Venturing into VR - for ARCHICAD
Happy new year everyone! I thought I'd kick off the year with a blog post! Late last year I needed to update my laptop. Chris and I decided to make sure my new laptop was ‘VR Ready’ and thus began my first venture into Virtual Reality, or VR. Sure, I had previously used the old-style stereoscopic glasses and even Google Cardboard with BIMx. I’d even tried on a few VR helmets over the years, but it’s only now that I believe VR is really hitting a tipping point, especially with ARCHICAD. So here’s an account of my VR journey so far, some lessons learned and what I anticipate for the future.
VR vs AR vs BIMx
First of all, what is VR and how does it compare to AR and BIMx on Google Cardboard? Let’s start with Google Cardboard. That’s where you load up a BIMx project on your smart phone, switch it to cardboard mode and place it into a cardboard goggle. As you turn your head the phone's gyroscope sensor turns the model, giving the illusion that you are in the model. You can read more about it here. And watch a video on it here. While this is fun, affordable and effective, the experience is nowhere near what VR offers.
GRAPHISOFT BIMx on Google Cardboard
And what about AR? AR stands for Augmented Reality and this differs from Virtual Reality in that with VR what you see is a completely digital representation, contained within the Head Mounted Display (HMD). With AR you see through your display into the real world at your actual surroundings, but information is overlaid in your HMD. It’s also referred to as Mixed Reality (although technically there are subtle differences still being debated). So with AR you’re looking at a digitally enhanced version of your real surroundings, while in VR you’re looking at a completely digital environment. Microsoft HoloLens is AR, for example, not VR.
Microsoft HoloLens for AR
A fun and free little AR app is the ‘Ikea Place’ app. This lets you place digital Ikea furniture as you look at your room through your iPhone. It’s available for iOS (only) and you can find out more here.
Choosing VR Hardware
So what VR setup should I go with and what do I need to run it? I have a caveat to this section, which I’ll include at the end, but bear with me for now. There are basically two major players in the ‘open’ VR space: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. That said there are many other VR setups hitting the market right about now, like Acer , Dell Visor, HP, Lenovo, not to mention other players in the field, like Sony PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear. In fact Sony has the biggest market share when it comes to VR, but this is because of their proprietary PlayStation platform.
HTC Vive (top) and the Oculus Touch (bottom)
After many discussions with VR salespeople at the Big Box stores and a bunch of online research, I decided to shy away from the proprietary new players and focus on the two main setups: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. I noticed that many people who already had dived into VR had gone with the HTC Vive. I looked at what they offered and what developments they had on the horizon and also considered how I was going to be using it. As we travel a lot I needed something that was easy to transport and set up quickly in offices, trade shows, user groups etc. Both these systems require sensors that are placed around the room to track your movements. Both require at least two, but the Vive works best with four. I decided to go with the Oculus Rift. Well actually that term is a little outdated. An Oculus Rift is essentially just the HMD and sensors. The newer Oculus Touch is the name of the package that includes the HMD, the sensors, and two of the new Touch controllers. So that’s what I ended up with – an Oculus Touch. It cost $399 from Best Buy.
It’s also VERY IMPORTANT to note that you need to have an Oculus Ready PC. These are Oculus certified computers that are part of The Oculus Ready Program. If you don’t have one of these systems, then Oculus cannot guarantee that their products will work with them. I learned this the hard way. It’s not just the video cards that need to be compatible, but the whole system needs to have all the ports, USB controllers, and goodness knows what else to make it all work together. Oculus does have a system checker that will give you an idea if your current computer can handle the demands of Oculus hardware, but even that's not 100% guaranteed. The certified ready PCs are guaranteed, and they start from US$749 for a desktop and US$850 for a laptop, so not ridiculously expensive. As I said, we’ve hit a tipping point, but just wait for my caveat!
So I am a HP fan and decided on a HP ZBook 17 G4 Workstation - Quadro P4000 for Virtual Reality. It has an nVidia P4000 video card, all the HDMI and USB 3.0 ports and the USB controllers to handle the incredible amount of input (usually). Plus with the addition of a $25 Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI Adapter, I can mirror the VR display to a big screen TV for an audience to watch. So the whole system works well. I have my favorite HP laptop and I can run my Oculus Touch on it, which is easy to set up and plug into a TV wherever I go. I did have a few technical issues along the way (including a corrupt HMD) but I found Oculus support to be excellent. Very responsive, determined and ultimately very helpful.
HP ZBook 17 G4 Workstation with the Quadro P4000 for Virtual Reality
Now for my caveat! Just a few weeks after purchasing my Oculus Touch, despite releasing information to the contrary, HTC announced the HTC Focus! This is an HMD that is completely wireless and does not need any computer to run it! Yes, you read that right. It is a completely standalone unit, with ‘inside-out’ tracking and all the onboard computing power it needs. HTC dropped its plans to support Google Daydream and surprised everyone by releasing this unit. It is currently on pre-order and available only in China from January 2018. It’s a little too early to tell how well it will work in the architectural space, but it’s exciting news nonetheless. Of course Oculus is also planning a completely wireless HMD code-named Project Santa Cruz, but it’s been reported to be a year away at least. Do I wish I had found out about the HTC Focus before buying the Oculus Touch? Kinda, but not really. I am loving the experience for now!
HTC Focus will be available in January 2018, in China only.
VR on PC vs VR on Mac
Up until recently, Vive and Oculus were only compatible with PCs. In fact Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said in 2016 that the idea of his Rift virtual reality headset supporting the Mac is not possible, and that Apple doesn't make any computers powerful enough to run it. "That is up to Apple and if they ever release a good computer we will do it." The good news is that Apple has responded with their new iMac Pro. The bad news is that it only seems to work with the HTC Vive. Perhaps Mr Luckey needs to eat some humble pie and start supporting Apple now? In any case, support for PC is far further along than support for Mac, so if you didn’t want to drop a small house payment on a new iMac Pro, you can still get a VR ready PC for about 15% the cost!
So I had all the hardware, now what software did I need, to be able to explore my ARCHICAD models in VR? These VR systems are primarily built for games, so they come with a bunch of games bundled with the Oculus software, which you install on your VR ready computer. The games are huge fun and rather distracting, but they don’t come with architectural model viewers. Not yet anyway! Again there are a few to choose from such as Revizto and Fuzor, TwinMotion and even Umbra, but with the recommendation of other ARCHICAD gurus I went with Iris Prospect. I will look into the others in time (starting with TwinMotion as they seem motivated to work with ARCHICAD users), but I wanted to jump right in. Prospect doesn’t have a direct ARCHICAD add-on like the others do, but it’s reasonably affordable starting at $50 - $200/mth after a 45 day free trial! The others are around $300/mth I believe. I have had a good amount of correspondence with the people at Iris and have been extremely impressed with their support and willingness to help! Although it should be pointed out now that they don’t yet support Mac either.
Iris Prospect's website is full of helpful information.
So to get started, all you need to do is install Prospect on a VR ready PC. It’s a small program with a simple interface. It comprises two parts; Prospect Launcher where you load all your projects and Prospect Viewer where you view each project. The process is to save a Sketchup (.skp) file from the 3D window in ARCHICAD. Include as much or as little content as you like, but perhaps start with something simple. This will take from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the complexity of the geometry. If you like you can check your model in Sketchup, but it’s not necessary. You can also save scenes in Sketchup which you can navigate to in Prospect. But either way just drag and drop your SketchUp file onto Prospect Launcher. Then you’ll be prompted to Start Processing for VR. This will also take from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on your model. From there you follow the prompt to view your VR model in Prospect Viewer. Put on your HMD and you’re ready to look around your model.
By default you enter a model view, which appears to be like a doll-house view. As if you’re looking at a doll house, but you can spin it around, lift and lower it, scale it up or down, peek inside, even use a cutting plane to slice through it. All the textures come through and the model seems perfectly accurate.
Model View in Prospect with controllers shown.
The real magic happens when you teleport yourself inside the model. There you can literally look around the space. You can use the Oculus Touch controllers to walk and elevate yourself up and down through different stories of the building (this is something the Vive cannot do).
From model view you can teleport yourself into the model.
No you are not walking around the room you’re physically standing in while exploring in VR. You have joystick control for that and you can always teleport yourself around the model using the trigger button, but you can look around by moving your head and/or turning your body. This is where Vive’s four sensors provide better tracking with less occlusion than the Oculus’ two sensor setup, although a third Oculus sensor can be added for full 360 degree coverage, so long as you have an extra (fourth) USB port and your USB controller can handle the additional input from the third sensor.
In addition to moving through the building, you can also take measurements, change the time of day, inspect elements, adjust layer visibility (design options!), mark up and take screenshots that are then saved to your computer’s desktop. (These features are all part of the $200/mth package).
Markups and callouts are built right into Prospect.
Screenshots can be captured in Prospect and saved to your desktop.
Individual layers can be hidden in Prospect
You can see this in action below. The footage is pretty jumpy in this format. When you are actually in VR it's completely submersive and smooth, but you'll get the idea:
And currently in beta, is the ability to meet other people inside your VR model. For instance, my friend and fellow ARCHICAD guru Geoff Briggs has a HTC Vive setup in his office in Seattle. Using the special multi-user feature in Prospect we were able to meet in our model and virtually walk through the building together. Even though I was in Idaho, we marked-up elements, and through the HMD’s built in microphone and speakers, spoke to each other the whole time as if we were next to each other in the real world. There is the ability for the leader to gather all the visitors at the press of a button, or for visitors to port themselves to the leader’s location in the model. Multi-user could naturally extend to larger groups when there are more VR users out there. And what did we look like in the VR world? Well here’s a screenshot Geoff took of me during model view:
Prospect shows avatars of other users in multi-user mode.
Prospect & ARCHICAD
So why does Prospect have add-ons for Revit, Sketchup, Rhino, Grasshopper and OBJ but does not have a direct ARCHICAD add-on? Probably because they have not had enough people asking them for it! Imagine a two-way connection where we could use ARCHICAD’s views, layer combinations, renovation filters, graphic overrides, model view options, even data in Prospect, as well as have backwards compatibility with our mark-up tools? This could hopefully lead to us being able to make changes to materials or even the model in Prospect.
I am fortunate enough to have an online meeting with the good people at Iris in the next few weeks, so hopefully I can encourage them to push development of a direct ARCHICAD / Prospect add-on! I hope that in the not-too-distance future we will have a direct connection between ARCHICAD and Prospect, where we can show our clients and contractors through our models, with the ability to switch layer combinations, renovation filters and views. Eventually it would be great if this extended to viewing data and even changing materials and fittings which would directly update our ARCHICAD model. Who knows, one day soon we may also be designing in VR from start to finish! My son loves to play Tiny Town (link contains audio) – I think ARCHICAD could and should eventually allow a similar level of interaction.
Let me know your thoughts and feel free to ask any questions. I’m just starting out on my venture into VR but I’m learning a lot quickly! And if you’ve been on the fence about getting into VR, there’s no better time than now! But one thing is for certain, you will not believe how amazing VR is until you wear a HMD and explore for yourself!
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