We fully immersed ourselves in the world of VR when working on the Boulevard Theatre in Soho. The project completed last autumn but our explorations into the capabilities of virtual environments as a design tool had started five years prior to that.
At Boulevard we were challenged to develop a revolving auditorium that could be adapted to allow varying functions within a single circular space. This required complex conversations with both the client and the wider consultant team. The former wanted to understand how the space would look and operate, and the latter was concerned with how on earth we were going to build it. VR gave us a live model that could be explored by multiple people simultaneously and made it possible to envisage a space that would eventually change at the touch of a button.
Looking back, the images now seem a little crude, but at the time we were blown away, which goes to show how fast the technology is developing.
VR was an essential design tool for the Boulevard. It allowed us to work through many iterations, and explore many aspects simultaneously to avoid unwanted surprises. We also combined the digital experience with ‘real world’ objects like leather handrails, providing a multi-sensory experience that, in my eyes, is essential in understanding physical space.
While VR proved its worth on the Boulevard Theatre, we aren’t donning Oculus Rift headsets for every building we work on. For some projects and clients it just isn’t necessary, and could seem like an expensive gimmick – such as when we’re adapting existing buildings for a commercial fit-out, and working with teams that understand design intimately and know what they want from the interior spaces. Existing buildings of certain types also have an innate, relatable scale. There is a certain fluency to discussions that move quickly and don’t require an additional layer of information.
While VR proved its worth on the Boulevard Theatre, we aren’t donning Oculus Rift headsets for every building we work on. For some projects and clients it just isn’t necessary”
But we’re pretty confident that VR will continue to be a useful tool for architects, and you can see how it will be fundamental for communicating with clients and the general public. In a post-Covid world, more of our working lives will take place online, avoiding unnecessary travel, particularly to schemes abroad. In addition, the cumbersome headsets which have put some people off VR are no longer necessary, and you can use your phone or laptop to quickly access a virtual environment. We’re also seeing cheaper and easier software hitting the market that will make the technology more accessible still.
We’ve recently talked to a number of universities about adopting a simple white-box-like environment for their online final degree shows, so that even in the strictest of lockdown conditions, students can still showcase their work and prospective employers can easily move from portfolio to portfolio. I’m not sure if this will take over from the physical experience – I hope not – but it’s another way in which the benefits of VR are becoming clearer every day.