The Architectural Promise of Virtual Reality

Image Credit: Gear VR //  Samsung

Image Credit: Gear VR // Samsung

'Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.'
Mark Zuckerberg

Throughout history, there have been distinct moments that have changed the path of society forever. In the last few decades, we’ve seen technological advancements at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to keep up.

In less than a year, we’ll be formally introduced to the reinvention of an old technology that is just now finding its stride – Virtual Reality. Although it’s been in and out of favor for over two decades, VR has begun to really pick up steam.

VR 101


If you’re completely lost at this point, don’t worry. Simply put, VR is just an interface. The difference though between VR and say television, movies, a phone, or your computer is that you directly interact with a headset (and in some cases a wide variety of accessories) that recreate a fully-realized, but digital world in front of you. Ideally, you can perceive this digital space the same way as you would your own physical world.


So what’s different? The technology has finally caught up with the idea. The major reason that VR never really took off was because of one tiny detail – latency. Latency is basically the difference in time that your commands or movement have from the display or computer’s ability to react accordingly. When latency is high, your mind can begin to differentiate between images and sense that what it is perceiving is untrue. This is bad. However, when latency is low, your brain allows the images and information to bleed together as though the display is a continuous experience - directly analogous to how your mind naturally understands the real world. This is good.


In March 2014, Oculus VR was purchased by Facebook for 2… Billion… Dollars. You know, that little social media service you visit on occasion. Keep this in mind. Facebook has never bought a company prior to Oculus VR that makes physical products. Other major players are backing VR – Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, just to name a few. The point is that you need to be aware of VR if only for the fact that this is the first time that so many different and influential backers are behind the technology.


“When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you're actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it's different from anything they've ever experienced in their lives. Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Acquires Oculus VR



Consider for a moment that most of society doesn’t have formal training in architecture or design. There are specific types of ideas that must be presented in ways that the average person is used to. For a decade or so, computer graphics and renderings have begun to act as a medium to explain standard construction documents or sketches to a much broader audience.

When you look at a rendering, you can immediately understand the intent, look, and feel for what the designer has created. The limit to this is of course the fact that a rendering can only provide you with so much information and is sometimes deceiving. Even though we try desperately to achieve the qualities of the rendering in our built work, it almost never looks quite the same in the end. There are nuances that can’t be explained in a single image and sometimes those nuances are intentionally left out, muddled, or veiled in the name of our artistic license.

This is where Virtual Reality has the promise of bringing us closer to our true design intent.


Now imagine that you’ve figured out most of your design for a given project. You want the client to understand what it feels like to be in an important space. Your options are to make a sketch, create a 3D rendering, build a mockup, or wait until the building has been completed. Since building everything first (just to let them tell you it's horrible later) doesn't quite make much sense, that's probably not the way to go. Just saying.

Instead, you can develop a 3D version of that space just as you would need to anyway for a computer rendering. This time though, you’ve added a few more components than you normally would in order to understand the space in 360 degrees, not just a single view.

After the model has been completed, you simply boot up your computer, plug in the Virtual Reality headset and hand over the gear to your client. From there, the client is directly engaged. As they turn their head, they can see the different ways light penetrates the room. They can get a sense of the coarse stone beneath them and the warm, wooden trim on the adjacent casework. As they tilt their head once more, they can just make out the sound of birds chirping from an ornate, ocular window – behind that a slight gust of wind.

As they progress through the demonstration, they are given a controller (similar to one you would use with a video game console). This allows them to ‘physically’ move through the room, always directly engaged in the experience and able to move their head freely, perusing each detail.

With controller in hand, they move towards a door in the corner. A prompt pops up to push a button. The button is pushed and a small interface with a series of options is revealed. The viewer can select different materials, door types, and even move the door in real time.

The exploration continues and moments later the user realizes that any of the materials in the space can be altered simply by approaching them in virtual space and accepting the prompts as they occur. After only a few changes, the room has transformed and become something altogether new. What once was stone is now bamboo floor. What once was wooden casework is now a steel desk. The window is now a larger double-hung at the opposite end of the room to take advantage of the solar angles outside.

In the end, the room is not the same and neither is the user. This is the architectural promise of virtual reality.


There are many steps between us and this promise, as is to be expected. Architects and designers will benefit greatly from this technology if they embrace the possibilities it may unlock.


Virtual reality has the potential to forever change our lives in the same ways that the smartphone did. What do you hope VR will allow us to do? Are you on board with a world that embraces VR? Let me know some of your thoughts in the comments below.

CareerMichael LaValley