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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