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A Beginner’s Guide to VR in Architecture

What is Virtual Architecture? Let’s look at everything you need to know about the features of virtual reality.



Virtual reality (VR) has become one of the trendiest technologies of recent years. The introduction of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have opened up a new frontier for architects. Even video game developers are getting in on the act, as you can see with Sony’s PlayStation VR console.

Virtual reality offers you the opportunity to provide clients with more accurate representations of your designs. Using virtual reality design software, you can show your clients around the buildings you have created. You no longer need to try to talk them through the design.

Unsurprisingly, the technology has already started to catch on in the industry. Architects at the cutting edge of the sector have begun using virtual reality to wow their clients. This offers them a crucial competitive edge.

You need to join them in embracing this technology if you want to keep up. However, many people don’t really understand virtual architecture software, or how to use it to boost their presentations. This article will examine some of the basics of virtual reality, so you can understand the benefits of using it in your future presentations.


What is Virtual Architecture?


Before examining the technical stuff, it’s important that you know what virtual architecture involves. It’s not as new a concept as you may think. In fact, several virtual reality design software packages existed before the introduction of the new technologies that have now popularised the virtual reality concept. For example, the likes of Virtalis Visionary Render has allowed you to showcase your designs in virtual reality for many years.

However, virtual architecture professionals are starting to lean toward using video game engines in their work, rather than traditional software. The likes of the Unreal, Unity, and Crytek engines offer more flexibility to create lifelike environments for your clients to explore.

This brings us back to our central question – what is virtual architecture? It is the use of the types of software described above to provide a more realistic representation of your ideas to your clients. Using VR, you can offer guided tours of the buildings you have designed, rather than walkthroughs of a set of models on a screen. Using a headset, your client can explore every aspect of the building. It’s more immersive than other architectural design tools, which offers you the opportunity to help your clients to connect with your ideas in ways they may otherwise have never been able to.

Think of it as a way to show off your building before construction begins.


Can You Link Digital Design Software to VR?

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The rise of virtual reality in the architecture industry has not gone unnoticed. Yes, there are many virtual reality design software packages available, but these require practice to develop expertise in using them. This is the time that many architects cannot afford.

Happily, many traditional digital design companies have started to incorporate VR into their product offerings. For example, SketchUp’s virtual reality plugins allow you to design models with familiar software, while also letting you take advantage of the many benefits of VR.

You can also incorporate a lot of existing rendering software into virtual reality design software. The likes of Lumion and Iris VR Scope allow you to render your designs so they look even more impressive when your client straps on the headset.

So the answer is “yes”. You can link existing digital design software to VR. The technology is still in its infancy, at least in terms of industry adoption. However, many digital design software manufacturers have already recognised the increasing trend towards VR, so they’re adapting their software accordingly.


Using BIM with VR

A slight problem arises when you try to use Building Information Modelling (BIM) with VR. Your BIM models may use a lot of difficult geometry, often put there to highlight your points about the building you’re designing. You don’t necessarily need this complexity in a VR model.

Furthermore, virtual reality places a lot of demand on your systems. The more complex the model, the more powerful the system is going to have to be. Introducing BIM data into your VR model increases the complexity, which means you’ll need more power to run the simulation.

This means you need to optimise if you want to use BIM data with virtual reality design software.

You will have to undergo a process that involves simplifying the model’s geometry and filling any gaps that may result from using BIM data. You should also get rid of any objects that your client won’t see in the VR scene, as they just add unnecessary processing power requirements.

It takes some tinkering, there’s no denying that. You will usually have to lose some of the fine details if you want to use BIM in VR. However, virtual reality also allows you to add details that you don’t get in a BIM model. For example, you can program a VR model to allow the viewer to sit down on an item of furniture, or pick up an object. There’s a trade-off involved.

The good news is that virtual reality design software is still in its infancy. As time goes on, more processing power will become available. This will allow you to incorporate more complex BIM data into your VR models.


A Comparison of the Different HMDs

You can’t offer a virtual reality experience without a head-mounted display (HMD). The HMD slots onto the user’s head and has built-in screens. These screens display the scene that the user will explore, thus creating the virtual reality experience.

Think of them like complex computer monitors. Instead of using a 2D surface to showcase a 3D model, as you would with a computer monitor, you can use a HMD to display your model in full 3D.

You have a choice of two big-hitters when selecting a HMD: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. Both offer a stellar experience, so let’s take a look at what each one has to offer.


The HTC Vive

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The HTC Vive is the more expensive of the two. Even so, it costs a lot less than you might pay for other company’s HMDs, which makes it one of the more accessible options for consumers.

The HMD weighs about half a kilogram and needs to be wired up to a workstation. That means you need to be careful of tripping over on wires while using it. The display has a resolution of 2,160 x 1,200 pixels. This means you may see some pixelation when examining models up-close. Furthermore, the screen refreshes at a rate of 90 frames per second. This ensures the user doesn’t experience the motion sickness that can affect some people.

The Vive uses positional and rotational tracking to confirm the position of the user’s head. This allows for almost perfect synchronisation with the virtual world. You also receive two wands, which act as your hands in the virtual world.

This is all great, but there are some issues you need to think about when setting the Vive up. The HMD allows the user to physically “walk” around the building. You’ll need a 5m x 5m space to do this. Furthermore, the HMD comes with two tracking stations, which you need to fix to the floor or walls to allow the user to get the full experience. These need calibrating, which can make the Vive a little scary for VR beginners.


The Oculus Rift

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The Oculus Rift shares many of the Vive’s specifications. It has the same screen resolution and refresh rate, so there’s little to choose between them in that respect. It also weighs about the same and needs to be hooked up to a workstation. They also share similar head-tracking capabilities.

The main differences are the price and how you use the Oculus Rift.

You’ll use the Rift differently as well. The user stays seated for the entirety of the demonstration. While you may think this makes for a less immersive experience, it does have its benefits. For example, you don’t have to worry about setting up any sensors to track the user’s movements. Tripping hazards are also no longer an issue.

This makes the Oculus Rift a great choice for virtual reality novices. The system is almost plug-and-play, so you can get it set up in no time at all.


Which Should You Choose?

It really depends on the experience you want to offer to your clients. Both offer stellar VR architectural visualisation, so the choice will come down to price and how you use the HMD. The Vive is more expensive and complicated. However, it allows the user to “walk” around the building.

The Oculus Rift costs less money but doesn’t track as many movements. This can make it feel less immersive, but it’s also much simpler to set up.


Possible Health and Safety Issues

It would be irresponsible to not talk about the health and safety issues surrounding the use of virtual reality systems.

Some people may experience motion sickness while using a virtual reality device. This has nothing to do with the virtual reality design software itself. Instead, it’s a reaction to the encompassing nature of the HMD.

Screens with low refresh rates can cause feelings of nausea. These were common in old HMDs. However, new HMDs feature high screen refresh rates. This lowers the possibility of motion sickness enormously. Nevertheless, some people may experience motion sickness when using a VR system. If that happens, you should remove the HMD at once. Also, pay attention to the health and safety advice the HMD’s manufacturers provide. For example, you should take a 15-minute break after every 30 minutes of use of the Oculus Rift.

Physical injury is the other possible risk. It’s easy to forget your location when exploring a virtual reality home design. This could lead to you bumping into walls, or falling over while using the device.

Most modern HMDs protect against this. For example, the HTC Vive’s motion sensors will alert you if you’re close to bumping into a wall. However, this doesn’t account for wires and other tripping hazards. As such, it may be best to use a seated virtual reality system if you want to use VR to impress your clients.


Helping Clients Navigate in VR

Speaking of clients, you need to help them navigate the models you build in your virtual reality design software.

The most important thing is that you use your virtual reality system yourself. Learn how it works and what you can do with it. This will help you to inform your clients during your presentations.

Also, remember that each virtual reality design software comes with its own features. For example, some allow you to teleport between rooms at the touch of a button. You need to understand these features to get the most out of the software. Learn how to change views and interact with the virtual environment, so you can pass that information onto your clients.

It may be worthwhile to create a short instruction booklet that you can send to clients before a presentation. This will help them jump straight into the software. Of course, you should also stay in the room throughout the presentation, so you can offer help whenever it is needed.



With that, you should understand the basic features of virtual reality. The technology has opened up new avenues for architects who want to showcase their designs. Many digital design software packages have already started incorporating VR into their makeups. Those that haven’t are sure to follow suit as use of the technology grows.

Happily, help is available if you want to get more out of VR. ArchiStar Academy has several courses teaching you how to incorporate your digital design software into the virtual reality experience. Head to to talk to a representative about virtual reality in architecture.

ArchiStar Academy offers several courses across the spectrum of digital design software. You’ll develop your skills, allowing you to create more accurate and functional models.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with ArchiStar Academy today if you have any questions.

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Posted on 20 Jan 2020

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