Paperhouses: How did this idea emerge? How has it changed since you first started?
Angel : Last May I went to a hackathon hosted by TechCrunch in NYC. For those who don’t know, a hackathon is a 24 hour coding event where you build a website, mobile application, or hardware from scratch. I had just bought the first version of the Oculus Rift – a virtual reality headset. At the hackathon I had decided to create a virtual reality application to visualize proposed buildings in the context of current cities. It allowed you to get a first person perspective of how the new building would affect your neighbors view, sunlight, or even what the view from the new building looks like. All without actually physically building anything. The main inspiration for it was a new building that was constructed at Columbia while I was an undergrad that obstructed about 1/3 of the campus observatory’s view of the stars. It seemed like virtual reality would be a great way to visualize this sort of conflict ahead of time and really gain a good understanding of the new building’s look and feel. The hack won 1st place and I didn’t think it would be developed beyond the hackathon, but I started to get a lot of inbound requests to publish something so people could use it. So I decided to take the hackathon money and take a few months off of work to explore the possibility of making the hack into an actual product.
I started working with my college roommate Russell who had been working at a commercial real estate law firm for about a year. After about 3 months of research and talking to architects and urban planners we decided virtual reality would make a great addition to their arsenal of visualization and design tools. Fundamentally, looking at something from the human perspective and feeling like you’re actually there gives you a much different impression of a building than a still image or rendering. You’re more aware of the spatial arrangement and scale. Initially, there was a bigger focus on making real time changes to the 3D content in virtual reality and view it on a 2D map, but we realized that a lot of initial features didn’t make sense to people until they actually had their content in VR. So we made it our initial goal to make as simple as possible for people to visualize their 3D designs in virtual reality. There’s enough of a learning curve for 3D tools that you shouldn’t have to learn a whole new suite of tools just to walk through your models in VR. So since then our focus has shifted a bit to just enabling people to get their 3D content into VR and present it to others. We believe architects shouldn’t have to drastically change their workflow to accommodate for this technology. There are also some inherent challenges in strapping something onto someone’s face and then trying to have a conversation while figuring out what they’re looking at, so we’ve been working on some tools to aid in the presentation of VR walkthroughs.
PH: What is your background and why this particular interest in space?
Angel: I studied mechanical engineering in college and then worked at a computer vision software startup for a year. As a mechanical engineer I was doing a lot of 3D design and then finding that my friends would rarely understand my CAD drawings until I had physically built the final product. However, I did have a keen interest in architecture in high school. I took the architecture course offered at my high school and spend a whole year hand-drawing floorplans and making models in the wood shop. I think I’ve always enjoyed the concept of being able to take an intangible idea like a home design and making it a reality. That’s a large portion of what drew me towards studying engineering. And virtual reality was at first more of just a hobby, but when we realized the potential impact it could have on industries like architecture that incorporate 3D into their every day workflows I started to take it more seriously.
Russell: I studied philosophy at Columbia (where Angel and I were roommates) with the intent of going to Law School and becoming a space lawyer, outer space, that is. In preparation for law school, I went to work for a law firm in Manhattan dealing in Commercial Real Estate. Part of my job during refinances was to prepare comps on neighboring buildings in the area. A central part of building up a comp (comparable) report was to compare similar floor plans and spaces to the floor plans and spaces in our buildings. If not just for this reason, I realized that trying to understand a 3D space on a 2D medium like floor plans and pictures is both difficult and broken. Months prior to the TechCrunch hackathon, Angel and I had been brainstorming about problems in the world that we could fix with technical innovation. After the Tech Crunch disrupt hackaton, it was clear that we could and needed to fix the way people experience spaces.
PH: Almost 3 decades after Building Information Modeling became mainstream, Virtual Building is about to go mainstream. What do you think the advantages are to both professionals and lay people?
A/R: We see virtual reality having the potential to influence various areas of architecture. Virtual reality enables professionals and non-professionals to more effectively communicate when reviewing a 3D space. When wearing a VR headset your brain receives natural cues that help it understand a 3D space and removes the cognitive load off your client to try and keep up with your drawings and renderings. The scale and relationship between objects and rooms in a space become clearer when you can walk through as if you were there.
Additionally, one of the most fascinating aspects of virtual reality is its ability to make you more empathetic towards who you are designing for. You get to put yourself in his or her shoes and get a sense for the sorts of feelings the space elicits. If you’re designing for children you can shrink down and walk through the space from their perspective.
Finally, it helps professionals gain a better understanding of how lay-people will interact with the space. For large public projects you may want to ensure the flow within the space is efficient and bottle-neck free. But if you run a VR simulation with 100 people or so you may find people aren’t taking the routes you’ve optimally designed. Or if you’re in retail architecture you want to ensure brand and product visibility and seeing how people engage with your 3D design in VR can help you gauge what catches their attention. You open up the ability to beta test your space and iterate on feedback before you even pour any concrete. A lot of web companies use the concept of A/B testing to ensure they release the most effective version of their app. We want to bring that concept to physical spaces and let people A/B test without having to build a physical prototype.
PH: What does your app really do? Is it easy to use – what do I need to know and what do I need to do?
A/R: Right now we have a web application that allows people to upload 3D models exported as OBJs and instantly view them in VR through their mobile device with a cardboard virtual reality headset or online with the Oculus Rift. We’re trying to make the integration of virtual reality with architects’ current workflow as least intrusive as possible. Our app is an easy way to get started with testing and exploring virtual reality, but we still have a lot of features to implement before its something you can show to clients as a standalone service.
That’s why right now we work directly with a lot of architects to create higher quality virtual reality experiences for use with clients. As we create these experiences we’ve been building out tools that help us automate the process and then add them to our web service to get it closer to the one-click VR service we are aiming to achieve. Sticking to our philosophy of making VR easy, we strive to have a quick same day turn around which simulates you simply dragging and dropping your design onto our platform and having an instant VR walk through. A large part of our focus has been on figuring out how you present a VR experience to your client while still having control over what they see. A major concern of architects we initially presented the idea too was the danger of letting a client freely look around or explore. We’ve been building out a lot of presentation tools that allow you to see what your client is seeing remotely and also guide them through the space. This opens up the room for a two-way discussion over what the client is seeing without having to guess where they are in the VR space.
PH: Is that an expensive upgrade or would the technology be accessible to a smaller architectural firm, a school project and even a student?
A/R: Our web service is completely free and available to anyone with a smartphone and internet access. All you need to get started is a $20 cardboard virtual reality headset that you slide your smartphone into. We sell them on our site! It’s a great way to experiment with VR and decide whether making the upgrade to a more expensive headset and higher quality models are right for you.
We have someone from every use case you described signed up on our platform right now. We have freelance architects and small firms testing out VR throughout the design process. We have students and educators from various schools including Columbia GSAPP, USC, Duke, Berkeley, and Stanford. We also have educators using InsiteVR to show 3D models to their high school students and walk them through historic sites. Our goal is to create a platform where people can view and explore their designs in VR with as minimal effort as possible. We believe you shouldn’t have to be an expert programmer to use VR.
PH: What has been your biggest challenge?
A/R: Put simply, our biggest challenge is getting virtual reality onto the heads of the people who it can help most. Trying to explain with words the value that virtual reality provides to someone’s business can be difficult. It is only after that first moment when the architect puts on the virtual reality headset does she see that it will forever enhance the way people experience his or her designs. There are only two requests we ever make of architects when we reach out to them. 1) Let us come into your office for just 30 minutes and 2.) Give us one of your 3D models so we can let you live your design from the inside.
PH: What is your timing and your expectation?
A/R: We’ve been working on InsiteVR for about 8 months now and are finally seeing a lot of growth in both users and uploaded content. Over the next year we plan on making it even easier for architects and designers to upload more complex content to the web platform and to keep on building tools that will allow them to tell stories inside of their spaces. VR is such a new field that making predictions more than 3 months out is difficult because of rapid changes in the hardware people are using. I can say that we hope to become a place where people go to tell their stories, share experiences and communicate their designs. We will continue to focus on unlocking the designers potential to create experiences and convey the emotion in their spaces.
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