Architecting VR - Serving players with meaningful spaces
The mutual benefits VR and architecture offer one another is no great secret.
On one side, VR provides the opportunity to explore pre-visualizations of given buildings before their first foundation stones have been laid, presenting tremendous benefits to everyone from construction crews to prospective residents
And as we've seen here at Vision, ancient architecture has a great deal to offer virtual reality's practitioners, through a hidden rulebook of designing for 3D spaces established by construction specialists hundreds of years ago.
As it turns out, observing the application of VR in the architectural sphere has a great deal to teach game creators and others shaping content for contemporary virtual reality. And the reason for that? Making VR spaces and designing buildings aren't all that different.
“In VR, suddenly the players are inside the spaces you create," asserts Julien Lynge, Lead Unity Developer at Arch Virtual, a VR studio and agency specializing in architectural and other business and education applications.
"So you’re going to have to start thinking like an architect," he adds, speaking directly to game developers. "You guys are already artists, programmers, 3D modelers, musicians, psychologists, storytellers and mythologists. And now you’ve got to be architects too. It’s a brave new world.”
Lynge's point is striking in its simplicity. If VR lets a game's users inhabit its worlds with a degree of intimacy not previously seen, then developers need to design spaces for people to occupy; just as architects do.
A MATTER OF SCALE
In his work serving architectural clients, Lynge has also learned a great deal about the architectural process itself, and identified a correlation between what it is to design physical spaces for humans to inhabit, and the practice of building VR realms where a user can feel the power of presence.
This stems from the simple fact that, within VR, the sense of scale is fixed from the user's perspective. It's the reason a 20-foot high statue will loom over a player at exactly that size, and a baseball-sized planet will fit comfortably in the hand.
Put another way, when a player or architectural client is within a VR experience, from their perspective everything is sized relative to their real-world body. Although it's more accurate to say the worlds are scaled relative to a user's eyes.
“The distance between your eyes – your interpupillary distance – does not change," Lynge explains. "So when I look at a dollhouse-sized scene in VR, I can tell that it is small. I can tell that it is a dollhouse, and not a full-sized house. You really notice changing scales in VR, and that’s something that not everyone is taking advantage of.”
That consistency of scale is the core reason designing for VR games is comparable to designing architecture in real life. If VR game developers are building a world to inhabit at human scale, they are undertaking the very same task architects face when conceiving real world buildings, be they commercial, industrial or residential. So how to think like an architect?
Firstly, consider that architecture isn't really about bricks, windows and flooring. It's about the space between those objects, how that space is suitable for humans, and how it makes navigating and existing in the building more intuitive.
“We may think about architecture as being just pretty buildings. But architecture is not just pretty buildings," Lynge confirms. "It’s about spaces. Architects design spaces that people are going to live and work in for years. When you design these spaces, you have to think about how people actually live; how are these spaces going to be used?”
Assuming the skill set of a specialty like architecture is easier said than done, of course. However, according to Lynge, a basic understanding of the general approach to architectural process – and considering that procedure when creating spaces for VR realms – will serve developers well in terms of delivering the consumer engaging spaces in which to feel presence.
“I would encourage you guys to think about architecture in the way architects do; as a lived in space," Lynge suggests. "And if you go through this process in the context of your game worlds, you will come up with more interesting, more believable, and more inspiring architecture.”
So what is that process? According to Lynge, it boils down to a three-step design method:
1. Schematic design - Rapid prototyping, sketching and paper prototyping to gain a general sense of a building, its shape, space and purpose
2. Design Development - Locking practical details in, through considering the relationship between objects and space, while thinking about scale and proportion. How could flooring height guide a user from entrance to reception, while distinguishing working spaces and a dining area, for example?
3. Final Polish - Often overlapping with construction itself, this phase sees light fittings, door handles and rugs decided upon.
Considering the design arc above runs from paper prototyping to polishing details, it isn't too different from the game development process. Here, however, you have to ponder a user's existence within – and reaction to – a space designed for them to inhabit.
“Architecture can actually give people an emotional response," Lynge states, touching on VR content's ability to offer the same impact as architecture. "It can actually give them an aesthetic response. In VR, you can feel the same physical way. It’s a visceral reaction, in a way that 2d ‘flatscreen games’ are not. It’s important to understand how architecture effects people in a real way.”
Lynge is also keen to point to the familiarity of real world spaces as a tool to make VR worlds more convincing, and thus more immersive. And it's a simple concept to embrace for those who may not have time to study architectural craft and theory.
A HANDLE ON CONVENTION
Lynge even has a quick experiment to hammer home his point. Consider the humble door handle. Immediately, and without more than a second or two, bring to mind how high from the ground should it be in centimeters or inches. Got it? No? We didn't get it either; at least not instantaneously. Now stand up, and put your hand out to where a door handle should be. This time it should have been easy. It's almost as instinctive as knowing where your own hand should be found. The layperson's understanding or architectural convention is surprisingly intricate and well informed. Because architecture fits the users, and not the other way around. And that instinctive understanding of how building should work, it turns out, is a powerful way to make your VR worlds feel more convincing; more natural.
“People are especially familiar with day-to-day objects: chairs; doorknobs, that kind of stuff," Lynge concludes. "It’s those details that are really going to sell your VR game.”
It may yet take game developers and their peers a good time to become truly familiar with the craft of virtual architecture. But as time progresses, and the rulebook for VR and building design continue to share parallels, it is likely to become increasingly important to consider what it is to shape experiences that serve people at human-scale.
And while you should go out and do research and read more about the architect's method, remember that the most important tool for the architect is understanding what it is to be a human in a designed physical space. We all have a lifetime of experience of being exactly that, as proved every time we reach for the handle of a door we've never previously passed though, and land our palm squarely on target.