Virtual and augmented reality aren’t just novelty items—the technology has serious applications for architects, advertisers and corporations.
Some of the innovation in that space is going on in North Texas.
Steve Dietz, CEO and founder of 900lbs of Creative, said more corporations, including companies with a large North Texas presence such as Pepsi and Toyota, are coming to them for VR training, safety and education. 900lbs of Creative makes VR and AR content for a variety of clients from its Bishop Arts District office in West Dallas.
Companies like 900lbs of Creative are riding the wave of innovation that's sweeping the tech industry and could change how people learn and experience the world. While it's been slow to penetrate the consumer market, there's a reason architecture firms, advertisers and other companies are dedicating resources to the space.
“I think the most compelling transition that’s happening in the space is the transition [from] the wow experiences to the practical experiences,” Dietz said.
Virtual reality is a huge shift for the architecture world, which has traditionally relied on 2-dimensional floor plans or maybe 3-dimensional videos. But, the 360-degree VR walkthrough is much easier for non-architects to interpret.
As Tina Larsen, a principal with Corgan, said, when the VR goggles come on, the light bulb goes off.
“It’s really hard for a lot of people to visualize, especially interior spaces,” Larsen said. “You put someone in a virtual reality experience and it’s totally immersive and they get it. They start to understand the scale of the space because they’re right there.”
For example, John Peter Smith hasn’t broken ground on its new medical clinic in Euless but the doctors there have already taken virtual walkthroughs of the facility, especially the exam rooms. Corgan, the architect for the project, rendered the entire building so the client could do a VR walkthrough.
“If they’re just looking at the floorplan, it’s kind of a leap of faith,” Larsen said.
It’s so real that one doctor almost tried to sit in a stool in the exam room, forgetting that everything he was seeing was digital.
VR allows them to design intelligently and with the confidence of the client because they can see how the spaces function, Larsen said.
The advertising world is beginning to use VR too.
“We’re seeing more applications for real-life problems for different industries,” said Hunter Woodlee, VR program director for Fjord.
To demonstrate the power of AR, Fjord developed BrickClick, a software program that uses the Microsoft Hololens to help assemble LEGOS. The lens displays digital instructions showing what pieces to pick up and how they come together on top of the real world. Unlike VR, the user can still see the real world but there are graphics and information overlaid on top of it.
It could help consumers assemble furniture or help a technician fix a car.
Another VR application developed by Fjord aims to help new wheelchair users navigate urban environments. Sensors are placed on the chair so the user can spin the wheels and move through the 360-degree world they are viewing through the VR goggles. The world is digital but simulates many of the same obstacles and spacial challenges they will encounter in the real world. The designers wanted to create a simulation that helps people without looking like a video game, which would trivialize a serious matter, Woodlee said.
“It shows the power behind this, the potential,” Woodlee said.
Reaching the masses
The best VR headsets have to be tethered to a computer. And even the mobile headsets aren’t truly mobile because users could bump into a wall.
But that is changing fast.
“We’re seeing the technology get more open, easier to use and cheaper,” Dietz said. “Tetherless is making a big splash in the space because you’re not locked down with cords and only able to move a certain distance.”
New depth-tracking technology senses walls and other object in the space so users can walk around freely.
“We stay on the forefront of our research and development, always looking to use it in a unique way,” Dietz said. “ It couldn’t be a more exciting time for interactive labs and development teams.”
For the architects at Corgan, the technology has improved so much that they can now upload an entire airport terminal as one continuous space, something that wasn’t possible even a year ago.
They can also pack up all the equipment now, laptop, goggles and hand controls, to take on the road to show clients.
Next, Corgan wants to be able to have more than one person immersed in the environment at one time. And they want to be able to make real-time changes to the environment while the client is watching.
Editor's note: This article was updated on 6/28/17 to correct an earlier version of this article that incorrectly stated one of the application that Fjord Design and Innovation has created, the company developed a VR application that helps new wheelchair users navigate urban environments.