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How the VR headsets used for gaming are changing the architecture industry

This is a screen shot of Lafayette Tower provided by BDG Architects that is part of the virtual reality tour that they can give to clients. When the goggles are worn, the left eye views the left side and the right eye views the right so the image looks 3D. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Sep. 28, 2018

TAMPA — Clark Brown slides a set of virtual-reality goggles over his eyes and is immediately transported to a digital world of his own creation.

But Brown isn't a video game designer in the Silicon Valley. He's production associate at BDG Architects in Tampa, where he turns 2-D building designs into 3-D spaces that clients can explore with the right set of eyewear.

"It's an amazing tool" he says, as he shifts his head around in the Oculus Go headset, using a joystick to "enter" rooms. "And clients love it."

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Historically, developers who deploy architects to design their spaces have a hard time visualizing what a structure will look like before the walls start going up.

But being dropped into the center of a virtual lobby and being able look around like you're a character inside computer game The Sims? That's something every person, regardless of their familiarity with blueprints, can understand.

Over the last few years, the costs of virtual reality (VR) technology has gone down while its capabilities continue to advance. Something that was once viewed as a pricey luxury is being used at architectural firms of all sizes.

"Virtual reality was expensive. So, it stayed in video games and movies," said BDG architect Deighton Babis. "The industry (architecture) that needed it the most couldn't afford the fees."

But it wasn't just the cost — the Oculus Go, for example, now costs $199 — which has put the new tools in higher demand, it's how user friendly they have become in the last year.

Three-dimensional tours began to move off computer screens and in front of eyeballs with technology that hooked up to smartphone screens. Google came out with the cardboard binoculars that hold a phone in front of your eyes; a higher tech version of that concept plugs into Android phones.

"You had to fumble with the phone, make sure the connection was right," said VR expert Angel Say. "It deterred a lot of people. It could take an hour to set up."

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But with the Oculus Go, which launched early this year, there's no major setup and nearly no major user errors, said Say, who is CEO of New York City architectural software company InsiteVR.

Firms are able to ship them off to clients and have virtual meetings while "standing" in a model space together. That's what InsiteVR specializes in.

Say's software takes the rendering an architectural firm is already creating and translates it into goggle vision, while also offering the abilities for different users to walk through the same virtual space together regardless of where they are physically.

The biggest perk is that it makes the design to construction phase move faster, firms said.

"We use it mainly for marketing: here's what your building is going to look like" said Barron Schimberg, head of architecture firm Schimberg Group in Sarasota. "Where it may have taken two or three design meetings before, now it's just one where they see the presentation the first time in the goggles."

Schimberg's company uses InsiteVR's software and the higher-end Oculus Rift, while Brown at BDG handles the bulk of their virtual reality needs inhouse.

Babis said Tampa firm uses VR on bigger projects, like the 53-story tower it is designing for Lafayette Place in downtown Tampa.

With the goggles on, you can look up at the massive tower, go into a coffee shop on the bottom floor, and then check out the lobby — complete with Time and Forbes magazines on a seating area's shelves.

"The clients feel more a part of the process," Babis said. "It leads to a better product that they can understand and a space they can make decisions on faster."

On Wednesday, Facebook-owned Oculus announced another new headset model, the Oculus Quest. The company said users can soon use their headsets to watch YouTube videos and play in NBA basketball games.

"The software has evolved a lot," said Say, "and it's going to keep evolving."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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