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For Real: Architect Goes Virtual to Bolster Youth Outreach

For Real: Architect Goes
Virtual To Bolster Youth Outreach

by JOHN GREGERSON | Oct 19, 2015

This month, Evanston IL-based Studio Talo Architecture (STA) took visitors, including yours truly, on a walking tour of its latest project, a two-story, 12,000-sq-ft headquarters for Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), a local child services nonprofit. The fundraising event was fascinating, all the more so because the facility, itself, has yet to be built. 

No one could have guessed that, however, from the nearly seven-minute-long, 3-D, virtual reality experience that STA had created just for the launch of the $15-million capital campaign. The broad goal of that effort is to finance portions of the new facility –- due to break ground this spring –- and to expand Y.O.U.'s programming for some 1,500 at-risk youths. 

Using just a smart phone and Google Cardboard VR headset, the virtual tour completely immerses viewers in the facility, led by a student guide discussing the end uses of various spaces as they drop in. The surroundings are so vividly rendered that one can easily envision building crews having long since left the site after completing the facility's planned lobby, maker lab, teaching kitchen and garden, etc. Equally impressive, the student guide ushers viewers outdoors to showcase the building's exterior. So life-like was this part of the presentation that, had it led to an intersection, you would have been tempted to warn the young guide to look both ways before crossing.  

STA principal Snider.

STA principal Snider.

The virtual presentation is the brainchild of Douglas Snider, a principal with STA's visualization studio and project architect for the Y.O.U. facility. Snider says he has been experimenting with augmented reality and VR formats in his spare time for two to three years, first with Metaio and Vuforia, AR tools for 3-D content, and then with Unity, the game engine software.  

For the new product, Snider used Revit building design software and Autodesk 360, a cloud rendering service, to create 3-D models as a pair of spherical panorama images, one for each eye.  He then composited the rendered images with spherical panorama photographs of the site using Adobe Photoshop, importing the composited images to movie- and video-creation software Adobe Premiere. Next came the guide, along with other Y.O.U. students who appear in the tour. In collaboration with a friend of Snider's, a cinematographer with Chicago-based Jason Beaumont Productions, the two filmed the children against a green screen background, much as actors are filmed in Hollywood movies with special effects. Snider then used compositing software Fusion 8 to separate the children from the green background and to drop them into Premiere. 

Snider says he has created similar virtual experiences for other clients, but none on this scale, or that featured real people. “I started playing around with various concepts and thought it would be a cool idea to work with some of the kids Y.O.U. serves,” Snider recalls. “I approached members of Y.O.U.'s campaign committee with the idea, inviting them to our office to view some of our visualization work on an Oculus Rift and Google cardboard headsets. They became very enthusiastic about the concept.” 

Copy of 15_0916_YOU View From Lobby.png

Upon introducing the results at Y.O.U.'s World of Opportunity Family Activity Day on Oct. 3,  supporters, families and children “really had fun with it,” Snider says.

“One topic discussed in the virtual reality community is the sense of presence, or the feeling, of being in another place," he explains. "A number of people related that when they turned away from the tour guide to look around the virtual world, they felt as if she were still standing behind them. That feeling of presence will create a memory of that building among viewers long before it is built. That's exciting for us to see because it will deepen their connection to (Y.O.U.) and the youth they serve.”

Already, the owner is thrilled with STA's marketing magic.

“[STA’s] beautiful designs and virtual reality truly made our campaign launch so much more engaging and exciting for our youth and families,” says Y.O.U. Executive Director Seth Green. “In a very real way, Studio Talo brought our vision to life, one year early.”  

“The feedback of the virtual tour was nothing short of amazing,” adds Meital Caplan, Y.O.U. communications & development manager. 

“Architects often get excited about telling the story of the building, how spaces are organized, the materials being used, but that wasn’t the story that needed to be told in this case,” notes Snider. “The mission of Y.O.U. is to empower youth and close the opportunity gap that exists in education, and we were trying to convey the manner in which this new building will support that mission. That's why we wanted the kids at the center of the tour experience.”

And real or not, that is certainly where they are.

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