and rendering only, and not necessarily handling the geometry rendering. Unlike actual computer games, which are oriented at low-poly/fast frame rates, architectural 3D tends to be the opposite, high-poly/low frame rates. This, I believe, explains how these companies are utilizing game engines like Unity.

 next page: More VR at AIA and About VR Headsets

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