Confronted with the need to maintain social distancing and minimize direct contact with clients, many design firms have turned to visualization tools such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) during the past few months as means of increasing engagement with clients and facilitating virtual design planning and decision-making.

This is likely to be merely the first step towards tapping the considerable potential these of technologies. As several recent studies have demonstrated, beyond their function as presentation and communication tools, virtual reality and immersive visual environments (IVE) can be employed in many other ways to aid and advance the design process.

Although AR and VR technologies have been in development for a number of years and are being used in fields as varied as retail, mining, healthcare, and education, the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry has been slow to adopt to them. So finds a team of researchers led by Mojtaba Noghabaei at North Carolina State University who surveyed industry leaders twice (in 2017 and again in 2018) to assess whether and how their attitudes toward these technologies may have changed as their use has become more widespread.

They found a significant increase in adoption in the second survey results, particularly in residential and commercial construction. Moreover, respondents believed that there would be solid growth in the use of these technologies within the next five to 10 years, especially in healthcare construction.

In relating their findings, the researchers point to several possible new uses for the technologies that would increase their benefit and warrant the investment in deploying them. Linked with the data from building information management (BIM) programs, builders, architects and designers could use VR to show clients the price impacts of changes to certain material choices in real time, thus improving cost estimations and reducing the need for change orders later.

Members of the team also could simultaneously visualize BIM data in a virtual environment rendering them in 3D, helping to identify potential conflicts in design. Using VR, clients could be shown various lighting configurations and their impact on energy costs and management to achieve a better quality of lighting and greater efficiency.

Researchers at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, investigated how IVE technology, which allows the user to interact with the virtual environment they are viewing, could be used to assess safety risks for different users in a particular interior space. They created a virtual two-story residential apartment and then, applying spatial scale perception, had subjects explore the space from four different perspectives, that of a two-year-old, an eight-year-old, an adult in a wheelchair, and an adult with normal mobility.

The subjects indeed were able to detect risks that they otherwise would have missed, had they only used the perspective they were accustomed to. The researchers conclude, “VR has the potential to improve and accelerate the design process by letting the designers and stakeholders experience different designs from many perspectives within virtual environments.”

One of the advantages of using certain types of VR technologies is that you can capture data on the viewer’s experience, thus adding quantitative input to the viewer’s qualitative response. A team of researchers headed by Deborah Wingler in the School of Architecture, Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing at Clemson University conducted a study to demonstrate how VR can be a viable research platform for supporting evidence-based design practices by eliciting both subjective insights and objective data.

Subjects were shown three alternative virtual designs for a preoperative room in an ambulatory surgical environment and asked to evaluate which seemed to be the best design option. Their responses were gathered using surveys, interviews and the data from the VR platform. The data confirmed the viewers’ subjective preference for one of the designs, showing, say the researchers, that VR can be an effective evidence-based tool for helping designers evaluate multiple design options.

These are just some of the innovative ways VR technologies can be employed to assist designers and improve their designs and the design process. They have the potential to improve and speed up decision-making, reduce changes and shorten implementation schedules, minimize errors and risks, and increase return on investment and profitability. No doubt as their use becomes more mainstream, designers will discover many other benefits as well.