Virtual reality evolves as a tool for hotel design
Virtual reality evolves as a tool for hotel design
09 NOVEMBER 2016 1:44 PM

Architecture firms are exploring the use of virtual reality as a way to show off models of guestrooms and properties to clients in the hotel industry. 

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—As the technology for virtual reality becomes both more affordable and better understood by the general public, architecture firms have started using it as a way to let their clients in the hotel industry walk through conceptual designs before a hammer has hit any nail.

Though the technology is still evolving, sources said virtual reality has developed to the point where they can take their current methods of design, translate them to new software and make the process faster, easier and, perhaps, less expensive.

Saving time, money
Architecture firm Stonehill & Taylor worked on a project designing bungalows—at a cost of about $1.2 million each—for a confidential client in the theme park industry, said Michael Suomi, principal and director of design. The bungalows were supposed to go on the water, so to design and build a model room for review would have required building the entire structure and a dock, he said. Because of that, he said, the model itself would have cost about $1 million to build.

Instead, the client had the technology to virtually project images onto the walls and floor of a specially designed room, he said, and users could wear a pair of goggles and a hat with sensors that recorded their movements within the space. His firm has worked with 3D visualization, photorealistic renderings and fly-through videos before, he said, but this was a user-controlled virtual reality experience.

“You could move around in the space,” he said. “It felt like you were in it. It was four-sided, three walls plus the floor. If there was a table, you could look at it and move around it.”

This was a great alternative to physically mocking up the bungalow, Suomi said, giving the client a sense of scale, space, design and function. It also proves that virtual reality has a place with projects that are cost prohibitive to build, he said.

Creating a virtual reality model of a property or room allows clients to make decisions faster, said Patricia Rotondo, chief visionary officer and design principal at Chipman Design Architecture. Contractors can look in the walls of the virtual models and see the plumbing, wires and any mechanical elements and spot problems ahead of time, she said.

For a hotel project in Canada, her firm walked clients through a virtual room, she said. Rotondo said they didn’t like the type of luggage rack in the model, so her firm was able to change how the rack fit in the space, as well as change the material in real time as the clients watched.

The capability to virtually change aspects of the room so clients can see different options cuts down on the time needed to make changes, she said. If a client doesn’t like the fabric on a chair in a physical model room, she said, that means having to find new fabric, ordering it, sending it to a fabricator, reupholster the chair and shipping it to the model room. Along with taking six to 12 weeks, she said, there’s the added expense of the materials, labor, shipping and installation.

Based on the firm’s calculations, she said, using virtual reality to build a guestroom, corridor, lobby and the rest of the property could cost less than it would to physically build a model room.

A different process
It takes a few extra steps to transfer the designs of rooms and properties into virtual reality software, said Bruce Wright, VP and principal at SB Architects, and the effort depends on the level of detail his firm is trying to communicate. It’s fairly simple, he said, to convert renderings with a program, but “further down the road, with more definition and detail, it takes more time.”

Still, he said, “it’s well worth the effort when clients are investing a great deal of money in the design. It’s almost a visual insurance policy. With a little extra time and money, they clearly see what is going to be delivered when it’s actually built in the reality.”

Wright said that for his firm, virtual reality design is most useful in the early stages of a project because it eliminates many of the hurdles of conceptualization.

Designing for virtual reality required Stonehill & Taylor to model to a higher level of detail than it normally would for a set of construction documents, Suomi said. Many architecture firms still draw everything in 2D, he said, but because two-dimensional drawings don’t translate easily into virtual reality, everything has to be modeled in 3D.

Chipman Design Architecture previously designed a virtual reality room that utilized glasses with tracking devices, Rotondo said, but required clients to come to the firm’s office to see it. Now her firm uses head-mounted devices to walk clients through the designs, she said. The firm owns two devices—one stays at the office, and the other is in a traveling kit that can go to wherever the client is, she said.

The future of design
The cost of virtual reality technology has become more affordable, Suomi said, and the virtual reality headsets available show the physical size of the equipment has decreased as well.

“We will see an explosion of different creative uses for virtual reality technology over the next couple of years,” he said, comparing it to the recent surge in 3D printing after the emergence of new companies brought prices down.

Suomi said his firm currently has four employees who handle 3D visualizations.

“Five years from now, we’ll probably have VR tech guys creating not just fully photorealistically rendered models, we’ll also have software to explore those environments using VR headsets as part of our design process,” he said.

Wright said virtual reality is a supplemental tool. He doesn’t believe it will replace physical room models completely. There are so many options with things like finishes and furniture that VR can’t emulate, he said.

It is the evolution of a virtual tool to walk clients through a process and let them point to and be specific about certain elements of a project’s design, Wright said.

“I think it will become much like how hand drawing was converted into a series of tools on the computer with renderings and things,” he said. “This will be a compulsory skill firms will find clients are demanding because it’s so helpful to understand the space and proportion of the experience.”

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