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May 09, 2022 By IIDA HQ
Perspective: State of Being | How To X
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Look to the future: rethinking space, workplace culture, and the rules of design using cutting-edge technologies.
By IIDA HQ May 09, 2022
Published in Perspective
Brought to you by sponsor

Kat Schneider, IIDA, a digital design application specialist within the Interior Architects (IA) Design Intelligence team, shares her insight on using adapting transformative technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), to enhance the design process, improve the client experience, and provide new dimensions, experiences, and information that challenge our traditional notions of space.

How Far Can We Take This? Possibilities are Endless!

Most people only talk about VR and AR but I really love the umbrella term that they fall under, which is extended reality (XR). To me that's a perfect representation of how we're utilizing it in our process—as an extension of what we already know how to do in our physical reality. What VR and AR are really, really phenomenal at is making the invisible visible. In augmented reality, we could visualize a space plan on the fly or pull out furniture and see how it fits into an existing space. This is much more easily done in that context than in a two dimensional form.

On the VR side of things, we've been very fortunate to not only use it to represent design in a physical space, but we're actually moving into the realm of creating entirely digital environments: some are loosely based on physical or digital twin versions of physical spaces, and some are departures from what you would expect in the physical world. The way technology plays out in our practice varies drastically, depending on the problem we're trying to solve.

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Digital Design Application Specialist Kat Schneider, IIDA
Digital Design Application Specialist Kat Schneider, IIDA

Redefining the Design Process

In the design industry in general, there's a ton of real-time rendering applications. Those enable designers to visualize exactly what's in our Revitt or BIM model across the different VR and AR mediums. One of the platforms we utilize, The Wild, does a great job of translating the complexity, the data, and the information that's embedded in our BIM models and make it easily legible in VR so we can query different objects to get the embedded information visible.

With everything we do in VR, we're most interested in how the medium can support the types of experiences that we find the most valuable. So on the design side, that might be enabling our designers or end users to directly interact with furniture as we’re able to move things quickly in VR, change the material of something on the fly, mark things up, or test in a more malleable immersive medium. We find that when you're in VR you have a heightened sense of playfulness that can yield a really beautiful design, because you feel more comfortable shifting things around and making adjustments in the plan view or elevation view of the design. It definitely helps with rapid iteration and the overall creative process that our designers already do countless times a day on their projects.

Introducing Technology to the Client Experience

It's a really important responsibility—and it's so funny, too! The process of introducing a client to those technologies ends up being two to five minutes of getting someone to put the headset on. We definitely feel very responsible for having that experience go well, because every time we're introducing VR, we’re in some way, shape, or form trying to get folks on board with the larger shift of headset culture in general.

A couple of things we found along the way is that you cannot force anyone into VR—and that’s certainly not what we’re trying to do. Our approach is to have someone from our team who's already familiar with the technology drive the experience in the headset and wait to gauge a client's level of interest before putting it on their face. We also like to share or stream whatever is happening in the headset. That way if you're not feeling like you want to jump directly in, you can sort of dip your toe in the water. Then, once you feel like you're ready, you can raise your hand and have that experience. We find that this provides a softer transition.

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XR image of a final design for client, image courtesy of Interior Architects.
XR image of a final design for client, image courtesy of Interior Architects.
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IAXR Atlanta studio community event image courtesy of Interior Architects.
IAXR Atlanta studio community event image courtesy of Interior Architects.

VR for VR’s Sake, or What Not to Do

There are a lot of platforms out there available in many different forms. If you're a junior designer at a firm and you're trying to get by on VR, the best advice I could give you is just go out and do that proof of concept. We've all run into what I lovingly refer to as “VR for VR’s sake,” which is when you put the headset on, and you have some type of experience that doesn't really need to be in VR in order to be successful—it's really just in VR to be in VR. The biggest thing I can encourage people to do is to use VR and AR to solve a problem and to be really intentional about how those technologies can solve that problem in a meaningful way. Then the conversation becomes less about a new technology you’re trying to introduce, and more about a new tool with which you can communicate something that's complicated. In my opinion, that's definitely really important.

The Power of Community and Democratizing the Process

The design community in general is very collaborative but I find the shockingly small world of VR and AR to be even more tight knit. There’s folks along the way that work outside of our industry entirely, who are gathered around the momentum of this exciting influx of new technology—those people are willing to stop and teach you something. It is through that process of sharing knowledge that you end up learning. Also, a lot of the VR and AR authoring tools and platforms are either open-source or very easily accessed. I think that's an important undercurrent of the VR and AR world—that a lot of folks feel very strongly about democratizing access to how you learn and how you jump right into this whole world of the virtual and the augmented. There’s so much I’ve learned from that community.

The Future is Now

I'm very excited about the fact that we are encountering less and less people who haven’t had their first experience with VR. It’s a huge encouraging sign that people are happening upon VR and AR more and more in their everyday life—for example, through Amazon where they're able to represent in AR something they're about to buy. I love that people are arriving to us with some type of experience, whether it was good or bad, and a willingness to continue down that rabbit hole to solve other problems.

What I'm excited about at the core technology side is every iteration of a new headset or whatever type of hardware—it seems like we're moving more closely to the technology working as an extension of what we already do and how we already interact. So with things like hand tracking or eye tracking, and as the headset form gets lighter and lighter, I think the intimidation factor dissolves a bit. People can now have a really great VR experience, because they already know how to use their hands and the headset is already looking at where they're trying to go. As a result those intelligent guidance things make the experience a little bit more seamless.

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The biggest thing I can encourage people to do is to use VR and AR to solve a problem and to be really intentional about how those technologies can solve that problem in a meaningful way.
Kat Schneider
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Kat Schneider

Meetings Reimagined

We have proof of the fact that when you create a digital clone of a real space, people already know everything about it—where the conference rooms are, where to go, what to do. It’s not a totally different thing they've never experienced, rather the technology becomes part of how you live. That's really exciting.

And I'd be remiss, not to mention that, through the course of the pandemic, the digital environments that we created, both for ourselves and for our clients, became a really important place to have safe and meaningful interactions with each other at a time when we couldn't be safely in the same room. So it was in the midst of the pandemic that we had all of our firm's leadership get together in a digital environment that we had created and that was so amazing to see. Just a group of people gathered around a virtual fire pit having a conversation that had nothing and everything to do with work. It's like all of those social interactions that we couldn't have together we were able to replicate in an entirely different way. We found that we didn't have to be in the same room to have a meaningful connection with somebody.

Breaking the Rules of Design

What I think is really fun and becomes playful is that designers can check certain limitations at the door when it comes to virtual environments. For example, there's no weather in VR, so if we want to have a whole huge open patio with a projection screen, we can do that. But I love when the two are connected—when the virtual environment has some nods to the physical, but it also has a very intentional attitude about what rules we can break and still have it feel like an actual space. I remember one of our first projects: a digital twin of our Atlanta studio. There was a lot that was already set in stone and built, but there were certain things like desks—we don't really need desks in VR, because if you're going to do solo work you'll just do that solo work on your computer! This allowed us to free up this whole area of the floor space in the digital space to add that fire pit, to add a little reflecting pool, and benches…Just space where you can be “outside” in VR. You wouldn’t be able to work outside in the real world 365 days a year. But now, it’s like, if you want to meet in the French countryside, you could do that. Especially if the experience is really well crafted you can use that as an intentional departure from how you do the rest of your work.

(Below: IAXR Atlanta studio meeting, image courtesy of Interior Architects)

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