The journey to virtual reality

Tucked at the back of Blakstad Design Consultant’s archive room is a dark wood cupboard. Inside are rolls and rolls of thin, brittle tracing paper labelled with the surnames of clients dating back more than 20 years. There’s roll after roll of exquisite penmanship, many of them drawn by a teenage Rolf Blakstad, who took over the family business from his father Rolph. These relics are beautiful plans of the many Blakstad houses designed in a pre-digital age. While computers have brought about many innovative and speedy solutions, it’s a shame to have lost the visceral and connective action of handling a sheet of paper so lovingly and carefully constructed.

The blueprint was first developed in 1842 as an inexpensive and fast way to accurately produce copies of complex design systems. The technology evolved, moving from the even cheaper whiteprints to large scale photocopier machines until computer-aided design (CAD) became the norm in the 1980s. CAD is still a fundamental component of architectural and engineering design and while the systems that deliver it have become more and more detailed, the basic concept has changed very little, for the designer. But for the client, the evolution of digital design has been a total gamechanger due to one of the most exciting technological advances in recent years – virtual reality.

In its early days, virtual reality was still considered a science fiction sub-plot by most ordinary people. But in 1968, the very first head-mounted display system was developed at Harvard University. Even though the headset was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling by wires and the virtual environments and user interface were very primitive, it was the first step toward the use of virtual reality in the medical sciences, vehicle design, and military training purposes such as flight simulators. By the early 80s video game companies started to see the commercial benefits of investing in research and development but it still took a long while for virtual reality to enter the realm of everyday life. These days, headsets are lightweight and available for domestic purchase. Seen frequently in gaming arcades and other entertainment venues, VR still has industrial uses too but for architects, it has become an essential piece of kit.

There was always a learning curve required for clients new to the design process. Blueprints can be hard to understand if you have never worked with them before and part of the architect’s job was to school clients on what they were looking at and help them visualise how these geometric shapes would be transformed into their new home. It takes practice and can leave some clients feeling uneasy about their own knowledge. While CAD has increased the designer’s capacity to create innovative solutions, the results still need to be translated into laymen’s terms. Virtual reality has made all of these issues disappear and has become an indispensable tool for both architect and client, allowing the transmission of not only what the building will look like, but what it will feel like to walk through it.

This now easily accessible tech can be used at different levels of detail, meaning a designer can use it in the early stages of a project without the photorealism required for the client to get a sense of spatial relationships between masses. The technology also allows for the remote exchange of information via software that lets architects send 360-degree panoramic images to clients wherever they are in the world.

For the architect and client alike, virtual reality creates a much more efficient feedback loop. A design experienced in real time, with real visual representations of spaces and their function lets those involved experience a level of interaction that can save time and money. Virtual reality means you can know instantly what is working and what is not. Less time is spent in the usual back and forth of revisions because the designer and client are exploring the space together before a single brick has been laid. Even interior design choices such as paint colour, lighting and furniture have the potential to be decided on within the virtual world.

As the tech continues to develop, designers will be able to add more and more detail which allows the client to have more and more confidence in the design process. Data can be collected about how the client moves through the space, where their gaze lands and how different people function within the design – all of which can be used to enhance the final product. Blakstad has always been an early adopter of technology and the virtual reality component of the design process has become so commonplace it’s no longer treated as a novelty in the office. And with the metaverse becoming part of our digital lexicon the design usages of virtual reality are becoming more of a… well, a reality.