Architects experience virtual reality

Computer science students make virtual renderings of other students’ buildings.

by Kelly Gulbrandson

Two departments are collaborating to use technology to change the future of architecture.

The departments of architecture and computer science and engineering started working together five years ago in the Immersive Design Research Program in Walter Library’s Digital Technology Center.

The Digital Design Consortium sponsors the initiative, in which architecture students design structures on computers, then computer science students use the research lab to create virtual renderings of the buildings.

Victoria Interrante, computer science associate professor, said the idea came from a meeting with a fellow professor.

“We came up with a way for architecture students to further their design,” she said.

Funding for the program came from private donations and grants.

The center recently received funding from the National Science Foundation, associate computer science professor Gary Meyer said.

“The main goal is to study advanced architecture and work with local firms to help with design,” he said.

Marc Swackhamer, associate architecture professor who works in the lab, said there are benefits to this research.

“Understanding the space in a 1:1 ratio, instead of looking at a model of a design, helps you see how the building will look,” he said.

Immersive design also allows students to be in virtual space and freely walk around the area as if in an actual building, he said.

The architect is also able to virtually see how the building will look with different colors, as well as the actual site it will be on.

Graduate student Brian Ries, who works in the lab as a research assistant, said it allows people to be part of a different environment.

Aiding architecture design is the main purpose of the lab, but it is also used to test perception of reality and psychological reactions to being in a virtual environment, Ries said.

The head mount and the helmet are models used in the lab to create two different virtual reality environments, in which users’ space perception is challenged.

The helmet uses computers to project a program onto three projection screens, allowing users to be immersed in a virtual environment.

This helps architecture students by loading the designs into the computer and projecting them into the screen, so they can be seen on a large scale.

The helmet allows users to feel like they are in the building and see how it would look before it’s built, Meyer said.

Users can walk around the lab wearing the helmet and the on-screen images move with them, while anyone looking at the screens without the helmet sees changing images when the user walks around.

While the research has a promising future, Meyer said, there are a few limitations.

The program works with polygons to add detail. The computers have a polygon budget that allows the program to move with the user, but the computer program has too much detail, the motion is not fluid and the user loses a sense of reality, Meyer said.

Balancing between enough detail and too much detail is difficult, he said. Meyer said he wants local architecture firms to bring in real-world examples of project and program simulations.

He said he also wants to bring in construction companies to help with the building process and prevent possible problems, such as working with difficult materials.

Understanding fundamental limitations of perceptions, helping plan public buildings and community planning are a few of the future uses of this technology, Interrante said.