For the past twenty years, I have witnessed Overland embrace the evolution of technology and push the boundaries of our design capabilities by adopting the best tools we can get our hands on. These support our talented designers and architects, and continue advancing our design excellence standards. Recent integration of the latest virtual reality technology into our design process is revolutionizing (once again) the way we design and collaborate with each other and our clients. Looking back, it’s remarkable to see how far we have come.

Video games and I grew up together. In the early ’80s, I spent pocketfuls of change at Texas A&M playing Tempest and Galaga while earning a degree in environmental design. Eventually, as the two of us matured (video games and I), I went to work in architecture and video games like Tomb Raider moved into the world of 3D. Instead of watching graphics move on a screen, I was now inside the game walking through caves and castles. Full of interesting worlds with adventure and danger lurking around every corner, these environments were immersive, and by the ’90s I began to wonder when architects would be able to see designs in something like a video game.

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Galaga (left), Tomb Raider (right)

The Game Of Architecture

During this time, at Overland we were using AutoCAD to create our architectural plan sets. Whenever necessary we would 3D model parts of projects and create short animations to help us in the design process—a slow and time consuming procedure. For the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (1992), I created an animation flying around a crude massing model of the project, and when shown to Mrs. Johnson, she exclaimed, “Now I get it, it’s a village!” This emphasized to all of us that, although we as architects were trained to understand concepts like scale and space from 2D drawings, our clients greatly benefited from more visually immersive experiences, even if the technology was primitive.

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Early massing model of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. ©2016 Overland Partners, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fast forward to 2006: Overland moved from AutoCAD to Revit, a Building Information Modeling (BIM) software. Although AutoCAD has some 3D capabilities, with BIM, we were able to digitally model the building with all of its complexities and create every required plan set view from that model. So when we made changes, all views would update—a huge advantage. Simultaneously we were creating a 3D model capable of being rendered to show 3D views to the client. Software and computer advances were moving us ever closer to seeing our projects in a video game.

The True Third Dimension

In 2014 I attended Autodesk University (AU) where, for the first time, I was able to test an Oculus Rift. The Oculus allows the user to wear a headset and see a model in true 3D. It turned out that what I thought was 3D was really what is termed “2.5D,” that is, a 3D view on a 2D screen. You don’t really get the sensation of depth by looking at a rendered 3D image, just as you don’t get that sensation from looking at a photograph. Similar to the stereoscopes from the 1900s, an image for the left eye is slightly different from that for the right, creating a true sensation of depth and dimension.  The Oculus has the same effect, but since the user is in a 3D model and can look anywhere, it is completely immersive and convincing.

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Slightly different images for the left and right eyes within the Oculus

Shortly after returning from AU, Overland purchased our own Oculus Rift. As we began exploring how we could use it to better our designs, it turned out to be more complicated than expected. We had to export our Revit model to 3DS Max, fix all of the materials, export groups to Unity (a video game engine), then export that to a file that the Oculus could understand. As you can imagine, this process took a long time, days in fact. However, the results were amazing. Users quickly began to feel like they were really in the space. Proportions are accurate, so it was easy to get an idea of how the space felt. We were able to “walk” through projects and understand them as if we were really in the space.

The time it took to process these models made it difficult for the Oculus to have much impact on our workflow. Luckily, some very creative people out there realized that this was an opportunity. One such company, Iris VR, has written software that performs that whole multi-day process in a couple of minutes. The combination of this software with our Oculus worked so well that Daniel Carpio, our IT Director, and I decided to have a VR Party to introduce the process to our office.

Beyond The Oculus

Virtual reality is beginning to transform our design process. Now it is common for our designers to bring their project into the Oculus and move around the model, making crucial design decisions within minutes. In one case the designers decided the space for a hotel swimming pool was too small so they made changes to the plan. Several clients have viewed their projects and truly understand them for the first time. We have even placed one project in the right place in a digital model of downtown San Antonio and let the clients see the views from different balconies of the building. One of our favorite things to do is to bring a new user to the edge of a balcony and have them look over the edge, where they will inevitably reach for the digital railing that they see in order to steady themselves. Everyone reacts to the sensation of height!

Our leadership has seen to the quick adoption of this process for reviewing and improving design, and has authorized the purchase of a second headset and the creation of our Holodeck. The room has a large 4k television, speakers, seating, and a very powerful computer, which makes for a very immersive experience for the user, while allowing others to watch on the television what the user is seeing through the headset. Our original VR system now lives on a rolling stand so that it can easily be brought into any meeting in any location around our office.

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Daniel Carpio (Overland’s IT Director) explaining how to use the controls within the Holodeck to Brad Schaefer and Ben Rosas.

Overland's portable VR Bot

Overland’s portable VR Bot

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James Lancaster views a project with Oculus Rift thanks to VR Bot (and Steve Fong) joining a design meeting with Ashley Harris and Siboney Díaz-Sánchez.

We’re Going Places

The Holodeck hosts the HTC Vive. While the Oculus requires a user to be stationary and use a game controller to “walk” around their project, the HTC Vive allows the user to actually walk around the space. The Vive software had us map out the room that it is in, so that when a user gets close to the wall, a blue grid pops up showing the boundary or wall location. So far we have had no wall/face interactions! The office has also had fun using Tilt Brush by Google. Tilt Brush lets us created 3D paintings that you can walk through—a weird and wonderful experience!

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HTC Vibe’s digital grid appears when the user moves close to the digital boundary.

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An experimental doodle in Tilt Brush by Google

Overland has prided itself on staying on the leading edge of technology for architecture. In the same spirit of our adoption of Revit/BIM and the purchase of our 3D printer a few years ago, virtual reality is another way that we are enhancing our design process in order to uncover design solutions from a more immersive and collaborative experience.

I am glad that video gaming has finally made it into the world of architecture. As advanced as it is, I know that we are only at the beginning of this amazing new technology and I look forward to see where we will go from here.

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