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Pre-Review: Evaluating Upcoming VR Technologies in Vectorworks 2017

In this Pre-Review of specialized web 3D and virtual reality kit, John Helm talks about this technology coming up in Vectorworks 2017 to be released this fall. Helm outlines the basics of the technology itself, gives example uses for various design professionals, and places it into the context of change confronting the industry and the continuation of the BIM transformation in AEC.

When Vectorworks, Inc., releases their 2017 version later this year there will be one new feature that just may change the way architects look at architectural design.  Virtual Reality, better known as VR, is a hot topic these days; the big names are all involved in the new technology as are a few key startups. For the last few months I have been allowed to watch—and even give a few suggestions—as the programmers at Vectorworks have developed their new feature Web View/Virtual Reality.

Taking Design Beyond the Computer Screen

Here is a quote from one of the programmers:  “We are making Virtual Reality available to everyone…we are taking design out from behind the flat computer screen and placing it all around the viewer making the design a very real physical experience. The shape and forms surround the viewer and this is available at any time—for anyone.”

In keeping with their ever expanding list of tools for architects, engineers, set and lighting designers, landscaped architects, and designers of just about anything physical, Vectorworks will add this new feature that enables the viewer of a design to immerse herself in the design. And the ability to do this does not come with the usual heavy price tag.  There is no need to buy anything other than the Google Cardboard type headset which can be had for as little as $15 dollars. One would also need a pretty good smartphone. But most of us already have one.

How It All Works

So what does this thing do…how does it work? Simplicity is the key word. You, the designer, can take your 3D model, your BIM, of your latest project to the level of detail you want.  Next, while being online, click on a new export feature that sends the model to the Vectorworks Cloud. After a bit of a wait your model will pop up in your Internet viewer. Now you can explore the model in 3D. You can send the link to a client and by clicking on it the client can also view the model in 3D.  But here comes the fun part.  Copy the link to and open it on a smart phone then click on the Virtual Reality icon. Now the image of the model will change to a stereoscopic view.  Put the phone in your Google Cardboard headset and you are in.  That is…inside the model. (see image 01)

01 - The upcoming Vectorworks 2017 will feature new virtual reality features, including the ability to tap into the Google VR google trend.

01 – The upcoming Vectorworks 2017 will feature new virtual reality features, including the ability to tap into the Google VR google trend.

You can walk around and look around all you want.  You can go up and down stairs.  Of course there are a few limitations. It’s not going to be high definition—at least not as high as the quality coming out of the dedicated VR hardware like Oculus Rift—and I suppose there will be some limits on the size of the model. There’s a little bit of a learning curve in order to export the model and get oriented and in the right location when you start viewing.  But really the sense of actually being in the space and being able to walk around in it is amazing.

Imagine the set designer can put herself in the audience and actually see what the spectators will see. The landscape designer can walk through the garden. The interior designer can put his client in the living room with all the new furniture in place and if the client hates it, he can save making a big mistake. The architect can walk through her design and get a real feel for it before letting the client do the same while giving herself a chance to make changes. Or let the client and his partner view the model using two different headsets and both can be exploring the new design at the same time. (see images 02 – 03) 

In my review of Vectorworks 2016 I mentioned the possibilities of virtual reality—“The next step is the use of visualization goggles to let the viewer immerse himself in our architecture before it’s built.” Well, I didn’t think it would be happening so soon.  Vectorworks just introduced this feature at their Design Summit this spring and in a recent press release. This is the tool that will change how we work.

02 - This is a view of the UI in the VR technology in the upcoming Vectorworks 2017.

02 – This is a view of the UI in the Web View/Virtual Reality technology in the upcoming Vectorworks 2017.

Never before in Vectorworks have users been able to actually put their clients right in the middle of a design, then let them look around in all directions. They can walk from room to room, even up and down stairs as if they were actually in the completed structure. The people at Vectorworks are not telling you to spend $3,000 on some dedicated VR hardware and upgrade to your computer. Oh, yes, the dedicated VR hardware is GPU intensive, and most folks would indeed need to update their GPU cards at the very least. So this is an advantage the Vectorworks folks can tout.

MORE: Vectorworks Design Summit 2016—What Was Cool This Year

OK, so back to reality. The system I have been trying out still needs a bit of work. But the folks at Vectorworks are like a bunch of mad scientists working on this thing day and night. I’m sure that by the time they come out with the official release version the kinks and wrinkles in the new technology will have been ironed out.


I should also mention that this new feature is not just for Virtual Reality. By putting it in the cloud a link to the model can be sent anywhere and opened with a typical web viewer (Internet browser) and then viewed in normal 3D. One can then orbit around it or walk through on the computer screen. That’s a nice feature by itself.

In Conclusion

Virtual Reality viewing of designs from buildings to gardens is the next big thing.  Computer gaming has made many, if not most of us, familiar with an immersive experience in which we feel as if we are in a place or a world that does not really exist.  Even though games are for the most part just a pastime they have really paved the way for much more important uses of the technology that has developed around them. That technology is rapidly changing the way we view things, from medicine to engineering and to all the fields of design.

Vectorworks is taking a big step in making Virtual Reality available to anyone who has their program. They are making it easy to export a 3D model that, once exported, is very user friendly. Any client can just put on his Google Cardboard headset and go “virtual.”

It may be the one thing that brings many of those reluctant to join the BIM movement into the community of designers already working fully in 3D today.


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