Learning from Tech Workplaces

Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

January 23, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Workplaces around the world are evolving as organizations like Apple, Google and Amazon seek to design offices that increase collaboration, integrate new technologies and help employees work more efficiently. This ethos is now making its way to the buildings where scientists and researchers work. Here’s why:

Research is going digital…

The methods scientists use to conduct research are changing. Labs are traditionally divided into three segments: clinical work, “wet” lab spaces (lab experiments using liquids) and “dry” lab spaces (labs using computers). Analysis and discoveries are becoming increasingly computation-based, or dry, compared to traditional wet laboratories.

From 2013 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health’s dry research funding for networking and IT R&D increased 40%, growing from $521 million to $729 million. The past decade has seen an explosion in data-intensive life sciences, including genomic research and medicine centering on healthcare customization and treatments based on patient DNA sequences.

The focus on data and computing in science fields is creating a shift in roles. There are close to twice as many dry bench scientists — including computation, informatics/clinical outcomes and clinical scientists — than wet bench scientists working today. Dry labs also require about 20% less space, at a little under 100 square feet per person versus close to 125 square feet per person in a wet lab.

Data creation, metadata (data about data) management and data curation are increasingly becoming the domain of the scientist. Lab benches are drying out.

What does this mean for lab design? In a forthcoming post, I’ll examine some of the implications for designers and laboratory planners.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Virtual Reality: The Architect’s Next Great Productivity Tool

NBBJ Is Incubating a New Virtual Reality Start-up Named Visual Vocal. Here's Why.

January 9, 2017

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was coauthored by Steve McConnell and John SanGiovanni and originally published by DesignIntelligence.

Virtual reality (VR) is transforming businesses and dominating media headlines as the technology becomes increasingly popular and surpasses $6.5 billion in annual revenues. Yet that number pales in comparison to what is predicted for the future: research shows that by 2025, the industry could be worth $110 billion, a 1500% increase.

Today, VR is synonymous with companies like PlayStation, Oculus, Vive, and Samsung, who have used the technology to develop devices and experiences which are focused primarily on entertainment. Meanwhile, the use of augmented reality, VR’s “sister technology,” is also on the rise as demonstrated by Nintendo’s Pokémon GO, which became an international sensation and boosted the Japanese company’s stock price to its highest level in six years.

Another area where the potential of VR is just now being realized is the construction industry, which accounts for $8.5 trillion globally in annual revenues. While development and building construction represent a small proportion of VR’s overall use today, we surmise that its market share will grow at a rapid pace as architects, developers, general contractors and clients become more familiar with its use. In fact, we predict the next generation of VR tools in development now will make the overall real estate industry more productive, efficient and engaged in the design process.

The Creation of Visual Vocal
That is why, earlier this year, NBBJ began incubating a new virtual reality startup, making it the first architecture firm in the world to do so. Called Visual Vocal, the namesake of which represents the core features of the project — visual and audible communication — the company is one of the first to actively pursue a new productivity platform through virtual reality.

The need for the tool is simple. Architects deal with complex visual datasets such as renderings and drawings. But getting those files into the hands of clients is difficult not only because of their size, but also because they are not often legible to people outside the profession. As it stands now, there is not a tool that can sufficiently communicate design intent in an immersive three dimensional format and easily collect feedback.

Here’s how the tool works. Let’s say a major healthcare system hires an architect to design a new hospital. Under the current methodology, hospital stakeholders — which could include executives, facilities managers, doctors and nurses — would meet with the design team at regular intervals, reviewing drawings and renderings to determine if the project is headed in the right direction. When changes are made, it would then take architects time to redo the design and present new options.

With Visual Vocal, a new process emerges. Using the tool, stakeholders would download an app on their Apple or Android smartphones, attach an inexpensive pocket-sized folding viewer to the screen, and immediately immerse themselves in a fully-rendered 3D environment that shows different versions of the hospital.

Users would be able to visualize major spaces throughout the new healthcare facility and, while doing so, select preferred design options and outcomes. At the same time, users will also be able to listen to embedded audio of architects narrating the design so users have a greater understanding of its concepts and intended outcomes.

During these processes, stakeholders can also use their own voice within the VR system to annotate more detailed feedback to the design team. The system also offers a patented “Immersive Survey” feature, to quickly capture feedback from very large groups of stakeholders. Best of all, clients can experience what the project will feel like, and provide their feedback, anytime, anywhere.

Project leaders using the tool are no longer required to be in the same place or even the same time zone in order to experience a project’s design and provide feedback. This feature alone could be a major time saver for busy executives. On the back end, the Visual Vocal tool allows user feedback to be quickly tabulated, calculated and organized in an easy-to-understand system that can be accessed in real time by the design team.

Driving Better Value for Clients
The benefits of this new way of doing business are numerous. First, the tool is a way to increase collaboration between members of the design teams themselves and, importantly, between the architecture firm and its clients, subcontractors and other consultants. Second, the tool saves time and money, by reducing the number of meetings required to come to a design consensus. Finally this approach makes the design process more inclusive and enjoyable for all participants.

Because everyone has a smartphone and downloading apps is easy, the Visual Vocal tool gives architects the power to solicit feedback from hundreds or even thousands of users. For example, while the tool might be used on a corporate headquarters project by only a select group of company leaders, a waterfront redevelopment project for a city could allow the tool to be accessed by hundreds of people. Citizen engagement has always been important, but it is especially so today, and the Visual Vocal tool gives governments and community organizations the power to solicit feedback from people everywhere.

Looking Toward the Future
Since its debut in May 2016, the Visual Vocal team has grown its staff from 2 people to 10 and has secured seven figures of venture-backed funding. As partner and investor, NBBJ has helped the company develop, test and refine the product and is in the process of integrating the mobile-based VR platform on projects in the US and Europe. These projects range from a large technology headquarters in the US to a research lab at a prestigious university in the UK. Beyond Visual Vocal’s architectural collaboration platform, the venture sees vast opportunities for its core VR communication technology as the landscape of Virtual and Augmented Reality continues to expand. Forthcoming innovations will only make VR communication patterns more commonplace, such as Google Daydream in late 2016 and AR systems like Magic Leap in the future.

Later this year Visual Vocal will be available to the industry at large. The architecture industry is ripe for innovation, and disruptive technologies that bring greater productivity to the process of design should be encouraged. By making this tool available to many, it has the potential to boost the output of all architecture firms, thereby increasing the industry’s relevance to clients around the world.

What’s next for Visual Vocal and VR in general? After expanding to the architecture industry at large, the team will develop similar platforms for other industries that could benefit from its application, including aerospace, manufacturing and even molecular biology. In the meantime, look out for VR on your next architecture project, and see how it can make collaboration more effective and engaging than ever!

Steve McConnell, FAIA, is managing partner at NBBJ, named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, and the architecture firm of choice for tech companies by Wired. John SanGiovanni is CEO and co-founder of Visual Vocal and a serial entrepreneur, strategist and inventor, having founded three ventures and co-authored more than 20 patents in the areas of AR, VR, and mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Designing the Workplace of the Distributed Economy

A Hackathon Suggests How to Design Workplaces for Both Remote Technology and a Sense of Community

November 21, 2016

Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by MetropolisPoint of View blog.

Coming innovations mean that work will be unconstrained by a building, free to expand and evolve, to shrink and transition. Given the evolution of technology, we will continue to work from anywhere and across multiple time zones. In fact, in the next decade, estimates suggest that upwards of 40 percent of the workforce will work remotely or within a distributed work model.

Paradoxically, the new workplace is also about community, social interaction and culture, because as people work more remotely, they encounter new points of interaction. Perhaps people want a place to gather, a place that fosters community brainstorming, and a place that would allow for deeper interpersonal relationships to develop.

So how can we reconcile working in the distributed economy and designing for it?

Recently NBBJ, in partnership with Time Inc. and Power to Fly, hosted a global hackathon on the future of work and the workplace in the distributed economy. The event, which spanned eight days, brought together the design, technology and business communities to tackle some of the problems inherent in the distributed workplace — cultural and social disconnection, fractured communication, and insufficient transparency.

Work is more than just the tasks that we complete. It’s about the casual relationships that develop from a chance meeting in the hallway, or the impromptu brainstorming session that happens when team members meet around the coffee bar. So NBBJ is focused on creating workspaces where people want to gather and collaborate with fellow employees, clients, and the community around us.

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With these insights and our experience with the hackathon, here are three frameworks that architects and designers should consider that would allow distributed workers to be more connected with their peers.

Architectural: Our work environment should be unconstrained; it should be designed to fit our need for movement and for change. Research shows that we are more effective and more innovative when we can move and interact with our environment. For instance, an entire building could adapt to a user’s needs, with easier access to ramps and stairs, to remove the physical and physiological barriers of being on a different level. A more novel but entirely possible idea, as advancements in modular architecture occur, is to have building amenities such as conference rooms and meeting spaces physically move to employees as needed.

Studies have also shown that some types of workplace-related stress arise from the inability to control unwanted stimuli, such as light, temperature, airflow and, most especially, noise levels. That’s why we recently installed sensors that will allow people to choose the right ambient noise levels, light and temperature for their individual or group needs.

Distributed workforces will also require designers to create a sense of continuity across global offices and accommodate workers who travel between locations. Airbnb’s designers have been working to do this across its customer experience centers, starting with its Portland office, by getting rid of assigned cubicles, desks and phones and by creating various types of seating arrangements that employees and contractors can float between.

Digital: We should design our workspaces in tandem with technology, and to a certain extent we already do. What are missing, however, are the crucial personal connections so fundamental to vibrant, healthy and innovative workplaces. Products such as 3D, real-time, virtually networked “whiteboards” — a digital concept led by James Isaac and David Kosdruy that won the hackathon — or telepresence devices, such as those from Double Robotics, could reintroduce the spontaneity, creativity and interpersonal connectedness that distributed teams often lack.

Hardware: We should design hardware — including furniture, tablets and microphones — to allow for a more open dialogue between people. One concept might be a digital display wall that projects a series of images, culled from social media, which represent a person as they walk by it. By bringing in this visual representation of a person’s tastes and values, it would provide a catalyst for colleagues who don’t normally connect with one another to engage around shared interests. The idea is that people are more likely to engage in impromptu and casual conversations when they know a bit more about the person they are standing next to.

As we continue to gather more data about how people work, communicate and engage with one another, it is increasingly evident that we need to design spaces that allow us to have meaningful interactions with each other, that allow us to engage with and move through our physical and natural environment, and that foster a sense of community and culture. In short, we need to design spaces that are much more in tune with our diverse and distributed society. In doing so, we will create a future where workplaces allow us to be more comfortable, innovative, and happy.

Photos courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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