#224: Arch Virtual Says VR Could Transform the Entire Architecture Industry

Jon Brouchoud is an architect at Arch Virtual who has been putting architectural projects within Unity since before the Oculus Rift came out. He’s been using virtual reality for architectural clients for over a year now, and says that VR has the potential to change every dimension of the architecture industry ranging from the design, pre-visualization, engineering, inspection, and even construction of new buildings.


Two of the most important components of architecture is scale and proportion, and Jon says that immersive technologies like virtual reality can start to accurately represent scale and proportion like no other 2D medium. Any VR developer knows that there’s a world of difference between designing a VR environment on a 2D screen versus actually experiencing your virtual world within VR. Jon says that it’s no different for architecture, and that they’re constantly surprised as to what types of intuitive insights they’ll have for improvements on an architectural design even when they’ve thought that they’ve nailed it.

One of the big early VR clients that Arch Virtual had was with the Sacramento Kings basketball team who wanted to see what their stadium would look like for the owners, players, as well as fans.

Jon talks about how Arch Virtual has been using the multiplayer features within Unity in order to start to do design reviews with inspectors, engineers, construction crew, and the clients. He says that it feels like he’s living in the future by being able to have different team members spot potential construction issues before anything has even started to be build. “It’s a lot easier to move pixels than it is to move bricks” says Jon about the power of being able to spot issues before anything has started to be built.

Arch Virtual is also in the process of creating a platform and a toolset to be able to create buildings within a VR experience. When Jon was doing the Toy Box at Oculus Connect, he mind was racing with all of the possibilities that these controllers will open up for architects being able to design buildings within VR.

Jon says that he’s never shown a client or fellow architect who wasn’t completely blown away by virtual reality, and that he feels like he’s got one of the best jobs in the world to introduce VR to the architectural industry. It reminded me of this VR architectural visualization reaction anecdote that was posted on /r/oculus by an architectural intern /u/nielzz:

The architect sat down, I explained the 360 controls and what the camera did. After he put it over his head he tried to look up using the controller, and asked me if that was possible. I told him to just look up with his head, after that it was silent for a good two minutes. He carefully walked around, completely silent. Normally this man would talk a lot, constantly and really hard. My colleagues looked up with a weird expression, “I’ve never seen him quiet”.

Then a soft “unbelievable” came out of his mouth. “I didn’t expect this, not at all”. In the period of 15 minutes, he occasionally broke the silence with: “How is this already possible? I get it now. I’m so happy I didn’t put more bridges in the main hall. I can now finally see how important it is that this wall is yellow. I’ve got to change that. Amazing that I can finally see it. This opens so much to me”. And some more reactions like that.

He finally put the Rift off his head, his eyes were in a total state of blown away. He put the Rift away and just sat there, saying nothing. Some colleagues were giggling and I asked how he liked it. It looked like my question was just some noise to him, and he replied, “Sorry, it’s just so much information that I have to process.” After 5 minutes of staring he shook his head and stood up. “I would never expect this. The building isn’t finished, and I’ve already been there. As an architect, this is cheating, my god.”

Jon says that this VR technology can indeed be very intimidating to architects who may be afraid of adopting this new technology. But Jon says that applications of VR to architectural visualization are such a no-brainer that he feels pretty confident that it’s going to revolutionize every aspect of the architecture industry from design to engineering to construction.

Jon also provided one of the more profound insights that I’ve heard about the ultimate potential future of virtual reality. As VR gets more and more to the point of being indistinguishable from reality, Jon imagines a time when there are multiple people gathering within a virtual building environment in VR and then there’s a moment when they realize that they don’t need to actually build the building. The VR version may be good enough, and so the ultimate potential of VR is that it could lead to a more sustainable future.

Here’s some more projects that Arch Virtual has worked on in the past year:

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.998] Jon Brouchoud: I'm John Bruchow. I'm the founder of Arch Virtual. And we do architectural visualization and also some work with health care, manufacturing, automotive, and things like that.

[00:00:22.006] Kent Bye: Great. So tell me a bit about some of the early projects that you've done in VR.

[00:00:26.687] Jon Brouchoud: So we started off doing a lot of architectural demos that were primarily residential demos and started getting projects. We worked for the Sacramento Kings. They're building a new arena and they wanted to see what that arena was going to look like in virtual reality and their fans and the players wanted to see it. So we built a virtual reality experience that brought them right into the arena. So that was pretty fun. We did a driving game for Suzuki that puts you in a Himalayan mountain racetrack and enabled you to drive the Suzuki Swift. Yeah, and a bunch of different projects like that. Projects to help manufacturers help their potential buyers visualize complex pieces of equipment that they sell that they can't bring to trade shows personally, but they can let people walk through a very large virtual warehouse and see all of their products animated and things like that.

[00:01:14.518] Kent Bye: Maybe you could talk a bit about your background and if you're coming from the technology side or the architectural side or how these two worlds are coming together for you.

[00:01:21.705] Jon Brouchoud: Sure, so I'm trained in architecture and practiced for several years and started using real-time engines several years ago and so we were doing that and then right when Oculus came out we were like front row center because we were already using Unity, we were already bringing architectural models into Unity and so it was very easy to just drag the Oculus SDK right into our projects and start publishing Oculus Rift experiences of those architectural projects.

[00:01:46.942] Kent Bye: It seems like of all the different fields, architecture and VR seem like a match made in heaven. It's kind of a no-brainer in terms of being able to get a sense of embodied presence in these spaces that are in virtual reality, but how do you describe that? What it's like to be able to experience these buildings and architecture within VR?

[00:02:07.910] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, well the important thing in architecture is proportion and scale and that's one thing that other mediums just you can't get a sense of proportion and scale by looking at an illustration or even an animation. You're mapping a three-dimensional space to a two-dimensional surface and there's always going to be distortion with that. But with virtual reality, you feel very much immersed in the space and you feel a very strong sense of presence and a very accurate sense of proportion and scale, which is really important to architects. They really want to make sure that they understand what that building is going to be like. And also from the end user or the person who's actually building it, you know, when you're investing that much money in a building, you want to make sure that you know exactly what it's going to be like inside and out before construction starts. So for virtual reality, it's definitely one of those no-brainer applications that I think has the potential to completely transform the entire industry. And I think it will actually very quickly for construction, engineering, architecture, real estate development. These are industries that I think are going to be poised for major disruptive change with virtual reality.

[00:03:08.438] Kent Bye: Yeah. And so maybe you could comment on some of your experiences of coming from the architectural background, how VR has changed your process of designing buildings.

[00:03:18.092] Jon Brouchoud: We're often surprised, you know, we think we have a design solution nailed and then we look at it in virtual reality and it's like, well, wait a minute, the ceiling is too low or the door is too far apart from the main space that we're trying to connect to. And you're often sort of surprised and I'd like to think that, you know, by being surprised in virtual reality is going to be a lot better than being surprised after you've built it because it's a lot easier to change pixels than it is to move bricks, you know. a much easier thing to do but you know I feel like you know we were building a simple multiplayer system for our projects and not too long ago we had an architect and a construction representative and the developer and the building owner and myself were all together in a space that hasn't been built yet and we're walking around and we each have laser pointers and to see the contractor was pointing at a beam that's connecting to a column and noticing that there might be a constructability issue and pointing that out to the building owner and, you know, it felt as if we were in the future. It was like one of those moments where it was like, oh my God, you know, this is absolutely amazing. It was almost just like, you know, very, very powerful. Just one of those experiences like this is going to change the industry. It's going to be really huge.

[00:04:25.991] Kent Bye: Yeah, you had mentioned a lot of different dimensions of, I guess you could think of it as the production pipeline, all the different stakeholders in the process of building and construction. Maybe you could sort of go through how you see like virtuality is going to impact each of those levels.

[00:04:42.083] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, absolutely. I think right in the beginning, when a design concept starts to take shape, architects have the need to do very rapid prototyping. So they want to build a simple model in SketchUp, bring it into virtual reality, and be able to walk around in it and see, at a very crude, broad strokes level, relationships between spaces, again, proportion and scale. And then they want to go back and change it and go back to virtual reality, and they don't want to have a lot of fuss with that you know so I think there's solutions like Iris VR is building a really cool solution that you can just drag a SketchUp model right in there and just an architect can do it on their own in their own office and see a space in VR and taking that to the next level kind of the place where we often work is sort of the polished sort of final product where you want to have perfect lighting and you want to have perfect you know easy interaction and navigation you know, that's kind of the space where we're working at. So the whole spectrum of architectural design and then taking it beyond that, real estate developers then hand off and want to pre-sell units or help their potential buyers understand what a space is going to look like. And so they're using it on the marketing and sales side. And then even after the building is completed, there's build outs and people that want to occupy that space and they want to bring furniture and materials and fixtures and finishes, and they want to visualize what that's going to look like. So all the way from conception, of the architectural design all the way to the completion of the building and beyond. I think there's a place in architecture for virtual reality all the way through that entire spectrum.

[00:06:08.435] Kent Bye: You mentioned earlier construction as well. How does the VR fit into the actual building and construction of the building?

[00:06:14.140] Jon Brouchoud: Well, right now, a lot of construction visualization happens with a program called Revit or ArchiCAD, and these are very complex programs that you can look at in a working drawing setting. So you're looking at it from plan, section, or elevation, and you're trying to visualize what that building is going to look like, but it's extremely difficult to understand what that building is actually going to be like when you're standing in the space. So I think virtual reality gives you a much more sort of practical sense of what a building is going to be like and there's nothing like being able to actually put yourself in a first-person perspective and look around in a space and say okay I get it I see where that column meets that beam and I see how this space is going to shape up in a way that again you're surprised sometimes you think you understand when you're looking at a Revit model or an architectural blueprint and then you look at it in virtual reality and it's actually something quite different so yeah for sure I think that's definitely a major difference.

[00:07:04.866] Kent Bye: And you talk about rapid iteration, but at this point, you're still kind of going from a 2D sketch up back into a virtual reality. Do you foresee a time where it would actually be feasible to be in VR and actually build out the building in VR without having to go back out and to look at it on a 2D screen?

[00:07:22.500] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, so our roadmap at ArchVirtual is pretty ambitious, and it includes building a system just like that. That's really where we want to go. We're starting simple, we're building a platform right now for interactivity, navigation, and interface, and we're trying to solve some of those difficult problems about motion sickness and interaction. But after we get that finished, the next thing we want to start working on is those building tools in the environment so that an architect or a designer could literally reach out and draw things. There was a video out not too long ago showing an artist, a Disney artist, creating sketches in real time in virtual reality. And I can imagine something very similar happening for architecture where architects can just use their broad stroke sort of arm motions to be able to sketch out walls and doors and windows and move walls around in real time and be able to see the impact immediately. Again, that's another no-brainer application I'm sure is going to become a reality in the very near future, and I hope we can help make that happen.

[00:08:16.687] Kent Bye: From an architectural perspective, how do you determine whether or not a building that you're making has structural integrity? Because I'd imagine in a time where in VR you could start to be a little bit more experimental, but perhaps it would work in a VR, but how do you integrate some sort of physics simulation, or how do you ensure and make sure that what you're making is actually going to be a sound building?

[00:08:38.758] Jon Brouchoud: I think a lot of that, that type of thing happens more behind the scenes where there's an engineering and sort of calculation that needs to happen to make sure the building is going to be structurally sound. I think the virtual reality, at least from my perspective, the virtual reality has a greater value in terms of visualization rather than structural integrity. But I could imagine in the future there could be real-time physics simulation that would make that very easy to understand.

[00:09:02.032] Kent Bye: Great, and so what type of projects are you working on now that you feel like are kind of like pushing the edge of what's possible with VR?

[00:09:09.666] Jon Brouchoud: So we've been really working hard on building a platform we call the Immerse Framework. And we haven't launched it yet officially, but it's again, it's a set of building blocks that we're using. You know, every project, every client has a feature request or two. You know, they say, you know, it'd be really cool if you could do this, or it'd be really cool if you could do that. And we've been paying attention to all the things we've learned that works and what doesn't work, and what causes motion sickness, how do we avoid that. And we're building it into a tool set. That's been the concentration of our effort for the past six months, and then layering that into a multiplayer component and offering sort of a private, secure option for multiplayer for the architectural clients. So yeah, we're kind of pivoting a little bit from services into platform, but we're also doing a lot of services to develop custom projects, but ultimately I think the The real opportunity in architecture is to give the people that are designing buildings the tools they need to create virtual reality experiences. So we want to be able to provide those tools and that's something we're really working hard on right now.

[00:10:07.566] Kent Bye: And what has been some of the reactions of both your clients that are looking at the building but also some of your other architectural colleagues?

[00:10:15.137] Jon Brouchoud: They're blown away. I mean, it's so much fun. I feel like I have the coolest job in the world when I show, you know, architectural colleagues, you know, virtual reality. Because they think they understand what it is, but they really don't until they try it on. And they put it on and they just are completely blown away. And it never fails that a couple of, you know, two or three days after a demo, I'll get phone calls from people that say that they can't sleep at night anymore. They just, they've seen this thing and it's so amazing and they want to do it and be a part of it. you know it just blows people away so it's really kind of exciting to see that that momentum building and that energy and excitement around it and very few if any people try it on and say, nah, this isn't going to be that great. You know pretty much everybody that tries it on says okay this is amazing and it's going to be the future of architecture so it's really exciting.

[00:11:00.120] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that there's been a number of threads on the Oculus subreddit where some intern at an architectural firm took it upon himself to, you know, start to put some of these blueprints into virtual reality and show it to the more senior architects. And I think one of the comments that came out was like, kind of the reaction of like, oh, this is almost like cheating to be able to see the building before you actually build it. And so to me, I just think that that's kind of an interesting reaction.

[00:11:26.313] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, absolutely. I think what happens is it's intimidating to a lot of people that feel like they don't have the capacity to get into this technology, or they just aren't in a place where they can adopt it soon enough. You know, it's a bit of a shock, like, wow, there's this amazing new technology, and if we don't get involved with this and understand it now, we're going to be left behind. So there is a really strong sense of urgency with people that try it that, OK, we need to figure this out, and we need to figure it out in a hurry, because otherwise everybody's going to be using it, and we're not, and we're not going to be able to remain competitive. So a lot of people see it, and they get very concerned that, yeah, they feel like this is cheating. This isn't fair. So yeah, it's pretty cool.

[00:12:04.072] Kent Bye: And so today is the day that Oculus is showing the Toy Box demos to this many people. And so you've had a chance to try it out. And I'm curious if there's any insights from the Toy Box demo and that type of social interaction that spurs any ideas for how something like that could be applied to architecture.

[00:12:20.020] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, absolutely. Right now we're in a place where it's all about visualization. And so, again, you just go into a space, you look around, and you can walk around a space, and that's already amazing. But you don't have your hands in that space. And, again, if we're talking about architectural design and enabling designers to be able to create spaces on the fly in real time, you have to have that input device. So when I was in the Toy Box demo, you know, it was fun, you know, playing with fireworks and all the cool things that are in there, but my mind was immediately on the architectural implications. of course, of being able to like, boy, I can use this to pick up this robot and play with it, but why couldn't this be a windows and doors and ceilings and a building? And then the multiplayer component to have the other person standing there with you is so powerful. Again, if it's an architect and a builder and a real estate developer, it's just, it is going to completely change the industry. So I think it's going to be amazing. It's the next paradigm shift in this whole virtual reality. evolution and it's really going to be fun to see how the input devices are going to be able to transform architecture as well.

[00:13:23.289] Kent Bye: So what type of experiences do you want to have in VR?

[00:13:26.638] Jon Brouchoud: Oh, that's a good question. You know, sometimes I get a little caught up in the sort of praxis of VR, and I'm just focused on what our clients are asking for and trying to build that, but then I like to step back and build artistic and creative things, and I think I'm missing some of that, and I really enjoy some of the very sort of artistic installation-type projects, and I miss that a little bit. Like, that's when originally when I started doing virtual reality, I was building more artistic sort of design you know, more whimsical things, and I'd like to get some time to get back to that, you know, I really enjoyed that, and I always enjoy it when other artists and developers are building things like that, so, I mean, because that's another thing that's just, there's nothing like it, you know, it's such a powerful medium, so I like that sort of thing as well.

[00:14:10.225] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:14:17.358] Jon Brouchoud: Yeah, I sort of have this, I don't know, it's like a vision or a fantasy at some point. The fidelity of virtual reality will get so real that it'll be indistinguishable from reality. And in my world, you know, building virtual creations of architecture before construction starts, I have this imaginary idea that someday people will be standing in the space considering whether they should build this building and what's wrong or what's right about it, and they'll realize that they no longer have to actually build it because they're already in it together, talking and meeting and collaborating. And I see that as the ultimate in sustainability. There couldn't be anything greener than not building a building at all. And so I see it as the ultimate in sustainability. And that's something I think we're talking about many, many years from now. It could be a pretty amazing day when we can interact and build any kind of architecture we want on the fly and not actually have to build it in the real world. Okay, great.

[00:15:11.480] Kent Bye: Well, thank you. Thank you. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

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