Is virtual reality revolutionizing design?

By: Jordan Miller
8 May 2018

When Ralph Cushing and Everett Terrell founded CTA in 1938, they likely wouldn’t have imagined that within a century their firm would be strapping on goggles to tour buildings yet to be built. Assuming they could recover from the shock of this alien tech, though, we like to believe they’d be thrilled: CTA has celebrated its innovative approach to designing spaces for nearly a century, and innovating how we look at designed spaces is a natural and exciting evolution.

The emerging technology of virtual reality has been harnessed for entertainment, space travel and healthcare simulation, meditative therapy, military training, and a number of other practices, including architectural design. The capability creating virtual and explorable spaces allows laypeople to translate technical documents and still renderings into a dynamic, human experience. Don a pair of virtual reality goggles, and suddenly the complicated and potentially intimidating specs, budget, and deadlines are stripped away in favor of a moment of total immersion in the look and feel of a space—something designers are constantly working to represent. It should be mentioned that not everybody adapts to virtual reality with ease, however. Because the technology is so immersive, actually using the goggles can feel very unnatural and off-putting to some. That said, even observing what a person is seeing in the VR environment on a screen can be incredibly informative.

While other cutting edge design firms have employed virtual reality, CTA finds particular value in designing these experiences in-house. Direct communication between the rendering artist, architects, engineers, and interior designers ensures honest, efficient, and holistic communication about each and every detail of a virtual experience. Clients, too, find themselves empowered by the technology: after virtually exploring a space and registering the many design decisions as a unified whole, their reactions tend to be powerful and ultimately incite much more specific and informed feedback.

Team members from CTA recently invited two Yellowstone County District Judges—Chief Judge Gregory R. Todd, who wore the goggles, and Judge Michael G. Moses, who observed a video feed of what Chief Judge Todd was seeing—to virtually tour the upcoming fourth floor renovation of the district courthouse in downtown Billings, MT. Neither of them had experienced virtual reality, so the team was eager to watch what would happen once the goggles were on. Almost immediately, Chief Judge Todd lit up with bewilderment and curiosity, exploring this new layer of reality with cautious steps, as VR first-timers tend to do. Within minutes, the two began offering observations and questions: they pointed out what they liked, expressed what felt off, and asked about the team’s design choices. These live, unfiltered reactions are absolute gold for designers working toward crafting the perfect space.

The experience provides designers and clients with specific information beyond a general vibe of the atmosphere, too. In this case, the judges were able to confidently evaluate sight lines between the areas for judge, jury, and witness, an essential consideration for a successful courtroom. Since VR also portrays a space in its entirety, proposed design features and material choices appear in context, prompting conversations about the big picture as well as tiny details between designer and client. For example, when the judges agreed the current wood was too dark for the room, the interior designer—who was watching from the monitor—gained crucial and specific information to incorporate into her design.

Virtual reality is compelling, curious, and full of possibilities. CTA’s team is excited to be taking advantage of its experiential value as a new technology, and proud to be in the ranks of innovators pushing toward what is bound to be a revolutionary industry standard for creating an efficient and comprehensive experience of design.

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