Imagine you are walking through the new $700M hospital with the chief trauma surgeon. She is pleased. The sleek and modern design of the waiting rooms, softened with the glow of natural light falling from the skylights and filtered by sweeping ivy tendrils, creates a feeling of calm and healing. That feeling continues through the corridor leading to the treatment rooms. You step inside the first state-of-the art operating room, and the surgeon pauses. “This is beautiful, but it’s not quite what I imagined from our conversations.”
You both take off your headsets to talk face to face. Happily, you haven’t broke ground on the facility yet—this was a virtual walk-through of the plans, devised to elicit reactions from stakeholders early in the design process.
As fanciful as it seems, this scenario is becoming more likely every day. Architects can turn to virtual reality (VR) and its sibling mixed reality (MR) to bring visualization to a new level that enables clients to experience a building before it is built. Once the domain of video games and the entertainment industry, VR and MR have seen a recent expansion into enterprise applications.
VR versus MR
VR is a completely immersive experience in which users are transported into a digital three-dimensional world, like a more intense, detailed, and nuanced version of a 3D IMAX feature where the screen wraps around your head. MR brings elements of VR into the real world, allowing virtual objects to interact with real world objects. For example, virtual patients shown sitting on actual furniture or walking around waiting rooms. MR has its limits of course—try sitting real people down onto virtual furniture and it may result in broken bones and a visit to the very hospital you are trying to replace.
Both VR and MR require a headset over the eyes, with VR headsets enclosing your entire field of vision to block out the physical world. MR headsets create a transparent overlay that allows virtual objects to insert themselves into physical spaces.
Architects seriously considering bringing VR and MR technologies into their practices will want to review their headset choice carefully and demo before buying. These are still early days for this technology without an obvious dominant player, so there are a few options to consider before making your choice.
Oculus Quest and Oculus Go
This year, Facebook unveiled its enterprise-focused VR headsets under the “Oculus for Business” suite of products. The Oculus Go and Oculus Quest, at $599 and $999 respectively, lie at the least expensive end of the market, perhaps reflecting the consumer-focused pedigree of Oculus, whose first headsets were built specifically for gaming. Oculus requires a warranty and support package at $180 per year, with the fee waived the first year after purchase.
The biggest distinction between Go and Quest relates to how immersive and interactive the experience feels. The Go enables viewing 3D content with some interactivity, meaning you’ll be able to tilt or rotate your head, but any directional movement won’t register with the device. Oculus Quest enables “six degrees of freedom,” giving users the ability to “walk into” the 3D space. Known alternately as roomscale or positional tracking, this feature allow the user to move about physically in order to enter and interact with the virtual environment.
HTC VIVE Pro Eye, HTC VIVE, and HTC VIVE Focus
HTC announced its newest enterprise-focused headsets at CES 2019 under the “VIVE Enterprise” label. The VIVE Pro Eye is the latest and most sophisticated version of HTC’s enterprise line, which includes earlier headsets named VIVE and VIVE Focus. All three are wireless-enabled and provide six degrees of freedom, like the Oculus Quest. They range from a starting price of $599 for the Focus to $1,599 for the VIVE Eye package.
Among the features that distinguish VIVE Eye from its enterprise competitors is precision eye tracking. The device tracks exactly where within the virtual world the user’s eye is focusing, which provides two benefits. First, understanding where the user’s eye is most focused provides insight into where they are spending their attention, providing valuable analytics. Second, the VIVE Eye deploys what’s called foveated rendering—it deploys its computing power to enhance the graphic fidelity of the area of the eye’s focus, meaning the exact place where the user’s eye rests is given much higher resolution than peripheral areas. The VIVE line also has a suite of accessories to enhance the experience, including controllers, trackers, and audio options.
Pimax 8K VR
The business opportunities in VR are attractive to many, and so smaller companies are building products to compete with the big fish like Facebook and HTC. Pimax developed their series of headsets to try and capture a piece a market which is expected to grow in value to over $5 billion within a few years. Their 8k VR Headset is the latest iteration of a competitor to Oculus and Vive. Pimax launched the product on Kickstarter, from which they raised $4 million, well above their $200,000 goal. The 8k’s main attraction is the extensive field of view (FOV), listed at 200 degrees, (to note, humans have a natural FOV of 220 degrees). With stellar image resolution the headset provides beautiful coloration and matches well with photorealistic projects. However, this high performance is balanced against the headset’s bulk– balance which will be a problem for any VR developer.
Lenovo Mirage Solo
An option that remains attractive for enterprise users is Lenovo’s Mirage Solo. The Mirage has some detractors for its entertainment value, but the capabilities it provides work well for designers or engineers looking to use VR to explore 3D models and designs. Lenovo’s system is stand-alone, meaning that it does not require any attachment to a computer. The main differentiator with the Mirage Solo is its WorldSense tracking. This allows the user to set hard boundaries in the physical world, so they can have full freedom of movement in the virtual world without having to worry about bumping into chairs or falling down stairs. Because of the relative affordability (listed at $399 on Best Buy), this can be an attractive option for smaller studios looking for ways to incorporate VR into their business.
Runners Up: Google Daydream View and Google Cardboard
Although not designed for enterprise applications, Google’s options, Daydream View and Google Cardboard (yes, cardboard), are both affordable options for start-ups or companies with a tighter budget. They also stream from a phone, so they are both easily mobile and don’t have hardware specifications required with more robust models.
While still a young technology, VR headsets are far ahead of their MR counterparts. MR is far more complex and resource-hungry to build and create; the new hospital building scenario described above could happen today in a VR setting, while a corollary MR scenario would be more limited in terms of movement and image detail. Today, a successful commercial application for MR headsets exists in employee training. Nevertheless, it is believed to be an exciting future technology for architecture applications.
Microsoft HoloLens 2
Microsoft’s HoloLens 2, scheduled to start shipping in the next month, is considered a significant improvement over the first version. Designed as an enterprise solution from the start, its entry price is $3,500. While VR headsets block out the physical environment surrounding the user, most MR headsets feature transparent goggles or glasses onto which digital images are projected. A key specification of MR headsets is the FOV, which determines how much of a user’s range of vision is blocked out by the headset. The HoloLens 2 is estimated to have a lateral FOV of 43 degrees, a marked improvement over the first version’s 30-degree FOV.
Possibly the most hyped MR enterprise product is Magic Leap, designed by a Florida startup that famously raised over $2 billion in funding before it had even released its first product. Version one came out in August 2018, but sales then and now remain controlled, targeted officially towards “developer” and “enterprise” customers, with a verification process required prior to sale. A much more nimble headset than most, its computing power resides in a wire-connected apparatus that clips into a pocket. While it also includes eye-tracking technology, it is not always used and it lacks foveated rendering. Starting price is $2,295.
VR and MR headsets are still young technologies, but there is a race to develop them quickly. Rumors that Apple is developing a VR or MR headset have been ongoing for a few years, with an April 2019 patent filing fueling speculation that the giant will release a headset in 2020. The landscape is sure to change quickly, but it’s a safe bet that VR and MR are here to stay.