Building designs are literally leaping off the page

August 3, 2016

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shane-scranton

Shane Scranton is CEO and cofounder of IrisVR.

george-valdes

George Valdes is vice president of product at IrisVR.

Shane Scranton and George Valdes of IrisVR share their experience of introducing virtual reality to the architecture and construction industry.

 

Virtual reality is moving beyond gaming and into the world of business. Shane Scranton and George Valdes, founders of IrisVR, a company that makes tools to convert design files into virtual reality content, say VR will be the next big thing for the building industry because it’s the first technology that can communicate architectural space effectively. And that’s just the beginning: Retail, healthcare, and technology may be next. Here’s why.

PwC: Why is the building industry ripe for VR?

Shane Scranton: While the two of us were working on this company, the first generation of VR goggles came out. For kicks, we brought these goggles into some of the design firms we were working with. We saw the amount of excitement in the industry, we saw a willingness to pay for it, and we saw a willingness to invest in early technology. We realized that we could be one of the first in this space and we could develop tools that could be foundational for VR, architecture, and construction.

George Valdes: By working with the early Oculus dev kits, we also learned that there are many pain points that make the process of bringing 3D CAD [computer-aided design] files to VR very cumbersome and time consuming. IrisVR was founded to give the building industry the opportunity to view their 3D designs in immersive VR, in a seamless and expedient way.

PwC: What are these pain points?

George Valdes: Many of our clients were using complex workflows to bring 3D models of the projects they were working on into VR. Some couldn’t afford to train their staff to implement those complex workflows. One challenge is that their 3D modeling software was designed for the desktop and was built to perform with a monitor output of 60 frames per second at best. When they try to bring those models into VR, a lot of manual work goes into optimizing that 3D model so it can perform at the minimum 90 frames per second that sets the bar for a comfortable VR experience. That makes room for a company like ours to think critically about how to reformat these models, so they can be consumed and visualized at 90 frames per second.

PwC: What does IrisVR do? How do you make 3D content ready for VR?

George Valdes: We have our own proprietary platform that prepares 3D CAD files for VR. In practice, our standalone product, Prospect, takes 3D CAD files and optimizes them for VR by reorganizing information so that when an architect, engineer, or construction firm launches a file, the models are geometrically accurate—a person can view the model and navigate freely through it at 90 frames per second. All of this processing happens in real time.

We are also developing ways to identify certain objects from the original source model, so the experience is accurate. We identify what a staircase is, for example, so a person using VR goggles can climb the stairs. We take in the geo-located position of the model to simulate the real daylight over the course of a year. This identification lets us improve the user experience along the way, and over time, architects can do more with it. If we don’t get the user experience right, then the building industry won’t adopt it.

I would say it’s critical to make all of this incredibly simple for this industry. In their average workflow, architects already must use three to four different types of software just to build geometry at different resolutions for different purposes. Organizationally, they don’t want to learn a new software program. We invest resources in simplicity, so they don’t have to think about the complexity driving it all. They just push a button and it’s done; they’re in their VR environment.

PwC: What applications does this technology have outside of architecture and construction?

George Valdes: Our technology is being used by a lot of other industries that are not necessarily within our original domain. In retail, people are using our apps to visualize stores before they’re built, so they can bring users into the space. Grocery stores have a very similar value proposition where they want insight into the visibility of items on the shelf or to test the impact of their new displays.

Too many times during traditional processes, they just get images of these designs rendered from unrealistic vantage points, so they can’t really experience the view of the shopper. The management of physical assets, near and far, applies to all industries. Even with data centers, there is an expressed desire to visualize and navigate these expensive spaces without traveling to see them in person.

Shane Scranton: I think use in the medical field will be absolutely massive, especially for medical training. Why not perform surgery on a digital model before you go into the operating room? Real estate will also be a huge VR industry. A broker can show someone an apartment and hand them a VR device such as a Google Cardboard afterward, so a potential buyer can see it again while they’re away from the space.

PwC: What’s your view on standards? Does the industry need a format that everyone can rally behind? Obviously today the formats are proprietary.

Shane Scranton: I think standards are promising. We’re a young enough company that we still have philosophical debates about the long-term direction we steer our format. Having a standard in the future is something that I find very exciting, but it’s something we haven’t totally clarified in our minds.

The speed at which the hardware, the software, and the services are evolving and changing means that most of the companies are staying very nimble right now, so they can adapt to a changing ecosystem. It will likely take a year or two or longer for the dust to settle and for true universal platforms to become established.

PwC: Do those dynamics make enterprises nervous about adopting a rapidly changing technology? How do you help your clients deal with that?

Shane Scranton: It depends on how much enthusiasm there is. Certain firms are buying everything. They get set up with the whole ecosystem of VR, because the price of compelling VR is lower than it has been historically. If the investment in VR delivers a few successful client meetings, that’s well worth the cost.

The advice to our clients and how we structure our own technology investments is that you won’t go wrong buying a really good gaming machine with a top-of-the-line graphics card—a VR-ready PC. That is where bulk of the cost is. The goggles, which are much cheaper, can be cycled at a much faster rate as they evolve and change. To the extent you believe VR is here to stay, the investment in the gaming machine is future proof.

PwC: What are some of the technical challenges that you’re facing? What are problems that you haven’t solved yet but would like solved?

Shane Scranton: The file size of the 3D data is the biggest issue. It takes about 30 seconds to a minute to open a 100 megabyte file in our software. Ultimately, we don’t want our users to worry about file size; if they have a CAD file in a format we support, it’ll just work. We will be working on this goal for many more years as we continue to bump up the file sizes we can support.

PwC: Is a GPS navigation-like solution an option, where the system downloads only the small piece of the map that people are on, but also updates the map as they move along the highway?

Shane Scranton: Loading in pieces at a time is part of the roadmap, but it’s different from the way a navigation system works. There’s more nuance in how and when data can be loaded in. Let’s say you have a complicated chair, and it has a lot of curves. You can bring in a less complex model at first while maintaining visual fidelity. Stuff like that is hard, but it gives us really good returns on the amount of geometry we load in at a time. There won’t be one solution that will suddenly make us able to support any size file, but we can chip away at many optimizations over time.

PwC: IrisVR is a pure VR system. Does augmented reality [AR] intersect with what you are doing?

Shane Scranton: AR is very interesting, but it’s just starting out as a proof of concept in the industry. It really is a dream technology. Most users feel that VR is great, but their dream is to be on the job site and see their designs as an overlay. There are more technical hurdles with AR related to tracking, but I think VR could actually become a medium that also supports work on the job site. Users can see overlays of the real world in their virtual world, and that technology will continue to improve over the next 10 years. We’re excited to see where the next release of VR goggles will take us.

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