Virtual reality is the sort of much-hyped technology that is easy to roll your eyes at. Tech evangelists preach that it will change the world and that in a generation’s time we will all be living in Matrix-like bubbles entertained only by a stream of sensory input while our bodies laze in a vat of goo. While that may be true in the long term, right now the technology is already being adopted by gamers and technologists, and even architecture offices have started to cautiously embrace it. It’s not unheard of to use virtual reality to explain a project to a particularly plan-illiterate client, and the time may be approaching when a VR headset becomes a standard piece of office equipment.
But how is an architect to know where to begin? Virtual reality is a rapidly changing landscape, and it requires a careful coordination of software and hardware that has a steep learning curve. Digital models need to be converted into a format where they can be used by a virtual reality engine, then that engine needs to be run on a computer powerful enough to process the enormous memory and graphics requirements of VR and, finally, the user needs the right branded vr headsets to experience the simulation.
There are several different Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) on the market right now with prices ranging from $15 to $800 and qualities spanning a similar gulch. The first thing to determine is whether or not you are actually looking for a VR headset, as opposed to those offering other kinds of altered realities. Augmented and Mixed Reality headsets are similar to Google Glass, and rather than taking the wearer into a different synthetic universe, these sets will overlay the physical world with digital information. There are a variety of headsets offering this experience, but there are the most options and potential uses available for full Virtual Reality HMDs. Take a look:
The most well-known VR headset, Oculus Rift is something of a gold standard. Used mainly by the gaming industry, it’s now making its way to the design world. Coming , it’s not the cheapest bit of circuitry, but it is much more affordable than the clunky headsets of yore and is much more powerful than anything that came before it. One downside of it is that the environment seen through the headset needs to be powered by a powerful PC, so the Oculus is generally tethered to a computer by USB and HDMi cords. The headsets are comfy and padded but still relatively heavy, weighing in at a little over a pound, or about three times as heavy as the heaviest iPhone.
The screen for each eye has a resolution of about 1,080 x 1,200 pixels, which is great, but because the screens are so close to your face, even the smoothest visualizations will appear slightly grainy. Considering that the best HMDs still have only 1/60th the resolution capacity of the human eye, VR headsets have a long way to go to completely dupe the brain. Something else to note is that while you can use the Oculus to physically walk around a virtual room, it is generally best used for a seated experience. A simple Xbox One controller can be used to navigate, but there is also a dedicated controller now available, the Oculus Touch. Being a commonly supported piece of hardware and relatively easy to set up, the Oculus Rift is a good choice for novices who want to jump to the latest and greatest piece of tech.