BIMx and VR: the first encounter
At least twenty-five people attended our most recent Seattle Area ARCHICAD User Group. Having run and organized user groups since 2009, I was very pleased with the turnout; typically our bi-monthly attendance is closer to eighteen. We had a larger than normal crowd because we had a hot topic to discuss: virtual reality.
Prior to the meeting, GRAPHISOFT generously sent me a box of BIMx branded Google Cardboard to share with everyone. The box with all the Google Cardboard showed up a a few hours before I left for the meeting. I was so busy that day that I didn’t get a chance to open the package until I was at DeForest Architects and other ARCHICAD users were already arriving. I put out all the Google Cardboard, then went to eat some pizza. By the time I had eaten a few slices, enough people had arrived and we started the meeting. As usual we all went around the room introducing ourselves—sharing our name, firm, what ARCHICAD version we’re using, and what ARCHICAD version we started on. We also shared if we had used BIMx or VR. Most people had used BIMx; almost nobody had done anything with VR. After the introductions, I started the meeting. We had three topics: general ARCHICAD 20 questions, Grasshopper, and VR. We spent a little time talking about the first two topics (and I promised to focus a future meeting on the Grasshopper-ARCHICAD Connection), but the bulk of our meeting was talking about VR and BIMx.
When people sat down, a few grabbed the BIMx branded Google Cardboard. But most didn’t. They were timid. After we talked in general about BIMx and VR, I took out my phone and put it into the Google Cardboard. I’d never done that before. I fiddled with the phone for a few moments to get it ready. I then looked at a model I’d seen many, many times before in ARCHICAD, printed out, and in BIMx. But I’d never looked at it in VR. The words instantly out of my mouth were “Holy Sh!t”. Everyone in the room laughed. I was front and center and over twenty pairs of eyes were watching me test out BIMx in VR for the first time. Once I’d finished swearing and looking around the model, I passed the Google Cardboard with my phone in it to the closest person. For the next thirty to forty minutes, I watched as my phone got passed around the room. As people started trying out BIMx in VR, more and more people grabbed a BIMx branded Cardboard to take with them. Soon other people put their phones in their Cardboards. At one point we had four Carboards being used with BIMx.
The above image is what I was used to seeing when I was using BIMx. It’s nice and shows the approach to this backyard cottage. But it’s garbage compared to looking at this same view in VR. I’ve been using BIMx and Virtual Building Explorer for years but that night was beyond anything I’ve experienced (yes I’ve been using this app and sharing models with clients since it was only a desktop viewer with a different name). The difference between looking at a model on screen and in VR is immense. BIMx without VR is a nice thing to give to our clients, to encourage them to look at the model; to help them understand what they can’t read from 2D plans, sections, and elevations; to allow them to discuss the design with us; and to be a bit of marketing when they show their friends and family the model. But BIMx with VR is transformative. It’ll help the clients experience all the things I just listed. They’ll want to pull out the VR viewer and show it to EVERYONE they know. It’ll be contagious. The clients, contractors, and everyone they know won’t just get to see our designs, they’ll get to experience them. I know every detail of the above design. Every line, fill, note, label, and 3D element is something I designed and placed. I have looked at it in 3D and 2D from just about every angle. But looking at the space in VR; being in the upstairs bedroom or turning around in place in the living space on the main floor…it was amazing. The sloping ceiling, the stair against the far wall, the light over the dining table all felt so much more real and tangible. The experience confirmed that I made the right design decisions and I feel like I’ve now truly been in the space.
While VR was extremely new to almost everyone in the room, two of our members were already heavily into VR. One firm had set up a VR room in their office with high end software and headsets tethered to a powerful desktop computer. The other firm had invested hundreds of dollars testing out Google Cardboard headsets that would work well with BIMx. Their idea was to give all their clients branded Google Cardboard. They determined the cost would be about $30/project: a rounding error, and much less than printing a set of full size drawings. While we were all falling in love with BIMx + Google Cardboard, the local user who had been testing out viewers shared his experience. I don’t want to make any specific product recommendations because the pace of Cardboard development is intense (the room favorite was a viewer no longer on the market and its replacement has yet to be released—I know because I’ve called the company and check their website daily). But here are a few things we learned:
- Lenses matter: some viewers have cheap lenses, others have nice lenses. The difference is obvious.
- IPD / inter-pupillary distance: some viewers have adjustable lenses so you can get the lenses to line up with your eye spacing. It seems like few viewers have this feature, but it’s nice.
- VR and glasses: Some viewers can be used with glasses, some can’t. If you wear glasses, make sure you do your research and find a viewer that lets you wear them.
- Cardboard or plastic: Surprisingly the material of the viewer wasn’t a sign of quality. Some plastic viewers were great, some were garbage. Same with cardboard ones. In fact our user group’s clear favorite was made of cardboard. I suppose long term, the cardboard viewers might not be as durable.
- Cost: You should be able to find a more than adequate viewer for between $25 and $40, probably.
- Don’t neglect clip on VR: There are some viewers that are just two lenses that clip onto your phone. While not the best experience, these viewers can be left in a laptop bag or carried in your pocket. I don’t see these as a primary viewer, but having a pair is essential because headsets are too bulky to carry with you at all times.
- The Button: Google Cardboard Apps, such as BIMx, use a single button for interacting with the app. If you start looking at fancy headsets, make sure they still have that one button or some other controller/feature that allows you to use the functionality of BIMx. This sounds kind of obvious, but the more money you spend on a viewer, the fancier and more complicated they get.
BIMx and VR: repeat viewing
A week after our user group, I attended another ARCHICAD event in the Seattle area. This time it was to celebrate the official opening of Thomas Bormann’s new ARCHICAD training/collaboration space. Attending the event were a mix of Thomas’s clients (ARCHICAD users from around the region, some of which had been at our user group the previous week), prospective ARCHICAD users, and Thomas’s friends and family. Inspired by our experience with VR the previous week, Thomas had purchased a pair of VR goggles. My phone once again came out and spent the next thirty minutes being passed around the room. It’s an odd feeling watching my phone, something very private and full of everything I need to function be shared around the room, snapped into a VR headset. But it made me smile. So many people were exclaiming and giggling. Everyone was giddy about technology. Everyone wanted a turn. Everyone was amazed and murmuring.
For the second time in less than a week, a room full of people were walking around one of my designs. The project in BIMx is a perfect sample project: an 800 sq ft, two story backyard cottage in a completely fenced in site. Just enough to explore and see it all. Not so much that anyone could get lost or take forever. While it’s a design my clients and I love, I also know it’s not the flashiest project in the world. I have no illusions that everyone experiencing it in BIMx with Google Cardboard was squealing over my design genius. They were all ecstatic about exploring architecture through virtual reality.
BIMx and VR: clients and their kids
BIMx and VR: hordes of children
My daughters are always curious about what I do. I work from home so on weekends, vacations, and after school, they usually find their dad slaving away at his computer writing or working on some piece of architecture. With BIMx and VR, they can now immerse themselves in my work. It’s fantastic. And it will also be useful. This year I am working on a remodel and expansion of our own home. My daughters (and wife) will be my clients. They’ll need to understand exactly what I’m proposing for our own home. They’ll want to provide input to their own spaces. BIMx and VR will be crucial for them to experience the design and to express their feelings about the transformation I’m proposing. With such a simple interface, BIMx and VR will be how they gain access and control. They won’t need me to zoom around ARCHICAD’s 3D window or navigate BIMx on a touch screen.
My daughters have fallen in love with BIMx in VR. They are 6 and 8. They want to show my work to all their friends now. And they operate BIMx all by themselves. I don’t give them or their friends any instructions, other than to point out the button before they enter VR. I just turn on BIMx, put my phone in the viewer and hand it to them. Everyone has figured it out for themselves and had a great time.
It’s not just my daughters and their friends who are getting excited about VR. All kids (and adults) love VR. Last week I had a table at art night at my daughters’ elementary school. I was there to share what architects do. Talking to kids about being an architect is very important to me—I decided to become an architect after one visited my first grade class almost thirty years ago. I brought with me a mixture of old and new. I figured it’d be fun to show the kids how our tools have changed over time, perhaps to plant in their heads that our methods constantly evolve. I brought large black and white drawings, small color drawings, a sketchbook from school, my college portfolio, an ipad, and BIMx with Google Cardboard. I had swarms of kids fighting over BIMx with VR. Adults too were sheepishly excited to try it out as well. The level of engagement was amazing. Adults and kids (mostly adults) looked at the drawings, but everyone wanted VR or BIMx on the ipad if they became impatient waiting—or annoyed that I told them to share. No one cared to look at anything else. Some of the boys would have spent all night hanging around walking through architecture in virtual reality.
Watching my phone inside a Google Cardboard being passed around amongst ARCHICAD users I know is fun; when it’s a bunch of adults I don’t know it’s a bit weird; staying calm while a horde of elementary school boys crowd around and fight over my phone is a herculean effort. But all the experiences were wonderful and so important.