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Industry e-volution REALLY just getting started

Industry e-volution REALLY just getting started


Architecture has been evolving at an accelerated rate over the last 30 years.

Three decades ago, the age of BIM was just getting started. While it took a long time for it to gain a substantial market share, there were people working on complex models in ways that had only been seen in the aerospace industry. This desire to see and model everything was driven by the need to quantify all the parts within the whole. While some tinkered with these complex models, others were still drafting by hand.  


Yet by the end of the millennium, people were realizing that having a 3D model helped not only represent information more clearly and accurately, but it also increased the speed of construction and overall success of the projects. Today, if you aren’t creating a BIM model, you are potentially exposing your clients and your practice to more liabilty and delays.

These models are now very robust, allowing not only for accurate modeling, but also for cost estimation, structural analysis, environmental analysis, scheduling, etc. The richness that exist within these models is still accessed in ways that isn’t the most natural: through a keyboard and mouse.  You click here, type that, and sift through thousands of palettes and windows, and even cycle through various applications.

That process is starting to change, however, and the current is leading the industry toward a more visceral experience that is more natural to the way the human brain is most creative. We are seeing that we can now access information without an archaic set of input devices and we can now become the device by which we instruct the machines and the software.  Allowing for a more creative flow of information in and out of these powerful machines and software. Nearly every architect who is using modern design and creation techniques can now create a model that can be augmented.

The last days of the keyboard

Augmentation is a process by which information is overlaid through a device (i.e. tablet, smart phone, etc) with information that has been generated to relate to the space in which the user is.  There are even some companies that provide a service that allow you to visualize different site specific conditions, like weather data within this augmentation.  This allows a team to leverage the technology on their portable devices to understand and visualize a project almost anywhere.

The evolution that we are witnessing today is one of getting rid of the outdated input methods in an effort to represent information.  The keyboard is not a device that can inherently illicit creativity.  It is also a cumbersome way to explore data and provide commands to a machine.  Granted, the keyboard has been intrumental for technology to advance to this point but we are now at a point where we can see beyond its necessity as one of our design tools.

Google's new Project Tango gives "mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion."

Augmented Reality (AR) is a method for more naturally visualizing information in the real world in such a way that you are not bound by the keyboard. AR is still developing and we have a long way to go at this point before it works flawlessly.  Those who are pushing the llimits of the technology aren’t yet able to do everything that we can imagine and the processor speeds of the machines that we use to augment information are still a constraint.  The technology is also limited by the ability to accurately position the device as it relates to the space.

For instance, if you are inside of a room and want to align your position physically with a model or object that contains information you want to overlay, the technology now is not yet able to properly align and capture that information accurately enough for some uses. This will improve over time, as GPS improves, and the cameras on the devices improve.  

The potential for AR to be leveraged in a way that allows for teams to quickly compare, comment upon, and understand conditions is immense. There are a number of new devices that are going to make this a reality in the near future.  Some hardware that is already making a big impression in AR are the various depth cameras that are being equipped on smart phones, and added to tablets. Such devices include the Structure Sensor, and Google Tango.  And once the hardware is able to effectively assimilate a position, then the use of software like Metaio’s Creator will be able to position the model correctly within the real world.  

This opens the door to a host of very amazing solutions.

Prepare to engage, fully & affordably

Virtual Reality (VR) is an area that has been around for many years. This technology allows the user to immerse themselves inside of a computer-generated environment. There are many benefits to this technology and method for exploring data. First, you are fully engaged in the environment through the use of a headset, headphones, and handheld control devices. This method allows you to see and experience the space at a scale that is relevant to the user and the scene. You can explore architecture, engineering systems in a way that provides you with a lot of information very quickly.

VR technology only recently has come to within a price point that most architects and designers can justify. Today, most architectural design software can also communicate with game engines that work with VR devices. Game engines provide some inherent advantages over traditional architectural software. Most specifically, the rendering engines and hardware acceleration are optimized to reduce the complexity and lag that these large models can create.

The author presented earlier this fall at the AEC Hackathon 1.2 in Seattle, hosted by the University of Washington.

The author presented earlier this fall at the AEC Hackathon 1.2 in Seattle, hosted by the University of Washington.

The advancement of hardware and software technology has opened the doors for architects to explore new ways of visualizing information in a way that is intriguing and effective, both as a tool for presentations and one for analysis, as well. As a species, we are visually oriented and use our hands and body to explore and understand the world around us. The keyboard has been a wonderful tool for creating content, but we are at point in time where we also realize that if we are to design, and understand something quickly, we are much more effective, and creative when we are not tied to individual pieces of data. We need to see the whole in a larger and more organic form.  

The human eye can absorb a vast amount of information very quickly. The sense of touch is also a rich data collector that has evolved with us, but the keyboard and mouse only allow us to focus on small pieces of information in a very linear way. In contrast, when we are immersed in VR or AR, we can collect and sift through more information much more fluidly.

An extraordinary time to be alive

There are many examples of construction professionals who are on the bleeding edge of this technology and leveraging it in ways that allow for assessment, and greatly enhanced presentation. Most of the tools that are required to explore either VR or AR are readily available and don’t require any special hardware. They even have a short learning curve. Today, you can use your smartphone to visualize a model that you have created within a matter of minutes. You can send a model to a client who can easily visualize it using free applications on their own phone or tablet.

There are some features that require knowledge of programming languages, but that is the case with most applications. If you are going to try VR, you would need a headset like the Oculus Rift, or some other similar device, to be able to have a fully immersive experience. There are also companies that have immersive specialized spaces that allow VR users to walk around a space to fully engage the senses. One company that is blurring the lines between gaming, VR and architecture is Seattle-based VRcade, which offers an all-in-one, full-motion experience of "limitless potential."

We are at a very special time in the history of architecture and construction where we will see the end of the keyboard and mouse as the barrier between design and analysis. So quickly have we seen things change so drastically in the last 30 years. In fact, more so in the last three decades than in the prior 2000 years. And if this trend continues, we may very well see more change in the next five years than at any point in the history of this industry.

The author is a principal with San Francisco-based Ronin Architects. He can be reached at:

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