VR Visionaries #5: Matthew Vitti, VR Architect, TCA Architects

Matthew Vitti, AIA, LEED AP is a VR Architect, for TCA Architects in California. He is using this new technology to augment the practice of architecture to help optimize work flow and project potentials.

How are TCA Architects using VR and what results are you seeing?

Well we do use VR in a variety of ways. The basic premise and value of VR in architecture is that you can access the scale of a building on a project. Without the VR technology you can’t do that – it’s not possible. You can’t access the feeling of standing in a building.

Architects always talk about the way a building feels. What they’re really talking about is the scale of the building, and the relationship of your personal scale to the scale of the overall space – VR allows you to tap into that scale. The way we use VR within TCA is to supplement our internal process. Designers and production team members can jump in and out of VR whenever they need. It depends entirely on the complexity of the project and the project needs.

At any time our designers can access VR and use it to understand completely, in full clarity, the scale of the space, the feel of the space and many other multidimensional items that cannot be expressed or ascertained through conventional means – it’s just not possible.

It’s important to note that our job as architects is the visual representation of data. When we create drawings and construction documents, those drawings are used to construct the building. They have to be very clear and extremely concise so that the building can be put together.VR not only shows you what is in the architect’s mind, but lets you look around and explore what is inside their head. Being able to actually step inside the design is invaluable to an architect.

What benefits do you think VR and AR can bring to architecture, and business in general?

I always say that for architects especially, VR saves time and money. Why and how? Well, VR accelerates the understanding curve – the way clients comprehend your project. Basically it levels the playing field when it comes to understanding Architectural data by placing you directly in the environment.

For example we had a project in Burbank, California where at the centre of the project there was a plaza. We had two buildings – a hotel and a residential building – either side of the plaza. There was a lot of back and forth about whether there would be a kind of canyon effect if the buildings are too high in comparison to the size of the plaza. Literally for months we were sending diagrams, conception drawings – there’s just no way to draw it. There wasn’t a traditional way to solve that problem.

To solve this problem we physically went to the approvers of the project and placed them in the plaza itself using VR. I asked them to look up and describe what they saw. From that moment, the back and forth discussing this problem was over. There were no more meetings and no more questions. The question had been answered by technology. The question was, “is this going to be a canyon effect?” Without VR we wouldn’t really know that until the buildings had been built. To place people in the project before you’ve even broken ground, that’s an incredibly powerful tool to have in the toolbox.

All of that is without even discussing marketing. We handle workflow – from the beginning, we go all the way to the end and will help to market the building. We already have the content that we have created throughout the whole process. We get the 3D content to a level where you feel like you’re actually standing in the unit with every texture is incredibly realistic. I’ve seen people in my VR buildings almost fall over as they reach for things, or trying to put the HTC Vive controllers down on tables that don’t exist.

Another way in which VR has changed the game for architects is perception. Typically, buildings are designed from the outside in, but with VR the very nature of what you are creating demands that you view the project from the inside out. For example, if I have a detailed VR model of a project in which you plan to purchase or rent. You won’t care as much about the view of your balcony as the view from your balcony. If I show you a high-rise tower in VR, you’re not going to be concerned what the building looks like from the outside. Instead, you’re going to be concerned with what your view is from the living room; the bedroom; when you’re washing dishes. As a real estate agent, you also don’t have to spend the money – and crucially miss out on the extra revenue – from using model units help market the building. You can start to market the building before it is even built.

There’s one more thing I want you to think about. We’re having this discussion over the phone right now, but if you have a VR set-up in your office, we could be handling this call in VR, in the actual space we are talking about. Video conferencing is obsolete the moment you consider that we could be looking around the very thing we’re discussing, with each of us represented by an avatar so that we can interact. We conference not only internally at TCA in this way, but also with our clients. They have the ability to shift walls, move features around, and configure the building to their exact specifications in real time.

Outside of TCA, what other VR or AR implementations have impressed you?

I’m going to say something controversial here. AR: it’s not ready yet. It’s coming, but it’s not ready yet. The HoloLens is not the end. There’s a step to the HoloLens that we haven’t seen yet.

The combination of VR and AR together is incredible. I like the portability of the HoloLens, and the thing that I’m looking forward to seeing with AR is the ability to have multiple people in the same virtualised environment.
You can’t have two people in a Vive space at the moment because they can’t see each other. They’re just going to run into each other and hurt themselves.

With HoloLens we can all be in the same room and experience something together. However they have a lot of problems they need to solve before it’s anywhere near ready for consumers. I think AR is going to bring a lot more collaboration back to the technology – allowing not only virtual collaboration but also physical at the same time – meaning there are multiple people in a room that can not only see each other and interact but who can also all see the same virtual environment.

Are there new applications for VR arising in your business and how do you think these will evolve?

We’re always evolving our technical capabilities, and we’re looking to create some proprietary tools that will make VR easier to use. VR is new technology, and to a lot of people that is very scary. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary.

With all the technology that we have – touchscreen tablets, phones and computers – the way technology is going, we’re becoming a one touch world. If you’re beyond two touches then you’re behind the curve. So we’re looking to make the VR experience for our clients much easier.

You and I are practically digital natives, so this new technology really isn’t too difficult for us. However for a lot of people, this is a huge step outside of their comfort zones. It’s incredibly important to reduce the difficulty of accessing this, not least because the value of using VR is so great.

For the entire audience of this interview, VR is great and exciting and an evolutionary step forward. For me, VR is a complete revolution because as an architect I operate on the data that I get from VR. VR doesn’t have to change everything, but it can. You just have to adjust the meter on how much you want VR to change the way you operate.

What are the biggest barriers to widespread VR adoption?

I think there are three – one theoretical and two practical.

The theoretical barrier is that people need to move beyond thinking that VR is only for games. Don’t get me wrong, games are really important – they’re the largest entertainment medium on the planet right now. When the last Grand Theft Auto was released it made over a billion US dollars in a matter of days. No other medium can do that. It’s also true that the current wave of VR has come about as a direct result of the games industry. However, where it is most valuable is in business.

The practical barrier is computing power and cost. The cost isn’t really that expensive. Sure, to an everyday person 800USD for a Vive is expensive when a PS4 costs 300 or 400USD. An Oculus Rift is a little cheaper, and with the recently announced price drop, you’re lnow ooking at around 600-650USD including Touch controllers. That’s expensive – but not prohibitive.

The larger barrier is the computing power that you need. My laptop right now has 16GB Video Card Memory and 64GB RAM – that is quite a powerful system but more is required for VR. You can get away with a simpler and more cost effective solution, but overall the power you will need is most likely beyond your current computer.

So those are the biggest blockers to widespread consumer adoption I think. To a business, the cost of the headset and the computing power needed to run it is next to nothing. When I show people the business use for this technology, they practically fall over themselves to invest and bring those benefits to their business.

The final barrier I consider is personnel. Around about 8 years ago or so a BIM Manager wasn’t part of a traditional architecture office because there wasn’t a demand or need for their services. However, at the onset of BIM and Revit technologies, this person became an important role for any firm looking to progress into the BIM standard or documentation. The same will be for VR. I created my own title – VR Architect – to let people know that although I currently handle the technological aspects of VR in architecture, I come from an architecture background and am licensed in California. This role of VR Architect is very similar to BIM Manager and many more firms will need a VR Architect as they begin to dive into the world of VR.