Anyone Can Design in Virtual Reality

In the Pixar movie Ratatouille, Chef Gusteau’s motto was “Anyone can cook.” Food critic Anton Ego initially viewed that sentiment with disdain but eventually came to the conclusion that “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

In the architectural world, there are a number of barriers preventing everyday people from contributing to the design process. One of these is the inability to understand traditional architectural design imagery like plans, sections, and even perspectives. All these forms of communication require experience to understand the reality of the space they are portraying. By making a design more like a real-world experience, virtual reality lets anyone engage with a proposed environment, critique it, and make suggestions on how to improve it.

VR as a design tool

At SERA, we like to mass out spaces and bring them into VR early in the design process. This is especially true when working with unique plan layouts that are unproven. At this early stage, materials aren’t as important as the scale, flow and organization of a space. This is the point where we can catch misassumptions before too much effort is expended developing an imperfect design.

Medical suite where VR was used to validate adjacencies. Changes were made to configurations that were to code but didn’t ‘feel’ right.

This enhanced ability to view the organization of space also benefits a client who is deciding among different options. Being able to walk through a space while switching options is an enlightening experience. Often, connections will reveal themselves through the progression of space that aren’t obvious in other forms of imagery.

A series of options for a ceiling condition that can be explored from any location. A decision that is difficult when only presented with 2D drawings is much more obvious using VR

An understanding of a project’s progression of space is also critical for urban design. The best way to understand a public space is to actually walk through it in virtual reality as a pedestrian. Elements of design such as spacial hierarchy, the unfolding of space and tempo of travel combine to create an experience best described as ‘telling a story.’

Alpine Avenue contains a weaving of pedestrian and vehicular traffic and gathering spaces on the edges. These complex relationships are more readily understood in VR.

How does it feel?

Once a design is complete, virtual reality is helpful in conveying the ‘mood’ of a space. Since the environment envelopes the occupant, replacing all vision, there is a connection possible that isn’t available in other forms of imagery. In a recent fundraising effort for the Portland Playhouse, we brought the design into VR and showed it to potential donors. Many people commented that they didn’t really understand the feeling of the project until they had ‘walked’ through it.

It isn’t just the macro elements of a design that are clarified through virtual reality. Material selection and lighting is also understood to a higher degree. For instance, as an observer approaches a surface, even a slight head movement can change the reflection of a surface and lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of a material.

Any project with a roof deck is a good opportunity to fly a drone to the roof deck height and capture actual views surrounding the future building.

One invaluable element of experience I like to explore in virtual reality is how design responds to lighting. By actively simulating the sun’s movement across the sky, we can see how light interacts with the complex forms of a building. In a matter of seconds, a participant can understand a building in a way that otherwise might only be gained by walking past a building every day for a year.

Subtle folds in building’s facade become dramatic based on the angle of the sun.

It’s this interaction between the design and the designer – and how accessible this experience is for everyone – that excites me most about virtual reality.

Not everyone can be a great designer. However, with the help of tools like virtual reality, all interested people will be able to participate in the process and make contributions that lead to a stronger, more resilient design.

As lead of SERA’s Visualization group, Brian Stevens has 20 years of experience exploring design using digital means. He is passionate about creating purpose-built realtime applications for designers and clients, enabling them to create and explore unbuilt environments.


  1. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Thanks for the effort you put into this entry, Brian! The visuals are a great illustration of the power of VR, and I like the message: VR is powerful in its possibilities, and giving the layperson a chance to interact with our work is invaluable!

  2. VR is such an innovative technology and surprisingly user-friendly. There’s so much potential for it to be used in a wide variety of industries, and design is definitely going to benefit! Thanks for sharing your insight!

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