October 18, 2018

Designing in VR: Agile Lens helps furnish a theater with Unreal Engine

By Pierre-Felix Breton

When they were asked to work on the design of a three-tiered, 600-seat, 84,000-square-foot theater with an orchestra pit for 70 musicians, New-York-based theater design consultancy Fisher Dachs Associates needed to think big. Luckily, their sister-firm Agile Lens – a virtual reality consultancy and design studio that builds custom experiences for the architecture industry – was there to help.
Construction on the Rice University Music and Performing Arts Center (RUMPAC) in Houston, Texas is currently underway – the scale of the ongoing endeavor can be seen in this live feed from the construction site – and is slated to be completed in 2020. Back in 2015, Agile Lens and Fisher Dachs Associates started work on a multi-year project alongside Architect Allan Greenberg. “We immediately saw a lot of potential for using virtual reality as part of the design process,” says Alex Coulombe, Creative Director at Agile Lens. 

Consultant Laura Wagner of Fisher Dachs Associates explains why VR is particularly helpful when designing spaces as large as theaters. “They’re such three-dimensional worlds that you really need to be inside them to understand them and to evaluate the designs,” she says. “You can put someone in the front row of the balcony and they can feel how they’re leaning over the railing and what they’re seeing, and that’s something you can’t convey in renderings.”
Agile Lens had previously worked with another real-time solution. The team turned to Unreal Engine to ensure that a VR experience could accurately reflect their designs, but were also lured by the ability to create traditional renderings, animations, panoramas, and WebVR experiences from the same content. “That level of accessibility has been a phenomenal boon to our workflow,” enthuses Coulombe.

The company has been proponent of using VR for architectural design since 2013, when their first Oculus Rift development kit arrived. But they are still surprised at the resistance to VR’s use as a design tool, something which baffles Coulombe. “For anyone who has gotten inside Unreal’s VR editor, where you can move stuff around, change materials, add lights, it’s a really powerful experience, and immediately your brain clicks into design mode,” he says. 
While Agile Lens is an early adopter of using VR in this way, more and more design firms are turning to some form of real-time visualization to aid the design process. According to a recent study by Forrester Consulting, 81% of survey respondents said they’re very likely or likely to adopt real-time rendering engines into production, with 64% of respondents who categorized themselves as being in the architecture industry citing the ability to edit designs with customers in real time as a key driver.

Coulombe believes that VR is a better medium than traditional methods both for communicating the status of a design and for making changes to it because it enables you to evaluate the assets at life size. “From within that experience, you’re understanding what the finished version will be like at human scale,” he explains.

It’s the ideation stage where VR really shines, according to Coulombe, who feels it lets you be more intuitive and creative, leaving room for the imagination. “You’re not prescribing wall thicknesses or materials; treat it like you’re redlining or using trace paper and work through new ideas,” Coulombe advises. “And then bring all that back into Revit, SketchUp, 3ds Max, where you can then make the more precise version.” 

Wagner couldn’t be happier about bringing VR into the design process. “It’s an exciting experience as a designer to see something that you’ve worked on being built, but it’s also wonderful to view it in this virtual world,” she says. “It’s amazing, it’s a lot of fun.”
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