Technology prophets have been hailing the game-changing arrival of Virtual Reality and its ilk for decades. And for decades, immersive media—the umbrella term spanning the spectrum of reality-bending technologies, including Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)—has remained the interest of niche corners of the technology universe. One could be pardoned for asking why it’s different this time. Why is this the moment to invest in immersive media? Is this a sound financial investment, or would waiting be better?
There is good evidence that we are on the cusp of a tsunami of practical, affordable immersive media. Both progress and investment in the sector have been significant. Digi-Capital tracked $5.4 billion of investments in the year ending June 2019, up from $3.6 billion the prior year. The roster of companies investing in the space is filled with A-listers including Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and HTC. Moreover, the cost of entry has fallen to the point that the financial investment no longer constitutes a jaw-dropping capital expenditure. The price of enterprise VR hardware has decreased. Entry-level professional VR headsets have dropped from a starting point of over $3,000 plus a $1,000-per-year support package in 2016 to $600 and a $200-per-year support package in 2019.
Finally, it is difficult to argue that immersive media will not be a core part of our future; as more architecture and design firms begin to adopt these technologies, those lagging behind the curve will be disadvantaged. It is worth investing in the technology if only to understand it better. Even if today’s gadgets are sprinting to obsolescence in ever shorter time spans, the investment in the knowledge and skills required to adopt and deploy new forms of immersive media will pay dividends each time the technology advances.
Assuming the relatively small capital expenditure is worthwhile, what are the financial benefits and cost savings that could accrue from this investment?
One obvious financial benefit is that you will win more business. Immersive media is here to stay, and those who adopt it faster will have an edge over their peers. Imagine presenting the same project twice. The first time you are bound to two-dimensional screens and the tools that have been used for decades. The second time you are using a fully interactive VR setup, where your client can walk through the space and interact with objects, people, and stories within that universe. Which presentation will command more of your client’s attention? If your competitors use VR and you don’t, how confident would you be in winning the business? VR will differentiate you during the next five to ten years, until it becomes a universal procedure.
Another benefit is both time and money savings that accrue during the design and development processes. First, few people have the ability to accurately visualize themselves inside a space based off of drawings and models—to replicate the feeling and emotions that would arise if they actually walked through the space. This is a decided advantage in the design process. Similarly, there are considerable advantages to cross-functional collaboration for geographically dispersed teams and stakeholders. Team members, clients, contractors, and other stakeholders can be brought into a VR model, where they can come to an agreement or identify areas of improvement together. Imagine having the unlimited ability to change work orders with a wave of a hand, instead of tearing down recently built walls or rewiring a facility to accommodate a change in equipment. Small details can be seen, understood, and changed before breaking ground, yielding not only cost savings but happier clients.
The ability to see and walk through the results of the design process before construction has started can reap millions of dollars in savings by identifying design flaws and unforeseen problems in advance. For example, AEC Magazine showcased a construction project that used augmented reality to identify an eight-inch misalignment for a $400,000 concrete slab before it was poured, preventing a mistake that would have cost several times that amount of money to fix. Once construction is underway, there are myriad add-on technologies that can improve safety—and thereby save on costly mistakes—on the construction site. For instance, Redpoint Positioning has a smart badge that tracks workers onsite, feeding information about potentially hazardous situations back to a central location where managers can be alerted.
The financial cost of bringing immersive media into the workflow are low; the greater cost is the time and energy it will take to adopt the new technology and learn how to use it to greatest advantage. However, the sooner a designer or firm brings this into their suite of tools, the more adept they will be at learning how best to leverage it. As immersive media becomes ubiquitous in architecture, design, and construction in the next decade, the agility to learn and deploy new tools quickly and effectively will be a great differentiator.