Several decades after the preliminary hype surrounding its initial development, virtual reality has finally come into its own as commercially viable product for the consumer and retail markets.
Breakneck technological advances in the field of virtual reality over the past two decades have made full sensory immersion in digital worlds a convincing and affordable experience, as well as one which is well within reach of the average consumer.
This paradigm shift in the availability of virtual reality technology is exemplified by the blitz of hardware devices currently swarming the market, including Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR as well as HTC Vive.
While much of media hype surrounding virtual reality has dwelt upon its implications for entertainment and gaming, the technology is set to have an equally profound impact upon a slew of other industries that draw much less press buzz.
Chief amongst them are the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors, for which virtual reality will be particularly useful given that their professional remit focuses upon the creation and manipulation of real world, physical environments.
“Virtual reality isn’t just going to have massive implications in the media and entertainment industry for movies and games, – it’s going to have even bigger implications for architecture, engineering and construction.” said Brett Casson, digital infrastructure leader, Autodesk, at the sidelines of Autodesk University 2016 in Sydney.
Casson said virtual reality is set to become an especially powerful tool for the AEC sectors once it’s employed in tandem with the reality capture technologies based on as data-rich point clouds.
The combination of virtual reality with reality capture will make it possible for architects or designers based in urban offices to directly immerse themselves in spatially remote real world environments.
“A big thing we’re going to see soon is rapid reality capture and virtual reality enabling you to place yourself in those real world environments,” said Casson. “We’ll be able to go out into the real world and calculate and capture a physical environment, in order to recreate it as a virtual reality environment.”
While the ability to immerse people in digital recreations of real world environments already provides members of the AEC sector with a extraordinary professional tool, the next step will be enabling them to view or interact with simulations of these environments in real time once the technology becomes quick enough.
“We’re likely to see this technology become live within the next 10 years,” said Casson. “This will mean immersing yourself in a live virtual environment that portrays a simultaneous capture of the real world, with zero bandwidth issues or latency.
“You could be sitting in your office, and all you need to do is put on your untethered headset in order to a view a given site coming in.”
Another key to achieving live virtual reality will be the development of more sophisticated devices for automating the process of reality capture in the field.
“We already have a recap robot that can automatically capture a site without any human intervention,” said Casson. “The next evolutionary step will be correlating what happens terrestrially with what happens aerially, and fusing drone operations with terrestrial laser scanning in order to push all that data into the virtual environment automatically.
“There’s a big push within the construction industry to remove that human element yet still be confident that the data is good.”
The benefits and practical implications of this kind of technology could be immense for the AEC sector across a number of areas.
Live VR could dramatically enhance the design process at the outset of a project, by enabling architects to inhabit, view and manipulate their own digital copies of physical reality, in a process Autodesk refers to as “Live Design.”
“Live Design is rapid VR, and the idea that you take your own designs developed on an architectural platform and transport them directly into a virtual reality environment,” said Casson. “It’s a seamless integration into a virtual reality environment with a one button push.”
Viewing the likely outcome of architectural plans via immersion in virtual reality, as opposed to reviewing blueprints or 3D models on 2D computer screens, will enable designers and clients alike to achieve a far better sense of their actual wants and needs when it comes to complex projects.
“The whole process of design reviews can be virtualised, and all of our 3D tools can be pushed into this environment to make it a much more immersive experience,” Casson said.