How can Virtual Reality change Architectural learning?

VR Architecture

Not too long ago, I did an expert round interview where five VR experts explained how Virtual Reality is changing the future of Architecture. From the many lessons, I learned thanks to the interview, one that struck me as having a lot of potential but did not get much comments was how VR can change the way Architecture is learned, both in and out of universities.

Currently, Virtual Reality in Architecture is focused on two areas. The first one relates to converting a 3D file (such as a Revit or SketchUp file) into a VR experience. The second one, which builds on the first one, relates to using the Virtual Reality space not only to view the design but also as a way to input information into the design. This would allow Architects to design within the VR space, without needing to go back and forth between different software.

However, these two areas do not fully exploit the potential of Virtual Reality in Architecture. In this post, we will explore two other areas that, I believe, could dramatically change how we learn Architecture and, as a result, change the Architecture world. The first area is what we could call virtual architectural visits. This area exploits the fact that existing buildings can be experienced without needing to be there in reality. The second area is what we could call fully immersive architectural learning. This area uses VR to generate 3D images of architectural related elements, such as a parapet detail, to assist in a faster and deeper learning experience and understanding of Architecture and construction.

Virtual Architectural Visits

The training to become an Architect requires a deep knowledge of forms, proportion, and space. Unfortunately, these skills are very hard to acquire in such a theoretical environment as university tends to be. The best and fastest way to acquire this knowledge is to fully experience the buildings themselves, which, due to time and money constraints, can be a very slow process.

Moreover, in our era of social media and viral images, building designs are also increasingly focused on achieving that render that looks extraordinary or that picture that takes your breath away. This focus can drive us away from the real Architecture, the one that lasts and, more importantly, positively influences the quality of the people using the buildings. This Architecture is very hard to translate into a photograph. It needs to be lived and experienced. It is an art that can only be fully experienced in 3 dimensions and, until now, the only way was to visit the buildings.

How can Virtual Reality change that?

With Virtual Reality, we can create Virtual Architectural Visits. Thanks to the improvement of computers, we are not too far from the time that it will be very hard to differentiate between a virtual reality and Reality (or being sat on a chair, looking around at the space near you).

In a few years’ time, you could sit in a university lecture, put your headset on, and have the professor guide you through the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from Frank Gehry or the Fallingwater House of Frank Lloyd Wright. The professor would guide you through the building and she would be able to highlight the points of interest, being able to stop at certain locations and, who knows, even being able to zoom in and change the point of view, maybe even seeing details that would otherwise be very difficult to capture in real life. What a powerful experience and what an engaging way to learn this would be! It would make the lessons more fulfilling and the memories more lasting, as they would be stored in the brain more as a real experience than as a theoretical form of knowledge. There are already companies offering a similar service, so implanting it in the Universities can become a reality very soon.

But apart from the obvious economical and speed benefits of not having to travel throughout the world to visit the buildings, there are also other benefits that VR would have compared to real life experience. The main ones are as follows:

  1. With virtual reality, the guide could use tools to create an augmented reality experience, being able to draw your attention to certain elements that might not be easy to explain in real life.
  2. Virtual reality would allow you to see the experience from different points of view. Points of view that would have been very difficult or impossible to reach in real life. For example, imagine being able to go into a bird view of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that explains the pedestrian flow from the city to the entrance, so you can understand in a more engaging way why Gehry designed it in the way he did. Also, you could fly out of the Fallingwater House and experience the house from the nature side, maybe even getting near the waterfall to see a unique perspective of this masterpiece.

These different characteristics would make this type of lessons an incredibly powerful learning tool, even surpassing building visits as one of the most profitable learning experiences.

Fully Immersive Architectural Learning

Architecture is, as we said, a 3-dimensional art. However, in the past, due to the lack of a proper technology, we had to invent ways to represent it in 2 dimensions, creating drawings that assisted in the construction of the building or element. No matter how useful and crucial these forms of representation have been, they have, as everything, their own limitations. One of the main limitations is that it makes the learning process slower and much more difficult. In the end, you are learning how to draw something on a paper, but you also need to learn how what you are drawing will look once it is built. It is, to a certain extent, like learning to read and to speak. They are two different but related forms of language.

Having to go through this middle step can be, in certain areas, very slow and challenging. Take, for example, detailing. As one of the most important parts of Architecture, it can become a very challenging learning process to fully understand the logic of the buildings. You can experience this when speaking with really experienced and technically focused Architects. Due to their experience on site, they are able to picture in their head and in 3 dimensions every single detail, which is extremely challenging when you are fresh out from the university. This is especially true of students from those many universities where there is not too much focus on the technical side of Architecture. In these cases, sometimes you are not really drawing the building, you are drawing lines.

How can Virtual Reality change that?

With Virtual Reality, it would be fairly easy to experience construction and detailing in 3 dimensions, at scale 1:1 without needing any on-site experience. It would be very easy to zoom into a detail, hide certain parts of it to see other parts and create animations that can explain in 3 dimensions, for example, how water might cause some stains on the facade if a certain coping detail is not properly designed.

Another example would be the study of different joint types for prefabricated structural elements and how that decision can impact the way the building moves over time. It is one thing to have that explained in a few 2D drawings (even if it is with an axonometric view), but it would be a completely different thing to put your headset on and run through an animation, displayed in 3D and 1:1 scale how that structure moves depending on the type of joint used. Due to the nature of our minds and memory, this second method would create a much more lasting memory in our minds, therefore improving our long-term understanding of the mechanics of joints.

The examples above are just a few of many and, for that reason, I believe that this sole change in the way that Architecture is taught could dramatically improve the speed of learning and the understanding of the principles behind the construction.

Conclusion

As we have seen, the Virtual Reality world within Architecture is currently focused on getting a good workflow between BIM and VR and on making VR more of an input tool than of a visualization tool. However, there is a whole different world to explore within Architecture learning.

First, Virtual Reality has the potential of being used for Virtual Reality visits, where students and Architects alike can be guided through a building without the need to travel to the specific location. The use of augmented reality could potentially make this visits even more insightful than the real ones.

Second, VR has the potential of being used to achieve a fully immersive architectural learning, where Virtual Reality assists 2D drawings in a fuller and more complete understanding of the principles that guide Architecture design.

This post was contributed by Architect Gadgets, a website created to help Architects improve their work life and productivity through the use of technology.

Jernej

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