Authors: Karl Dohm and Deborah Barreau

Virtual reality offers the potential to enhance architecture by combining three-dimensional design, head-mounted displays, sound, and movement to simulate a "walkthrough" of a virtual space before the expensive construction on the physical structure begins. Although architects are generally good at visualizing structures from blueprints and floor plans, their clients often are not. Walking through virtual environments provides an opportunity to test the design of buildings, interiors, and landscaping, and to resolve misunderstandings and explore options.

The technology supporting the application is an extension of computer-aided design techniques. Three-dimensional objects and environments are enhanced by texture mapping and dynamic lighting to create a realistic simulation of the structure. Complex objects can be moved and altered to simulate real conditions such as the shadows cast by the movement of a lamp. External factors such as impact of sunlight through proposed windows and orientation of the structure can be modified to achieve optimal lighting and natural heating effect. Head-mounted displays, 3D sound, and a mechanism for navigating through the space are among the techniques which contribute to the illusion of moving through a real structure.

There are examples of the use of virtual reality technology in architecture. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980's a walkthrough project simulated the interior of Sitterson Hall, the proposed design for the computer science building (Brooks, 1986). Subjects who participated in the project, which used detailed graphics, head-mounted display, and a treadmill with bicycle handlebars as a steering mechanism, reported a "cramped feeling" in one part of the lobby. When this was demonstrated to the project planners, the design was changed. (Pictures: (Top) Interior lobby of Sitterson Hall (Bottom) Simulation of the lobby from the architect's design)

In Japan, the Matsushita corporation developed the Virtual Space Decision Support System (VSDSS) to allow customers to participate in the design of their kitchens (Nomura, 1992). Design meetings are held in advance, and the customer returns later, donning dataglove and goggles, to view the kitchen in a virtual showroom. Clients may open cabinet doors and drawers, turn on the water, hear the birds singing from an open window, and test the placement and convenience of the appliances and work areas. Additionally, virtual reality displays were used by Art+Com Company in Berlin, Germany to build public support for the reconstruction of a major subway station which had been out of use since World War II (Pimentel, 1993).

Virtual reality environments for architectural simulation are complex and expensive. The Matsushita project, for example, was funded in part by the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry which sees potential value in the technology for making products which are responsive to the customer's wishes and which avoid costly mistakes. However, the application offers opportunities for research to test the impact of the technology upon the field and upon the "inhabitants" of the resulting structures which may help to determine if the costs of building the environments are offset by filtering out design errors.

The problems of virtual environments for architectural simulation are scene complexity, object complexity, realistic update rates to support fluid movement and viewing from a variety of perspectives, the incorporation of sound to test acoustics, and the capability to support movement of objects as well as the illusion of the individual's movement through the space. Three-dimensional graphics, object-oriented programming, advanced data structures and algorithms, and a basic knowledge of architectural engineering and design are useful skills for developers in these environments.


Brooks, Fredrick P. 1986. Walkthrough - A Dynamic Graphics System for Simulating Virtual Buildings. ACM Workshop on Interactive 3D Graphics. Chapel Hill, NC. Oct 23-24.

Nomura, Junji, Hikaru Ohata, Kayo Imamura, Robert J. Schultz. 1992. Virtual Space Decision Support System and Its Application to Consumer Showrooms. Matsushita whitepaper.

Ken Pimentel, Kevin Teixeira. 1993. Virtual Reality, Through the New Looking Glass. Windcrest Books.

Photographs of the lobby of Sitterson Hall appear courtesy of Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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