Virtual reality graphics now harnessed to serve architects' imagination


Virtual reality, which uses computer graphics to simulate actual experience, is poised to go beyond its video-arcade role of enabling youths to zap space aliens. Instead of merely providing escapist entertainment, this emerging technology could revolutionize the inescapable art of architecture, enabling people to customize their homes and workplaces before a brick is laid.

Virtual reality has been employed to simulate an Olympic race course for a U.S. bobsledder preparing for the 1992 Winter Olympics. It has provided flight simulation for airline pilots and surgery training for doctors. NASA has used it to ready astronauts for space walks. Walt Disney Co. plans virtual reality exhibits for its American history theme park outside Washington.

Some futurists predict that virtual reality will offer "electronic sex" -- and that it will be the ultimate safe sex because a computer cannot be infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

The multibillion dollar entertainment industry is driving new developments in virtual reality. But designers may be able to piggyback on advances financed by the industry.

The impact on everyday life could be profound. Virtual reality now enables homeowners to lay out and select furnishings for kitchens. The technology exists to adapt office work stations to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-stress injuries. Archaeologists have used virtual reality to re-create a destroyed French church from the Middle Ages, while architects have constructed a virtual version of an unbuilt synagogue in Jerusalem.

In the future, urban designers may use the technology to determine whether proposed skyscrapers would cast shadows on streets and parks. And, instead of building a mock-up of rooms designed by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, museums could convey that experience through a medium that allows the viewer to walk through the rooms -- perhaps even change them.

Interaction is the key

"Interactivity is what virtual reality is all about," says virtual reality pioneer Myron Krueger of Vernon, Conn., named by Life magazine in 1990 as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

In general, virtual reality works like this: A head-mounted device is fitted with two small color monitors, one for each eye. Earphones provide stereo sound. Sensors detect head motion, providing different views as you turn around or from side to side. A glove lined with optical fibers records hand movement, allowing you to reach out and grab objects in the simulated environment.

Like actors in a play, these objects can be programmed with different qualities. A desk top, for example, might be adjusted up down. Sunlight and shadow patterns can be shown at different times of the day.

Some big architectural firms now use computer-assisted design to produce videos that take prospective clients into the lobby of a skyscraper, up the elevator and into their office. Virtual reality goes beyond that.

"We've gone from a simple blueprint to something like a movie," says John Trimble, president of Prairie Virtual Systems Corp., a Chicago start-up company that is a leader in the field. "The next step is that, instead of watching the movie on your monitor, you're in it. That's virtual reality."

Save on costly errors

Some architects assert that the technology will take the guesswork out of design and prevent costly errors that might go undetected by conventional drafting methods. Others predict that architects will be reluctant to adopt practices that could strip them of powers they have traditionally enjoyed over clients who found it difficult to read blueprints, sketches and models.

"Architecture has always been about control," says John Zukowsky, curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. "When a client looks at drawings or a model, they really don't know what they're looking at. But when they look at virtual reality, they know exactly what they're looking at. This is the scary part for architects."

Before most of these scenarios come to pass, significant practical obstacles must be overcome. A complete virtual reality system now costs between $15,000 and $500,000 -- far too expensive for even the largest architectural firms. "That's a lot of money for anybody," says Thomas Fridstein, managing partner of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

There also are technical problems to work out. Many architects complain about the crude, cartoon-like pictures produced by inexpensive virtual reality monitors; only the most costly monitors can deliver the high-resolution images designers desire. Also, head-mounted devices weigh as much as 3 1/2 pounds and are too uncomfortable for many users. And when the users move, it takes a split second for sensors to relay that information to the image-generating computer. The lag results for many users in nausea and disorientation.

Some analysts liken the current state of virtual reality to that of the personal computer 15 years ago. Those were the days before technological advances and economies of scale transformed an expensive product for the few into a reasonably priced product for the many.

"It's sort of a chicken and egg thing. Clients don't ask for it because they don't know it's available," says Ben Delaney, editor of the Cyber Edge Journal of Sausalito, Calif., the leading virtual reality newsletter. "Architects don't mention it to the clients because they think it's too expensive."

Price may plunge

But virtual reality's fortunes may be about to change. Entry-level systems have dropped in price to $15,000 from $100,000 five years ago, Mr. Delaney says. And according to the trade journal PC Week, a task force organized by the Clinton administration is expected to recommend federal funding for virtual reality technology early next year.

Also next year, Prairie Virtual plans to introduce what may be the nation's first virtual reality "service bureaus" in Chicago and two other cities. These bureaus will allow designers -- particularly, the small shops that make up the majority of architectural firms -- to rent out virtual reality systems for far less than it would cost to purchase the systems. The target market will span the range of prospective virtual reality users, from interior designers to urban planners.

Accessible and affordable

"We have to make this stuff accessible and affordable," says Mr. Trimble, who declined to specify prices at the bureaus.

Virtual reality has demonstrated its value as architects try to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The act requires that all public places be accessible to people in wheelchairs and those with other disabilities.

Consider what Deerfield, Ill.-based architects O'Donnell Wicklund Pigozzi and Peterson (OWP&P;) learned after they prepared preliminary drawings for a 140-bed branch of Copley Memorial Hospital now under construction in Aurora. The architects tested their design on Prairie Virtual's "Wheelchair VR" software program. Donning a head-mounted display and glove, they sat in a wheelchair linked to a computer.

The couldn't reach faucets

What they discovered surprised them. The bowl of a bathroom sink would have blocked the knees of wheelchair users, preventing the users from reaching faucet handles. Before construction began, the mistake was corrected, saving an estimated $56,000 in change orders. In contrast, the cost of testing a design on the virtual reality system ranges from $5,000 to $10,000.

"A lot of times, clients walk into a space when it's 90 percent complete and say, 'Oh, that's what I'm getting,' " says Daniel Cincelli, a partner at OWP&P.; With virtual reality, he added, "they can actually go into a room before it's built and judge whether it works."

OWP&P; also used the software to maximize patients' views of the landscape surrounding Copley Hospital. Testing the perspective from hospital beds, the architects realized the standard, 3-foot-high window sills did not provide the soothing vistas of trees and shrubs they desired. Using a virtual reality glove, they lowered the sills to 2 feet high. Suddenly, trees and shrubs came into view.

Let's rearrange the furniture

Earlier this year, Prairie Virtual Systems extended the lessons of Wheelchair VR to a software program that helps designers create barrier-free office work stations. The project, developed in conjunction with the Knoll Group, a New York-based office furniture company, was unveiled at the Neocon trade show in Chicago. With help from a head-mounted device and glove, it enabled the user to arrange and adjust furniture and accessories, including a computer keyboard, cabinets and telephones.

Designers gave the system mixed reviews, with many saying they were more impressed with the project's potential than its reality.

A spokeswoman for Knoll, which claims to be the first major furniture manufacturer to demonstrate the application of virtual reality to the office industry, says the company "will continue to evaluate the benefits of virtual reality as this technology matures."

Japanese can design kitchens

Other firms have jumped into the virtual reality market by bringing the technology into the home. For example, Palo Alto, Calif.-based VPL Research Co., founded by virtual reality whiz kid Jaron Lanier, created a system that allows Japanese shoppers to don virtual reality gear and co-design their kitchens with sales personnel, selecting from 35,000 kitchen components.

In France, scholars have employed virtual reality for less prosaic means: They created a computer simulation of the abbey church at Cluny, once the largest in Christendom, which was destroyed after the French Revolution. Officials credit the project with a revival of interest in the abbey, which was founded in 909. Its church, which was approximately 600 feet long and 100 feet high, can now be experienced through a headset equipped with video screens.

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