VR in the real world

US­ING SKILLS LEARNT FROM MAK­ING GAMES, VR DEVEL­OP­ERS ARE BRING­ING VIR­TUAL AND AUG­MENTED RE­AL­ITY TO EV­ERY­THING FROM AR­CHI­TEC­TURE TO TRUCKS, FINDS THOMAS MCMULLAN

PC & Tech Authority - - CONTENTS -

Build­ings. Ships. Trucks. These are the types of things Ryan Peter­son talks to me about. In a ware­house on the out­skirts of Van­cou­ver, the CEO of Fin­ger Food Stu­dios lays out his vi­sion of how aug­mented re­al­ity (AR) can be ap­plied to in­dus­try. Wear­ing a Mi­crosoft HoloLens, he clicks his fin­gers and a mi­rage ap­pears at his feet.

“The real magic of AR is you’re able to see the same thing,” he tells me. “Say there’s a hole in the floor, there’s no dis­agree­ment that there’s a hole in the floor. It’s so sim­ple, but think about that sim­ple prob­lem and ex­pand it to 2,000 peo­ple work­ing for you. If you can all vi­su­alise the same prob­lem, then you can fo­cus to come up with a so­lu­tion.”

There’s no hole in the floor of the ware­house, but there is an enor­mous truck. Only the cab is phys­i­cally there; the bon­net has been stripped off. The rest is an il­lu­sion, pro­jected around the real ve­hi­cle us­ing HoloLens’ spa­tial tech­nol­ogy. I’m wear­ing a head­set and, walk­ing around the ware­house, we can in­spect the vir­tual model as if it’s a real, life-sized ob­ject. Peter­son tells me to se­lect a float­ing menu op­tion. Touch­ing my fore­fin­ger to thumb to se­lect a new de­sign, the part-holo­gram, part-metal lorry changes shape in front of my eyes.

To do this with a clay model, let alone a full pro­to­type, would be a long and labour-in­ten­sive process. Therein lies the ben­e­fit for us­ing this type of tech­nol­ogy for big ob­jects such as trucks, ships and build­ings; things that take a lot of time • and money to mock up. With the help of aug­mented re­al­ity, Peter­son and I can flick through de­signs as if we’re brows­ing char­ac­ter out­fits in a video game. And we can do all this at the same time, look­ing at the same vir­tual ve­hi­cle in the same ware­house.

“Do you re­mem­ber Bat­tle­field 1942, when they re­leased the demo?” he asks me. “I made video games at the time; I was out in Sil­i­con Val­ley. The whole com­pany just stopped, and we played it solidly for a week. The rea­son we did that was it was the first game of that scale where you were able to col­lab­o­rate, in the same bat­tle­field, see­ing the same thing at the same time.”

A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME

The way he weaves it, Peter­son’s pro­gres­sion from video games to in­dus­trial de­sign isn’t a ca­reer blip. He tells me he worked for a com­pany called Blue

Shift in the early 2000s. “We made base­ball games. We were tak­ing re­al­ity into the com­puter; now my job is to take the com­puter world out into re­al­ity.”

I tell him that he should make a base­ball app for the HoloLens, to bring ev­ery­thing full cir­cle, and he bursts out laugh­ing. “The stuff we’re do­ing is f***ing hard. You can quote that. But that’s what gets us ex­cited. I think that’s what video game devel­op­ers have; that we’ve al­ways en­joyed tack­ling new prob­lems, in­vent­ing new ex­pe­ri­ences and cre­at­ing worlds.

For me per­son­ally, we can now take that en­ergy and ap­ply it to much more mean­ing­ful prob­lem­solv­ing.”

As well as the flex­i­bil­ity to deal with ever-evolv­ing plat­forms, Peter­son says game devel­op­ers have a sense of spa­tial de­sign that’s cru­cial to AR. In a HoloLens demo for an AR build­ing plan, for ex­am­ple, he shows me that much of the model is based around op­ti­cal slights of hand, such as a per­son’s in­abil­ity to prop­erly gauge depth of field for ob­jects that are far away. These are tricks that devel­op­ers have been us­ing for decades to fit ex­pan­sive worlds into lim­ited file sizes.

It’s per­haps telling that Fin­ger Food Stu­dios has a de­vel­oper wing work­ing on games and apps un­der the same com­pany moniker that makes in­dus­trial aug­mented re­al­ity. Aside from the of­fice walls that sep­a­rate the teams, the lines be­tween the two ar­eas seem to be in­creas­ingly por­ous. “I think the video game sec­tor has re­ally helped to hone the skills [of devel­op­ers] to go into these big com­pa­nies and crack prob­lems for them,” Peter­son en­thuses.

TILT BRUSH FOR AR­CHI­TECTS

On the other side of Van­cou­ver there’s an­other com­pany de­vel­op­ing vir­tual- and aug­ment­e­dreal­ity tech­nol­ogy for in­dus­try, as well as keep­ing its hand in with games. Archi­act has a team of

We can switch de­signs as if brows­ing char­ac­ter out­fits in a video game

devel­op­ers mak­ing VR games, in­clud­ing episodic ad­ven­ture Hid­den For­tune and pen­guin-based puzzler Wad­dle Home. Other teams in the same stu­dio are work­ing on busi­ness-fo­cused apps. This side of the com­pany is still in its nascent stages,

but Archi­act’s co-founder Derek Chen tells me an ar­chi­tec­ture tool is close to reach­ing beta.

“We worked on a few real-es­tate-re­lated projects be­fore, and I saw a com­plete vac­uum space for com­mer­cial ar­chi­tec­tural tools for VR,” he says. “The ini­tial im­pulse was in­spired by the demo ar­chi­tec­tural VR tool built by Fred­er­ick Brooks, the leg­endary com­puter ar­chi­tect, back in the 1970s.

“There are a few pain points of cur­rent ar­chi­tec­ture de­sign,” Chen adds. “One of them is the lack of true sense of scale, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of scale • from ar­chi­tects to • un­trained stake­hold­ers. Scale is • one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of ar­chi­tec­ture. The other pain point is no way to ‘live’ in the de­sign to iden­tify flaws and prob­lems early be­fore the struc­ture is built. VR/AR is the per­fect tech­nol­ogy plat­form to solve these prob­lems.”

The idea for the tool, cur­rently un­named and built us­ing the Unity en­gine, is for it to work some­thing like an ar­chi­tec­tural ver­sion of Google’s Tilt Brush art app. That app lets users “paint” in 3D while im­mersed in VR, which is great fun for de­sign­ers and artists, but less use­ful if you want to mock up de­tailed blue­prints of a hous­ing com­plex. Chen tells me Archi­act’s tool will al­low users to “con­struct the en­tire ar­chi­tec­tural struc­ture in­tu­itively in VR, like Tilt Brush but much bet­ter, as no ar­chi­tect wants to paint a build­ing”. There will also be a desk­top ver­sion of the app, so users can flip in and out of VR when de­cid­ing where to put their walls and ceil­ings.

Echo­ing Peter­son, Chen’s em­pha­sis on scale points to the ben­e­fits of VR and AR when it comes to the man­u­fac­ture of big ob­jects. Build­ings. Ships. Trucks. Be­ing able to mimic a sense of size with­out hav­ing to lay a sin­gle foun­da­tion can give those with­out ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing a sense of space that might be miss­ing from 2D artist impressions. It’s also an em­pha­sis that Chen, like Peter­son, con­nects back to game de­sign. He told me that there’s a lot of over­lap be­tween the two.

“Cre­at­ing games is about cre­at­ing vir­tual worlds and en­vi­ron­ments that peo­ple be­lieve in,” he says. “Ar­chi­tec­ture in VR is sim­i­lar, in terms of cre­at­ing a vir­tual world. What I mean by over­lap is in terms of the tool’s de­vel­op­ment, not the users that will use the tool. We def­i­nitely don’t re­quire ar­chi­tects to have game de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence in or­der to use it.”

Ar­chi­tects might not yet need to be trained in Doom as well as CAD, but the meet­ing point be­tween game de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture raises a few ques­tions about the types of build­ings that will be con­ceived us­ing these new tech­nolo­gies. That in­cludes VR, not to men­tion AI and 3D print­ing. Vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity might have a con­vinc­ing use for aid­ing the creation of big, un­wieldy ob­jects such as tower blocks and trucks, but could it also change the way these things are thought of? Could it blur the lines be­tween “real” and “vir­tual” ob­jects, out­side of non­de­script Van­cou­ver ware­houses?

Chen, at least, can see a time when aug­mented re­al­ity will be­come more prom­i­nent in our lives. “As the world moves for­ward, as larger so­cial plat­forms sup­port VR and build meta­verses, we’ll start to en­ter an era where vir­tual space is as im­por­tant as phys­i­cal space,” he tells me. “Maybe in cer­tain ar­eas, where peo­ple have less space to live as the • pop­u­la­tion grows, they’ll use vir­tual space to aug­ment their lim­ited condo... Peo­ple mak­ing a liv­ing in vir­tual space isn’t go­ing to be as crazy as it sounds to­day.”

BELOW Full 3D mod­els of large ob­jects such as trucks take min­i­mal time to mock up An era where vir­tual space is as im­por­tant as phys­i­cal space

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