How using immersive tech like VR (Virtual Reality) significantly helps overcome challenges relating to precision, delays, and more when designing and planning public spaces.
VR technology has made exponential progress in the past decade. Today, it is used across sectors as diverse as gaming, medicine, architecture, education, mining, and more. Tech and other industry experts predict a financial boom in the not-so-distant future of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) tech with a majority of its use assigned to the gaming industry. Studies forecast AR/VR tech to make a global economic impact worth approximately $29.5 billion in a high-adoption scenario. The figures and studies pertaining to this versatile and evolutionary technology beg the question – how else can it benefit the world?
Focusing on VR technology, specifically for the purposes of this paper, the real-world implications are numerous. The gaming industry, in particular, pricked up their ears when VR first arrived and the possibilities it brought. Fast-forward to today, gaming offers users incredible experiences thanks to VR. Currently enjoying a majority share (nearly 50%) in the VR software market, the gaming sector paved the way for VR to showcase innovative applications in real-world scenarios. VR is now seen not just an entertainment product but one which can change our current understanding of how the world works.
This shift in perception saw VR reorient to a more practical workplace tool. Realizing the groundbreaking capabilities of the tech, various sectors have now adopted it for diverse purposes. Architecture and real estate communities began deploying VR in their practices and methodologies to much positive fruition. Today, with high-quality 360° cameras, advanced mapping software, dynamic lighting, improved rendering capabilities, and cutting-edge hardware, VR now possesses the ability to recreate entire urban areas and public spaces for designers and visionaries to mould to their wildest imagination.
II. Using VR To Design Public Spaces: Importance & Challenges
Public spaces play an unassuming but important role in the functioning of civilized society. Any area that allows citizens of a village, town, or city to gather for casual socialisation without personal or social obligations is called public space. It is important to note that citizens can play a passive role in a public environment and still contribute to the social dynamics of the space to a substantial degree.
Public spaces allow citizens to engage, interact, and co-exist in a colourful blend of experiences. Everyday life is made a little more enjoyable and fulfilling when townsfolk have access to such pockets of serenity and leisure. Public spaces bring people together and give their lives purpose, identity, and solidarity. The psychological effect of city buildings and the spaces between them has been studied intensively by architects for centuries. These studies have led to public spaces being used for recreational as well as functional purposes.
Apart from offering folk an abode of respite from the daily grind, public spaces provide useful platforms to interact, educate, and uplift communities on a variety of themes. Museums are interesting examples of how public places can play an active role in nurturing society. VR has reenvisioned how museums can engage people of today, who now require innovative ways to capture and hold their attention. Designing and planning a public space is a complex endeavour with numerous challenges, which are almost completely overcome through the power of immersive technology.
A. The Complexity Of Public Space Design
One may assume that the methodologies, concepts, and thinking used in traditional architectural/urban space design can be repurposed and used to craft public spaces. A misconception that led to much frustration and disappointment for architects and design experts the world over. The unique ecosystem of public spaces created challenges and considerations that, until then, were never faced before.
Many design theories and principles were based on intuition or personal experience of urban architects instead of objective analysis. Case studies and controlled experiments were later suggested as effective research methods to gather objective data. However, both these methodologies suffered their own drawbacks.
Case studies are widely used by urban designers and remain one of the most popular reference tools in the field. But case studies still pertain to a specific location which takes into consideration its own endemic cultural and social dynamics that may not apply to other settings. Controlled experiments are difficult to carry out in public spaces as citizens continue their daily routine in the studied space thereby influencing the results of the experiment. Furthermore, controlled experiments are highly time-consuming and costly to conduct.
Researchers have also experimented with 2D visualisation methods such as perspective sketches, photography, computer simulations, etc. to better analyse and design public spaces but found them lacking as well. 2D visual assessment methods experience limitations related to visual distortions that occur when converting 3D spaces to 2D media. These ineffective solutions gave rise to the need for a robust design methodology for the idiosyncratic challenges of public spaces.
B. VR To The Rescue
Immersive tech such as VR overcomes the above limitations by allowing users to experience and interact with spaces similar to, if not precisely so, the actual physical space. This provides multiple advantages in the field of public space design not only as a research tool but, interestingly, also as a communication tool for collaborative design development. A recent project by Virtual Design Reality Lab of the University of Minnesota developed a social VR system for architectural design that allows multiple people to view and discuss the same virtual space at the same time.
Apart from replicating public environments to modify based on aesthetic perceptions, VR can be augmented with parallel technologies to understand higher dimensions of architecture design. For example, an experiment conducted at New York University (NYU) had a person conduct a simple task in two slightly different virtual settings to gauge their emotional and physiological response through attached sensors. One scenario had a less stressful physical environment with large windows which led to lower heart rate and less perspiration. By changing a few elements in comparative simulations, designers can delve deeper into optimal architecture and urban design in ways not possible before.
C. Museums Of The Information Age
When the Franklin Institute first launched their VR experience in 2016, the game well and truly changed for museums across the globe. Today many world-renowned museums have implemented VR in various ways. The Louvre installed a VR experience for the Mona Lisa to take viewers on a journey into the masterpiece, the making of, inspirations and more. The Metropolitan Museum of Art created a 360° journey of the entire museum so cultural aficionados can enjoy the exhibits from the comfort of their sofas. The Museum of Natural History & Science launched Jurassic Skies, a VR experience where visitors could fly and interact with dinosaurs.
The past few years have seen VR tech proliferate and feature in many diverse settings and industries. The future of VR posits scenarios where entire communities, urban areas, and public spaces are built in the virtual dimension and not accessible in reality. The Kremer Collection, for example, is a virtual museum designed using immersive tech that can be downloaded and accessed from anywhere in the world.
For those discomfited by the idea of VR taking over museums and public spaces, Bruno David (President of the National Museum of Natural History) reassures by stating, “People come to museums to see real objects because they exude emotion.” Many prefer to see real objects to gratify their own sense of reality. VR exists not to completely replace museums and public spaces, but to enhance them and make these experiences more accessible for all.
The advantages of Virtual Reality technology have multiplied rapidly since its invention. As outlined in this paper, museums and public spaces stand to benefit greatly with higher adoption of immersive tech. The challenges of analysing and studying public spaces can be circumvented completely as VR technology becomes more advanced. Apart from precision, using simulated environments to test and design new theories negate construction and implementation-related risks that can arise from experimentation. As technology advances and more discoveries are made, immersive tech such as VR possesses the potential to change the very nature of our reality and opens up a pathway to a very exciting future indeed.
- Augmented Reality & Public Space in the 21st Century City (2017)
- Finding the Optimal D/H Ratio for an Enclosed Urban Square: Testing an Urban Design Principle Using Immersive Virtual Reality Simulation Techniques – Kim and Kim (2019)