Ask the Innovator: How can Mixed Reality Help us Imagine a Brighter Urban Future?
TH!NK: Everyone’s talking about virtual, mixed, and augmented reality these days. Could you help set the record straight for us by clarifying the differences between these technologies?
Matt: Sure, no problem. Let’s start with virtual reality (VR). VR essentially immerses a user in a completely computer-generated environment that’s seen through a headset. Everything that’s fed through the headset is simulated and the user must either use controllers or haptic feedback to interact with the virtual environment.
Alternatively, augmented reality (AR) gives the user the ability to overlay computer-generated elements on top of the real world. It’s slightly different from VR as you’re not completely shutting off the user’s ability to see the real world around them, and it can be deployed on a platform such as an iPad or smartphone instead of a headset. Pokémon Go is a great example of this technology.
Mixed reality (MR) is a combination of different technology inputs. You can place a user in a digital VR environment, but they can walk around a physical environment and pick up real objects which translate into the VR environment as well. It’s kind of a blending of physical inputs and other digital inputs. You’re essentially mixing different technologies and inputs in order to create a more interactive and compelling experience.
So what does this actually look like within IBI Group?
Matt: At IBI, we’ve been running projects in virtual reality by bringing existing project files into a game engine. This allows us to explore these environments while wearing a headset and even meet with colleagues from other offices in virtual space! We can view each other’s avatars and troubleshoot design issues in real time while in the VR space.
Could you see reality technology as something that becomes a standard part of the design practice, or is this just a cool tool?
Matt: I definitely think there are real applications for reality technologies, largely because of their effectiveness as communication tools. They provide professionals with the opportunity to make faster and more educated decisions within a project. They provide such a robust set of tools that I fail to see how this won’t be adopted as part of the process moving forward. There’s just so many opportunities to explore their capabilities.
Historically, architecture hasn’t been an industry at the forefront of technology. I think that’s changing though. Reality technologies aren’t just tools we’re using internally; we’re shaping their applications in our client work too.
Matt: I think a lot of it has to do with how quickly technology is evolving and how it’s making jobs a lot easier and providing so many tools. In order to remain relevant and to be an industry leader, we have to take risks in exploring what’s capable with technology and what we can provide for our clients. We don’t want to be a company that waits to be told what the new industry standard is, we’d rather be the company to define the industry standard and explore what works.
For the city-making industry, this technology is especially powerful. Not only can it help people understand environments before they exist, but it allows people to explore the feasibility of environments that exist only in dreams and ideas. That, to me, is a truly inspirational tool.
Matt: Yes absolutely! It allows us to be kids again and strikes up our imaginations in terms of what is actually possible. Now that the headsets and AR/VR technology has progressed further, we’re seeing more creative uses of these technologies which is leading to connected, interesting, and engaging new experiences that people have never had before.
The most interesting thing about reality technologies is that they provide the user with an amazing experience that puts them at the center. For an industry that designs spaces and environments, the emotional connection that people now have to a project is almost priceless. And to have these tools at our disposal is incredibly powerful.
Over the last few decades, technology has been dominated by shiny, futuristic, and non-human narratives. I think we’ve moved on from that idea, which is a good thing. Technology is becoming more and more human-centered. We’re seeing a more empathetic approach that positions technology as a tool rather than something imposing or frightening.
Matt: People are always afraid of exploring something that may take them out of their comfort zone. In a lot of ways it can be frightening if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to put on a headset. It’s initially disorienting and you’re asking people to go and interact with something that they don’t really understand. I think that once people have actually tried it and spent some time interacting with this new medium that they will discover the emotional connection or enlightenment it brings.
One of the things I love most about this job is witnessing the reaction of people when they interact with an environment that doesn’t really exist or at least only existed previously as a design. Particularly for those who are familiar with the space and can visualize all the hard work, meetings, and discussions that have gone into this space, seeing a simulated version of it is a “wow”-worthy experience.