Westmead staff use HDR VR cardboard goggles

A Virtual World at our Fingertips

Embracing technologies that make virtual environments just one click away means we can now involve stakeholders more effectively in the design process.

The past couple of years have witnessed substantive technological advances in the field of Virtual Reality (VR). These technological leaps have been coupled with an exponential growth in the interest in and use of such tools across the architecture industry. Emergent technologies in general, including VR in particular, continue to improve the way we share design ideas and, in turn, garner more relevant feedback in an increasingly timely manner.

At HDR, being at the forefront of adopting the latest technologies is critical. Improving the quality of our VR experiences means, for us, involving different stakeholders as early as possible in the design process and therefore making the transition across different stages from concept to construction more seamless. Furthermore, from an economic perspective, we believe our investment in helping clients and stakeholders fully visualize the end result, before buildings even start to take shape, ultimately translates into savings in time, money and labor.

Integrating VR into our workflow as soon as it becomes available and then streamlining it into our processes demonstrates our commitment to maximize the utility of such tools for our stakeholders. This comprehensive integration also means that a client’s VR experience is but a click away — so, essentially, a client may call us to request a meeting and one hour later be walking through a virtual model of their project in our VR studios.


VR Around the World

Our studio in Sydney, Australia, is fully equipped with motion sensors, mounted screens, goggles and motion-tracked handheld controllers. Located in the Research Hub on the first floor of the office, the space is constantly abuzz with activity, although we did on several occasions dismantle our gear and transfer it to a client’s premises to deliver the full VR experience right to their doorstep. Dismantling, transporting and setting up VR gear is, however, not that necessary anymore since we now have more practical alternatives to offer a ‘mobile’ VR experience of decent quality.


In addition to our HTC Vive setup that uses ‘room scale’ tracking technology to allow users to move in and interact with three-dimensional spaces, we also use Samsung Gear to provide a wireless and more mobile alternative. Another useful tool is the Google Cardboard technology that simply requires a smartphone, a web URL and a foldable cardboard viewer that people can slip into their pockets and take back to their offices or homes to view at their convenience. In fact, the team at our Westmead Redevelopment project decided to host pop-up booths to share future plans via cardboard goggles with hospital staff and the general public. The team used the immersive VR experience to complement their information packs about the redevelopment and engage people more effectively.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, our VR studio is equally busy. Located in a space called “The Big Think,” it’s not uncommon for us to host full-day workshops with clients where we can utilize the latest technologies to immerse stakeholders into the virtual spaces we are designing for them.


We’ve also taken our VR tools on the road. An example is a series of charrettes we held for the Allina/Mercy Hospital Expansion project. Being able to use VR technologies greatly streamlined the design process, especially as we coordinated the design concerns of eight primary focus groups: Visibility, Wayfinding, Spatial Adjacencies, Patient Privacy, Patient Accessibility, Waiting Spaces, Security, and Amenities & Aesthetics. This was a complicated expansion/renovation project that involved a parking garage, a new front door/entrance, central waiting and registration, an Emergency Department addition as well as a new Surgery Addition.


These virtual reality tools let users from all of these group experience spaces (in scale and proportion) before any designs were finalized. While users were experiencing the space, design details were adjusted and reviewed, providing immediate real-time updates that couldn’t have been achieved with traditional, passively viewed animations. To mirror the way our eyes perceive images in the real world, the HTC Vive technology we utilized presented unique and parallel images for each eye, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience with excellent depth, scale and parallax.

An Added Benefit

Not only do VR tools offer experiences and tell stories that may otherwise be difficult to capture and present, more importantly they help facilitate collaboration and interaction — users have the opportunity to comment, criticize, make suggestions and ask questions. Sounds like any designer’s nightmare, right? Wrong. We’ve actually had numerous instances where clients have initially resisted a certain design idea only to accept it after experiencing it in a VR setting and gaining a better understanding and actual visualization of the space and its scale, dimensions and its different features and details. It also helps construction contractors better understand the end product they’re required to build. Manipulating sun movement, controlling light sources, changing color schemes and substituting textures and finishing materials further heightens the VR experience and makes it more realistic, leaving less for users’ imaginations.

Designing spaces that are easy to navigate is an essential factor in successful VR experiences. A while back, we found clients were losing their way while wandering inside the virtual model of a particularly complex project. Our solution? We created a virtual ‘mission control’ room with multiple screens representing a menu of choices. By resting their gaze on the screen of their choice for a few seconds, they’ll enter that particular space. Or they can navigate through a predefined path. To return to mission control when they’re done exploring, they only have to look at the floor for a few seconds and they’re ‘teleported’ back to the central room to select their next journey.

The future of VR holds even more exciting advances with the continual development of smaller, lighter and more mobile solutions. And just imagine speaking directly to your interactive space and telling it to, for instance, “show only floors and stairs.” Even better, why not try it out for yourself? The voice-activated command feature has already arrived.