Could virtual reality change how designers work?

Even before COVID-19, design studios were looking to implement virtual reality solutions, but lockdown has added renewed relevance to the effort.

“Reality Works was a real first within the automotive industry at the time and really challenged the norms of modern-day car design,” Craig Bunyan tells Design Week. “It supercharged our ability to create and review ideas at speed in a novel, dynamic way.”

Bunyan is lead creative technologist at Seymourpowell, a studio that specialises in transport design. Reality Works is a virtual reality-based (VR) software, created by the company in 2017, that provides a platform for design collaboration. A video shows team members sketching in 3D, with one designer working on the interior of a vehicle while another approaches the exterior. Throughout the process, they are able to communicate with each other through the headsets. By the end a 3D model is created.

Since its implementation however, the studio realised that there was an “opportunity to use it as a tool to support our day-to-day operations and not just as a project design tool”. Now it has allowed for teams spread out over London, Newcastle and Scotland to work together, so that they can be “in the room” together, whatever the circumstance.

The benefits, Bunyan says, are not just for the design process. Seymourpowell is having pitch meetings with clients the studio cannot meet in person. In a developing field like VR, cross-sector efforts have been an inspiration.

Bunyan says that the studio has been inspired by IKEA and its Augmented Reality (AR) experiments where user testing and focus groups were conducted virtually. As well as transport design, Seymourpowell works on packaging and branding. That means that there was no need for sample deliveries of physical stalls set up. “This not only reduces costs but enables our teams to work with much greater speed, dynamism and iteration within product development processes”, he adds.

Will coronavirus make VR mainstream?

While virtual reality and its potential uses have been around for years, there have always been questions around application. Interfaces can be difficult and clunky, the hardware is often expensive, and it has not yet become as mainstream as expected. The coronavirus might have changed this. As non-key workers have found over the past few weeks, lots of work can be done remotely.

And in a world where working from home is much more accepted by business, Bunyan says that “new and emerging technologies such as VR and AR will be in much greater demand and will be utilised not just as a design tool”. He suggests, for example, the possibility of meeting with clients and teams using VR (this would require clients to have the same VR technology, of course). It’s already been used to “immerse clients into the projects and giving guided tours of our progress and work so far”.

Bunyan says that Seymourpowell is also currently testing out ‘pixel streaming’ which would allow them to “remotely access super computers in our headsets” which would mean that “high fidelity content and resources” would be accessible through the headsets and mobile devices. There are costs to these potential benefits. As well as the individual headsets, the software itself costs £5000 for a 12-month period.

A “paradigm shift”

VR is a crowded marketplace, with some brands such as Oculus – now owned by Facebook – more mainstream names than others. HTC is hoping that its Vive series of headsets, along with its software hub, Viveport, can change how creatives use VR to work. This month, HTC has been running VR press conferences. Journalists wear headsets to check-in and learn about new software; avatars of speakers and attendees sit in a virtual amphitheatre. You can also stream them in 2D on YouTube. A Vive headset starts at £499.00.

In a recent conference about spatial design, software companies such as Tvori, Medium and Masterpiece explored how “VR is revolutionising the modern creative workflow”. There was frequent talk of “democratisation” of content creation primarily through the 3D visualisation that VR provides.

During his keynote, Rafi Nizam a creative consultant in spatial design, likened the evolution in VR to the revolution in video content creating – now anyone with a smartphone can create video content. This “paradigm shift” is also happening in creative content, Nizam says, talking about the specific ways that VR can help design techniques.

It is one of the only mediums that puts you inside the sketch as you are drawing in it, for example, which makes you think about the end user experience while you’re creating a concept. “That clear understanding of the experience transcends traditional barriers of production and facilitates collaboration between team members,” Nizam says. Another benefit is that it’s faster to create animated models when you’re sketching in 3D.

Could VR replace the “creative spark”?

These benefits of VR are specific to certain fields of design; product, transport, animation. It is perhaps too early to think about the ways in which they could help more 2D sectors like graphic and branding, though some applications might (literally) create more viewpoints. One of the applications available on Viveport is The Museum of Other Realities, which is a collection of interactive art and experimentation, which supports “artists who are challenging and redefining what is possible with virtual reality art”.

In the near future, it’s more likely that VR could help the more everyday parts of daily studio life. In the run-up to the current lockdown, designers told Design Week that although remote working would be relatively easy to establish, it would be crucial to maintain the creativity of studio life. Nick Vaus, a creative director at Free The Birds studio, said that “while technology connects us, the instant sparks of bouncing ideas off one another may feel flat and disconnected”.

How might VR change that? One tech company, MeetinVR, hopes to make VR meetings mainstream. While Zoom or Microsoft Teams might have dominated workplace communications in recent months, MeetinVR claims that its “immersive” meeting places create more productive virtual meetings.

It says there is up to 25% higher attention in comparison to video calls, where there are more distractions both on screen and around you. The virtual meetings could also provide a sense of physicality that is absent from a phone or video call. MeetinVR has a sketching tool so participants can engage and review with products and designs instantly.

There are many similar platforms to MeetinVR, and while the potential is clear, there are issues with the interface. The experience, like Viveport’s virtual press conferences, is not the most aesthetically pleasing. The avatars can glitch and do not resemble their human counterparts with great accuracy, which would seem important in creating a more life-like experience. These visual issues – which would likely be of particular relevance to designers – might need to be ironed out before VR can create the “workspace of the future”, as MeetinVR promises.

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