The Virtual Frontier

What is Virtual Reality?

The way in which we as designers realise, represent and convey our concept designs is, like any form of technology, ever evolving.

We have seen this in the shift from delicate hand-drawn plans to impossibly precise CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawings and more recently to BIM (Building Information Modelling) where an intelligent 3D model is created through the documentation process.

We have also seen this in the way we present our work to the client, evocative illustrations and watercolours where ‘the hand’ is visible are almost extinct, replaced by computer generated 3D renderings and animations that aim to create a photo-realistic view of a future vision.

However the latest shakeup to hit the design and entertainment world has been the rapid development of Virtual and mixed realities. This technology can range from a simple 360º photograph, or playing Pokemon GO on your mobile phone, to hyper realistic video games on home entertainment systems. The unmistakable headsets worn by users flailing at seemingly invisible objects is now commonplace across many industries. Most importantly for designers and our clients, it offers a unique opportunity to design and showcase our work at what we would call 1:1- in other words, real-life scale.

But before we dive too far into the possibilities, what is Virtual Reality or VR? VR in the current everyday sense is the use of a headset that positions two screens, one in-front of each eye with lenses that provide peripheral immersive vision. What is displayed on these screens and how this is constructed is completely up to the individual designing the experience. Headsets are now commonly accompanied by headphones and handheld devices called ‘Motion Controllers’ that essentially track the users hands in 3-Dimensional space allowing interaction with digital objects.

Until recently the computing power and software to realise an interior space let alone a whole landscape has been out of reach. However we can now use this technology to not only design better exterior environments but also showcase this in an immersive and digital environment.

Virtual Reality As A Design Tool

As a designer the ability to put on a headset and be inside your creation offers unparalleled opportunity to create better landscapes, gardens, or outdoor environments particularly where there are changes of levels and more hard landscape elements. We can now send a 3D model that we are developing on the computer to a Virtual Reality headset and upon entering this digital world you get a sense of scale and awareness immediately that isn’t possible from a flat computer screen or a 2D plan.

This technology isn’t just representational, we are not only able to view designs, we can start to make notes and changes within this digital setting. This technology is now so precise that we can take real-world measurements from within virtual reality, which is excellent for getting that bench seat, or climber clad pergola to just the right height.

That is what we can do with one headset. Imagine what is possible when we start to add two or more headsets- we then gain the ability to have design meetings and presentations within the digital space itself allowing real-time feedback and discussions between colleagues in completely different offices, states even countries.

Side by side of the final built outcome and the design model in Virtual Reality at concept stage. By exploring a project in Virtual Reality during the design process we can start to understand the look and feel of spaces and moments.

Virtual Reality For You

It is all well and good for us to talk about the impact that Virtual Reality has on us and our design process, however what does this mean for the client?

Imagine, if you would, coming in for your concept presentation- we take you through the plans, the theoretical backing of the concept design and show you conceptual renders of your future garden. We then ask you to place the headset sitting on the table on your head and your are instantly transported to a full size representation of your future garden.

These are not just static environments or still images- there is movement, breeze, light and life. You are able to walk around this digital recreation of your future garden, getting a sense of the size of spaces, layout, and how the overall design may look and feel like upon completion.

You can experience the way that light casts shadow (accurate to your home’s geographical location) and as the sun slowly sets you get a glimpse of how it transforms at night with accent and path lighting all conceptually represented in a digital environment.

With dynamic lighting and time of day effects, Virtual Reality allows us to experience the space in all conditions, times and weather.

Virtual reality is not as daunting or difficult to navigate as it may seem- sure you can use the handheld motion controllers to teleport into the distance or pick up a wine glass- however you are more than able to just walk around the space like you would do in real life. The headsets are tracked in the real-world by a suite of sensors that enable you to walk, turn and crouch like you would normally – and your designer is always on hand to guide you as needed or draw your attention to a particular element of discussion.

Whilst in virtual reality there is a couple of things to keep in mind. Like any drawing, sketch or 3D render, what is being presented is conceptual only and elements such as materiality and planting is shown to invoke a sense of what the space may be like, with these details being finalised later in the technical documentation stages. The important elements to focus on in Virtual Reality, to get the most out of the experience as a client is; the positioning of objects, the scale of designed features (Wall heights, pergolas, terraces, path widths etc), and the ratio of hard landscape to planted areas.

So when having your next garden or landscape designed, perhaps consider the opportunity and experience that comes with having your design realised in a Virtual interactive setting. It certainly gives us the designers greater opportunity to resolve the design in the most tailored fashion whilst offering you- our client- a lasting digital experience and opportunity to visit your future garden well before its real-world construction.

By Matt Greenwood
LEG Designer of Virtual Worlds

Matt Greenwood is a Graduate of Architecture from the University of Melbourne, specialising in digital design. Prior to joining LEG on a full time basis, Matt taught virtual reality at the Melbourne School of Design and was instrumental in the establishment of the Virtual Reality syllabus.