Last September, SWA’s innovation lab, xl, produced its “Report on the Current State of Immersive Environments for Design.”  It included an assessment of the emerging technologies of 360 video, spherical panoramas, virtual reality, and mixed reality for design. As the lab’s co-leaders, we had recognized throughout the firm a desire to use virtual reality in practice, but also found there was little understanding of a wider palette of tools and options with the same perceptual qualities. We made a survey of these different emerging technologies, grouping them together and calling them “Immersive Environments.” We circulated the resulting report among the designers in the firm’s seven offices and in our new affiliate office, SWA/Balsley.

The report was part of a larger project which explored new advances in visualization and simulation for design. It sought to experiment with and push these emerging technologies to discover their strengths, limitations, and opportunities. We ran a demo day with four types of immersive environments in nine different configurations, using our designers as “guinea pigs,” and got feedback from our Southern California studios. Concurrently, we learned from George Kutnar’s experiences in the Los Angeles studio testing VR with a client and shooting a 360 video. We talked with developers of virtual reality and mixed reality tools about current capacities and technological advances on the horizon. We have also talked to city planners in municipal and private practice about the ways they have used immersive tools in their work.  Our approach to the technologies was critical and evaluative, leading toward an understanding of the role these new tools could play in the future of design. As an innovation lab at an urban design and landscape architecture firm, part of our mission is to assess, experiment with, and “try to break” emerging technologies. Much of what we were reading about VR and related technologies was only celebratory rather than critical or evaluative. We wanted to find out if immersive technologies are actually the future of the design process. And, if so, how might they operate?

A few months later, after supporting design teams using immersive technologies in our Los Angeles and San Francisco studios, we want to share our findings. We think the design industry could benefit from exchanging ideas about these tools, so that designers can aid in developing them faster and better for our needs. Recent advances in the gaming industry have pushed virtual reality and mixed reality forward—think of Minecraft VR and the mobile phone game phenomenon Pokemon Go. Journalists, POV camera companies, and the film industry are experimenting with 360 video formats and distribution: GoPro X Games videos, Sundance shorts, and The New York Times VR. We think the AEC industry needs to be an early adopter and collaborator in developing the design and visualization tools it requires. Otherwise we risk being on the receiving end of tools and technologies that could look like a game or feel like a GoPro video. With this in mind, we’re sharing what we’ve developed as an open source resource in order to further accelerate exploration and experimentation in the industry. We are excited to share our experiences with the larger design community, and hope you are too.

Look for more on the Immersive Environments project in Mark magazine; Planning magazine will feature tips on using immersive tools in urban planning; both out this spring.

Check out xl’s “Report on the Current State of Immersive Environments for Design” here.

Images from the Demo Day and Immersive Environments project are available here:

The project and report were led by Emily Schlickman and Anya Domlesky through xl: Experiments in Landscape and Urbanism, SWA’s innovation lab. Both Emily and Anya are in the Sausalito, California studio.


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