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    Perspective on Virtual Reality


    The animation, produced using 3D Studio Max, (now called 3ds max) simulated textures and the reflective quality of steel, glass, and stone. Without the interactivity of virtual reality (VR), this type of presentation was more appropriate for marketing than planning purposes.

    Early Work with VR

    Despite the possibilities that scripted walkthrough and fly-over animations created, if a presentation lacked interaction, then clients were still performing the role of spectator, rather than having the illusion of being inside the simulated environment.

    By the early 1990s, however, architects were beginning to recognize the potential of VR systems to develop into tools for intuitive, interactive, and realistic evaluation of proposed environments.

    A technique that proved interesting to architectural practice was one that allowed interaction with photographic images. The method involved taking a 360-degree photomontage and mapping it to the interior of an imaginary sphere. Combinations of photographs and 3D models could be used, and the view of a person standing inside the sphere was a surrounding display of a real or virtual environment.

    The Apple QuickTime VR system became established in this area and allowed the creation of 3D virtual worlds and interactive presentations on Macintosh computers. Surround Video software was the Microsoft Windows equivalent.

    The Web as Transport Medium

    The creation of computer animations, whether interactive or not, tended to generate large files, and questions arose about the most appropriate media for transferring such files for purposes of project presentation. Output to compact disc or video format aided portability between locations, but the development of the Internet and World Wide Web greatly assisted in this area.

    By the mid-1990s, architectural practices, large and small, recognized the importance of the Web as a medium for presentation, although initially there was concern about security and speed of transfer.

    A significant development for architects was Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), a programming language for the definition of Web-based 3D worlds. Software was developed specifically to model and display VRML worlds. The language could also be integrated with many popular CAD programs, particularly if the CAD models had been created with VR in mind.

    Web browsers were developed to provide familiar interfaces for viewing VRML worlds, which offered reduced file size and speed improvements via real time interaction. In 1996 Microsoft incorporated Superscape's Viscape as part of the Internet Explorer Starter Kit.

    At the beginning of the 21st century architects increasingly used Web technology to display their projects. Through a Web site, clients could view presentations regardless of the client's geographical distance from the architect. Video and computer animations particularly benefited from this medium which enabled project collaboration in a way not possible before.

    Exploiting Multimedia

    Architectural presentations became increasingly composed of a variety of media: scanned or rendered still images, text, computer animations, video, and sound.

    A major retrospective exhibition of the work of Foster and Partners was staged in 2000 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich. The exhibition, "Exploring The City," featured many of Foster's landmark projects, such as the Greater London Authority Assembly Building, and included interactive computer displays, video, and slide projections as well as traditional artwork.

    The exhibition was sponsored by Bentley Systems, whose software Foster and Partners had adopted for presentation and design.

    Computer modeling and animation proved useful in Foster's proposals for the design of the Bilbao Metro. Foster's idea of treating the interior as a cavern was initially not well received. But a computer model showing a virtual journey dissipated all doubts and showed the luminosity and spatial sensation of the cavern. The presentation contained not only the geometry of the design, but also the idea behind it.

    New computing languages and design environments were providing architects with interesting alternatives to the limitations of CAD systems and graphical presentation methods of the past.

    Exploring an Airport Design

    When the architecture firm YRM was commissioned to design a new terminal for Bristol International Airport, they used CAD extensively in the design, from initial wireframe models to high-quality renderings to rendered, walkthrough animations.

    Over the decade, the use of VR at YRM increased to form a major part of their design process. It was used to communicate design solutions to the client and other members of the project team from early feasibility stages onwards.

    YRM believed that the use of VR technology greatly enhanced client understanding. They adopted a Windows NT system, and all technical staff had access to Bentley's MicroStation J/ TriForma. VR animation was transferred to the medium of a compact disc or video or placed on their Web site for subsequent viewing.

    YRM prepared 3D computer panoramic views of the spaces within the landside and airside lounges in the airport terminal. The panoramic views enabled them to assess sight lines, visibility, and the proposed layout, and they were used as an integral part of the consultation process with all the people involved.

    VR technology matured throughout the 1990s. Interactive 3D worlds were being used in an increasing number of fields. While the impact of digital techniques on architectural practice could not be ignored, surveys to investigate how architectural practitioners were using computers revealed that animated presentations were still used relatively infrequently.

    Despite initiatives such as the UK Virtual Reality Forum, set up to promote the commercial use of VR, the majority of computer-assisted architectural presentations were composed of rendered still images.

    Nonetheless, presentations were becoming more seductive, and the architect's relationship with the client improved with the ability to communicate information more effectively and frequently. Both specialist illustrators and architecture firms adopting VR technology were demonstrating how art, design, and technology could be combined to achieve a client's goals.

    Bob Giddings is research director and head of postgraduate studies in the School of the Built Environment at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He is a practicing architect and researcher in architectural design methodology.

    Margaret Horne is an information systems practitioner specializing in the role of computers in architecture. Her recent research, in collaboration with Arup, involved a critical analysis of the visualization of photovoltaic clad buildings.

    This article is excerpted from Artists' Impressions in Architectural Design copyright 2002, available from Spon Press, an imprint of Taylor and Francis Books Ltd., and from



    ArchWeek Image

    Old Town Hall, North Shields; a still from an animation.
    Image: Insite Environments for North Tyneside Challenge

    ArchWeek Image

    Rendering of the Greater London Authority Assembly Headquarters, 1999.
    Image: Foster and Partners

    ArchWeek Image

    Bristol International Airport, initial wireframe.
    Image: Graham Cook for YRM

    ArchWeek Image

    Bristol International Airport, hidden line drawing.
    Image: Graham Cook for YRM

    ArchWeek Image

    Bristol International Airport, rendering with light and texture.
    Image: Graham Cook for YRM

    ArchWeek Image

    Stills from a VR panorama for the Bristol International Airport.
    Image: YRM

    ArchWeek Image

    Artists' Impressions in Architectural Design from Spon Press. Pictured: the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
    Image: Carl Laubin, courtesy Jeremy Dixon, BDP, and Edward Jones


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