Technology is the great economic and societal disruptor, and Virtual Reality (VR) is one of its latest incarnations. What mostly started as a means to create more immerse gaming experiences has since expanded into other fields such as medicine, engineering, architecture, construction and, more recently, urban planning and design.
VR is soon to explode in our collective imaginations with the upcoming Spielberg movie Ready Player One (YouTube trailer: https://youtu.be/cSp1dM2Vj48 ) from the eponymous book. Set in the year 2044 it shows our world on the brink of ecological collapse and people ‘fleeing’ to a VR program called Oasis.
VR is a representation of a created world (be it based in our own or imagined), or reality, generally using computer graphics that is multimedia and immersive. That is, it tends to incorporate moving imagery and sound that adapts to where we look, move our hands, or even walk, making it highly believable.
Before you arrive to a completely immersive experience that tries to substitute the real environment, i.e. VR, there are other technologies along the spectrum which blend the virtual with the real, overall these are referred to as Mixed Reality (MR). Within MR you can experience mostly real environments with a minimal virtual overlay (i.e. Augmented Reality or AR) or mostly a virtual environmental with some real-world content (i.e. Augmented Virtuality). But in everyday use MR has become mostly synonymous with MR.
Probably the single most important element for VR to work are the Heads Mounted Displays (HMD). These are the goggles that are placed over your face and provide a feeling of being in the virtual space. Thanks to the popularisation of gaming VR headsets, spearheaded by Oculus Rift ( https://www.oculus.com/ ) and the HTC Vive (https://www.vive.com/au ), what once was the realm of expensive research setups is now a consumer product, affordable enough to experiment with.
Whilst it has less market awareness immersive AR is also fast progressing to become main stream. Probably the most important HMD in this technology is Microsoft’s Hololens (https://www.microsoft.com/en-au/hololens ), but its current asking price is significantly higher than that of most VR headsets.
The other key element of making VR and AR more immersive and interactive is motion tracking. It allows the position of the whole or part of our bodies to be mapped in real time and be placed in the VR-AR environment and even interact with virtual objects (e.g. pick up a juice computer generated red apple). What is mostly commonly tracked are eyes, hands and sometimes the general position of our bodies and this is done through cameras, gloves, wands, room sensors, etc.
The truth is representing ideas, concepts and designs in a manner more akin to how we view the world is an old concept, easily traced back to the development of perspective drawing in the Italian Renaissance. What is different is that traditional 2D perspective representations of our 3D world cannot not fool our senses into feeling we are in an environment with depth and volume; AR and VR start to do precisely this.
This opens new possibilities in how we explore scenarios for the future; for what is urban planning and urban design but an attempt to imagine and create better places to live, work and enjoy.
There are two main general use case scenarios for VR-AR in our professions: communication and creation.
The benefits of using these technologies as a communication tool in urban planning and design are significant. Many people are not familiar with how our professions represent the urban environment. People may not understand, or even be scared by terms like density, vibrancy, transport oriented development. Drawing of elevations, plans and sections can be hard to comprehend and may not convey the complexities and subtleties of how humans would perceive a new park or apartment block. Even 3D computer renderings are limited to particular viewpoints and provide limited information of how you can use and inhabit a space. It is the case that many times we are not talking the same ‘language’ of the community, investors, decision makers.
The artist Chris Milk says it best: “The true power of VR … [is that] it connects humans to other humans in a profound way” (Chris Milk’s TED Talk – YouTube )
The use of VR and AR to assist in the design process is still largely experimental but could be one of the most transformative opportunities to express and shape our urban thinking since the invention of the computer. The ability to use your hands to quickly model a 3D digital environment will increase the immediacy of how we design our towns and cities (early examples Are). It also presents the possibility for people not familiar with complexities of 3D modelling software to be able to contribute to creation of plans for their urban environment. Early examples of this this application are being developed mostly by universities and GIS/CAD software giants such as ESRI, Autodesk and Bentley (YouTube video of a demonstration project ).
Whilst still nascent some projects using AR and VR are showing its promising nature, in particular for communicating the true feeling of being there and interactivity to facilitate collaboration:
- Viewing the past – Christchurch, in New Zealand’s south island, has been severely hit by several earthquakes since 2010 that have resulted in most of the buildings in the CBD being severely damaged and needing to be demolished. Pre-earthquake Christchurch is now a memory and for many people hard to conceive. The Human Interface Technology Lab the University of Canterbury has recreated an AR reality app that can easily be used on Android smartphones to see, superimposed over the gaps in the city, the vanished historic buildings (source).
- Solar Analysis – Co Architects have used the Hololens development kit to create an application that, based on traditional paper drawings, allows for the creation of simple geometries and subsequent shadow testing. All of this is done using simple gesture controls adding to the immediacy and realism of the whole process (source)
- Future infrastructure – VR is being used by Transport Canberra and City Services to share with the community how the new Gungahlin Town Centre will be affected by the proposed light rail, bus and shared zone. The VR simulation, made available in the local library in late 2017, allowed residents and local businesses to ‘be there’ and understand the impacts on their daily lives (source )
- Better streets – the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), in collaboration with a Dutch engineering firm, are advocating for major cycle improvements for the route from Old Street to Oxford Street (also referred to as the London Boulevard). The Boulevard is the busiest cycle route, outside of the cycle superhighways, yet it is has no dedicated cycle infrastructure. LCC is using VR to lobby for changes from Camden Council and other decision makers by showcasing alternatives to make it a safer route for cyclists ( source )
- Community perspectives – the high speed rail project between London and Manchester (AKA HS2) is a major infrastructure project that is to impact the suburb of Euston, London. To capture the personal, intimate stories of the affected local residents and businesses the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture have used VR. The result is the intimate experience of Palimpsest which, according to its creators, captures a depth of feeling that traditional media can’t hope to achieve (source )
Larger architectural firms such CarrierJohnson + Culture, CannonDesign, CO Architects, Payette are employing VR modellers, haptic interface designers (i.e. touch interfaces) and even Chief Technology Officers with the aim to full integrate these technologies in how they work, collaborate and communicate. Where are these future roles in urban planning and design? There are a multitude of opportunities around VR and AR just waiting to be realised in our professions.
Instead of simply using VR-AR for recreation and evasion we can use it to scope, design, iterate and communicate the benefits of more human, compact urban environments. Let us not regret Player One Ready as an eerie prediction of what is to come… Let us instead use VR-AR to improve the real world.