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Architecture in an age of augmented reality

Two UniSA PhD students using UniSA’s Hyve-3D facility, which removes the need to wear VR goggles, enabling everyone in the room to immerse in a virtual environment and directly interact through 3D sketching. Two UniSA PhD students using UniSA’s Hyve-3D facility, which removes the need to wear VR goggles, enabling everyone in the room to immerse in a virtual environment and directly interact through 3D sketching.

The idea of taking a virtual tour of a new building before it’s even been constructed, every detail brought to life by wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles, might sound like science fiction. But for designers, these futuristic technologies are becoming par for the course.

And the technologies are still advancing.

Architecture studio Hames Sharley has partnered with UniSA’s Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments (IVE) to explore innovative ways to integrate VR and augmented reality (AR) into architecture practice and education.

IVE recently acquired a room-sized large-scale immersive design and visualisation system which allows the creation and viewing of 3D models and sketches. Participants can be in the same room or interconnected remotely.

The technology, Hyve-3D, is a major breakthrough in 3D design because it removes the need to wear VR goggles, enabling everyone in the room to immerse in the virtual environment and directly interact through 3D sketching.

UniSA Professor in Architecture Ning Gu is working with Hames Sharley’s SA Studio Leader and Director Leon Gouws to explore the application of the new VR infrastructure.

Prof Gu, who’s a Deputy Director of the Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments (IVE), says the centre is a world leader in AR and VR. Its research spans computer science, engineering, art, architecture and design.

“IVE was created as a response to the challenge of increased demand for AR and VR technologies globally,” Prof Gu says.

The centre is led by Director Professor Bruce Thomas including a multidisciplinary team of researchers who are pioneers in AR and VR research, including wearable computing, interface design, empathic computing, 3D visualisation, perception, and telepresence.

“My role at IVE is to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between science and engineering, and, art and design, applying these advanced technologies to explore opportunities in design and the built environment,” Prof Gu says.

AR in design

Architects are familiar with Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), parametric design, and various specialist simulation, analysis and management tools. These are typical VR technologies as they allow architectural design to be virtually represented and realised before construction. But AR takes things to the next level.

“AR goes one step further to allow these visualisations which are virtual to be inserted into the physical reality, hence, it is augmented,” Prof Gu says.

“For example, we can now conduct a design review meeting on the actual development site where designs can be examined and experienced in real scale.”

“We can also virtually see through the wall surfaces to reveal the services behind for clash detection, or live-feed data of indoor environmental indicators to be provided to the physical space when testing different layout plans.

“It’s extremely beneficial and can significantly improve design quality and efficiency in the long term.”

IVE works on a range of projects focusing on the built environment sector, supported by government and industry funding.

“Our projects range from augmenting BIM model visualisation and analytics, to enhancing digital collaborative practices in the housing sector, to visualising big data for supporting planning and design-decision making, and to digitisation and virtual storytelling of Aboriginal built heritage,” Prof Gu says.

“The advanced research conducted at IVE will provide valuable resources and market advantages for architectural practices to continue to innovate and grow.”

Prof Gu says industry engagement is key to IVE as it allows the research to be well-grounded and solve real-world problems.

IVE has partnered with various industries to develop cutting-edge AR and VR tools, to facilitate the adoption of the technology, and to conduct longitudinal studies to explore the technological impacts of AR and VR. This advancement is possible through funding such as the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Program, Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) grants, and other industry-funded scholarships on research students and fellows.

Prof Gu says the future development of AR and VR are likely to be in two areas.

“Firstly, we’ll see the continuing advancement of the interfaces to allow easier access and more intuitive interaction. In other words, the realities of virtual and physical are truly merged.

“Secondly, we’ll see the enhancement of the capabilities in AR and VR environments, supporting with the advancement and integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI), data analytics and citizen science.”

Professor Gu says this will allow AR and VR to evolve from being simply a visualisation and simulation technology into a new and more powerful technology for design, decision making and for communication and engagement.

“The communication and engagement aspects are especially impactful, not only for the design professionals but for the broader community, which will keep us connected and communicate more effectively beyond many physical constraints,” he says.

These developments will have significant impacts on improving the design of the built environment. Merged or mixed realities will require society to rethink built environments.

“This is a challenge and opportunity for us all,” Prof Gu says.

UniSA has a long history of collaboration with Hames Sharley, including through annual design prizes, reviews/exhibitions and design crits.

The research in IVE is also supported by partners including SAAB, CADwalk and the South Australian Government.