Making it Real

Peter Greaves, partner at Make Architects, on the practice’s investment in Virtual Reality


Peter Greaves

Virtual reality (VR) has had a few false starts over the years, but it’s matured into a technology ready for a wide range of consumer and commercial applications. 2016 was the year VR really moved beyond its traditional gaming and entertainment sphere into front rooms and business fields as diverse as retail, charity, education and medicine.

Similarly, VR has great potential for architects. Make has been using it via suppliers for some years now, but in the last 12 months decided to invest in our own kit – something we think more architects will be doing over the coming years.

VR software can easily create and interact with computer-generated 3D environments, so it’s not hard to envisage virtual reality joining CAD, physical models and the pen as an essential design tool of the future, with architects and clients able to ‘step into’ their designs and benefit from a realistic sense of scale. We have all been tested by trying to explain 3D CAD models and 2D plans to clients who find them difficult to imagine and interpret. Physical models, while useful and beautiful, are also limited by their reduced scale. The only other alternative, until now, has been the 1:1 mock-up, but this can only ever be of a specific detail or, if space affords, a single room. Any more has to wait until late in the construction process. What a luxury then, to allow clients ‘in’ to explore a building at 1:1 scale before it’s been built.


At Make we’ve researched a number of products on the market and have successfully used HTC Vive on a dozen projects so far, and it has enabled clients to view and even ‘stand inside’ their building at full scale as we design it. The software introduces ‘room scale’, with two small tracking lasers that locate the user’s head. The visuals respond as the user walks, jumps or even lies down, creating the sensation of being in a different place. It uses two wand controllers, similar to the Nintendo Wii’s remote, that let users see their hands and interact with objects in the virtual world.

The response to HTC Vive has been overwhelmingly positive from clients, councillors and journalists: we can more easily explain our design decisions, and they can more easily understand the building, seeing for themselves how dimensions and spaces will feel. It’s also far less time-consuming and expensive than creating a mock-up. BIM modelling has such a high level of detail, that used in tandem with VR, the client can tour a full-scale mock-up of the whole building before a spade has broken ground.

We recently showed one of our high-profile projects to several clients and head planners using the HTC Vive at our London studio. The clients liked it so much that we decided to invest in a powerful laptop to make the Vive portable. The set-up was taken to MIPIM earlier this year, where it proved extremely popular. We expect that the benefits we get from VR will see it pay for itself very quickly, considering the relatively low buy-in of around £1,000.


The practice has also started printing its own version of Google Cardboard viewers to send out to clients. These can be posted flat and sent alongside project documents, drawings and renders to offer an additional description of the building, either as an immersive environment or a 3D video and flyby. Google Cardboard works by simply putting a smartphone inside a cardboard box with two lenses and looking inside. The smartphone forms the screen and brains of the machine and can produce a visually similar 3D environment to other methods. It’s quite limited but is extremely cheap and portable, making it easy to take to meetings or send to clients, who can download an app or model and view it in 360-degree, 3D video. The ability to convey a true sense of scale, even in this simple form, is a powerful addition to our current forms of media.

Just as the potential and use of BIM have grown exponentially over recent years, we expect the demand and use of VR to take off. It’s a major selling point that clients can have this experience in our studio, and we doubt it will be long before the technology develops further and this becomes expected rather than requested.

In addition to HTC Vive and Google Cardboard, architects looking to invest in VR could consider Oculus Rift and Playstation VR. The former involves a headset that allows uses to look around a 3D space. The avatar is controlled with a standard gaming console controller, but movement is limited and it’s a primarily seated experience. Playstation VR incorporates impressive features at an affordable price point and will no doubt help take this technology into the mainstream.

The next stage in VR technology will be even more beneficial, simulating the way light enters a room, how sound insulation reacts to ambient noise, evoking a sense of place – this and more is on the horizon once VR is combined with already emerging technologies. It’s an exciting future for architects, and while the pen, sketch and physical model will always have an important role in the process, VR is almost certainly something we will all need to embrace sooner rather than later.