Virtual Reality Leaps Forward, Providing New Value to Stakeholders

By Will Adams, Marc Kinsman and Colin Sandeman

The AEC industry has been experimenting with the use of virtual reality (VR) for well over 20 years, and the medium has successfully provided value and Return on Investment (ROI). However, for many projects, the form factor, technical requirements and user friction for delivering walkthroughs has prevented the medium from realizing its potential as an accessible and broadly-used communication and collaboration tool. Now, the new generation of standalone, six degree-of-freedom (6DOF) headsets is ushering in a new era of VR utility in the AEC industry.

This new era is allowing for the simultaneous and low-friction application of VR environments for larger groups of people to walk through large spaces. This pushes the technology from a primarily individual visualization tool to a collaborative meeting and walkthrough tool. Various hardware and software improvements, such as inside-out positioning, hand tracking and the portability of headsets, are reducing friction for users, facilitating comfort for longer periods of use. These improvements have resulted in groups of people remaining immersed together for longer periods of time than was previously possible. Users are experiencing environments intuitively, as if they were walking together, discussing issues and features naturally. This advancement signals a paradigm shift for the AEC industry’s use of immersive VR, ushering it from a technical curiosity to an intuitive and invaluable tool. In this article, we’ll illustrate how this is playing out for Seattle’s new Climate Pledge Arena.

The First of Its Kind

Climate Pledge Arena is a new state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue, home to Seattle’s new NHL team the Kraken. It’s also the world’s first zero-carbon arena, which is being constructed under the 1962 historic landmarked roof. Our customer, Oak View Group, asked us to provide a walkthrough of premium spaces as they neared the end of conceptual design. Mortenson’s experience as one of the nation’s largest sports and entertainment builders (most recently completing the Raider’s Allegiant Stadium and the Golden State Warrior’s Chase Center) has taught us the importance of ensuring ownership groups develop clear conceptual knowledge of the physical realities of the design direction. 

For Climate Pledge Arena, we focused on four club spaces, suites, the press bridge, the arena bowl, the structure and the atrium space. After reviewing our options and the project’s needs, we decided to develop the environment for the Oculus Quest Headset. We recognized that this was certainly going to be a challenging endeavor for many technical reasons – such as the optimization of geometry and texture information – but that in the end, the Quest would allow for greater usability and flexibility. 

Choosing the Quest

The Oculus Quest is a standalone VR headset – meaning that it runs the virtual environment with its own onboard processing power, eliminating the need to purchase additional computers to run the environment. In addition, Quests are economical, allowing for the purchase of multiple headsets. Because it’s so easy to setup and maintain each device, we’re able to smoothly support 10 or more people in the environment simultaneously. 

Using SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), the Quest creates a virtual map of physical space with images from the headset’s four onboard cameras. As a result, the headset is able to track its position in the environment, differentiating itself from previous approaches to positional tracking that typically require external sensors to be set up in the space where the walkthrough is taking place. SLAM technology also allows the Quest device to track its position in a much larger area than is typically possible for an external sensor-based approach, with very little set-up required.

Creating Space

In our research, we have found that the use of “teleportation” for primary navigation creates a psychological disconnect between users and the environment, reducing their ability to interact with other users socially. Teleportation requires users to point at a location with a controller to immediately “teleport,” breaking their immersion in the environment and sometimes causes vertigo or motion sickness.

To combat this barrier to collaboration, we pushed the device’s limits for positional tracking by leveraging a large 40 feet by 100 feet open space at our project office. This allowed us to facilitate a walkthrough where users only used “teleporting” between club spaces or wings of clubs, allowing for the primary mode of navigation to simply be walking and moving naturally in the space.

Our Virtual Insights team was able to develop the code which allowed us to clear some of the technical hurdles we ran into when operating such a large and complex environment on mobile devices. Furthermore, we were able to add several important capabilities. Our code development, networking and a simple process for alignment – placing the virtual environment in alignment with the physical walkthrough space – ensures users’ avatars are in the same place as their physical bodies. Achieving this alignment is extremely important for users to interact normally in conversation, as it allows users to feel each other’s presence through accurate virtual representation of their position respective to their voices.

A Valuable Resource

The environment has been exceedingly valuable to both the project team and the ownership group. It’s often difficult to glean meaningful metrics from virtual walkthroughs. However, we have developed an understanding of their value based on how many people tour the walkthrough, how long they spend in it and the depth of conversations had about the space while users are in the environment together. 

From this standpoint, the project was very successful, as we have facilitated walkthroughs for more than 100 people with an average time-in-environment of well over one hour per person. Oak View Group’s Project Executive Ken Johnsen has spent well over 10 hours in the environment and has become the best tour guide for the arena. He’s led tours for more than 30 people, including Oak View Group’s CEO Tim Leiweke, CEO of NHL Seattle Tod Leiweke, and several Amazon executives.

Because our customer’s business is focused on delivering live world class sports and entertainment experiences, the smooth and successful operation of this facility is critical. By utilizing virtual reality, we are able to immerse the arena’s operational personnel within the space early, allowing them to be more prepared and familiar with the space prior to the first event and ensuring a spectacular experience for the fans. 

After seeing and experiencing the power and realism of the virtual environment, our customer has asked us to provide a version of the environment for their sales team. For this build, we added additional detail to the club and suite levels, which will allow potential customers and fans to immerse themselves in a high-fidelity environment at the Seattle Kraken sales center.

Reducing Friction

Our research has also shown that friction, e.g. the more things that a user needs to do or learn in order to experience the environment, is another factor which breaks immersion and willingness to engage with the environment. Because it is so important for us to create an inviting and accessible experience, we are developing two additional features: 

Automatic Virtual/Physical Alignment

Here, the environment is automatically aligned to the physical space and virtual environments of all the headsets the moment it is picked up by a user.

Hand Tracking

The Quest currently features a beta version of its hand tracking, which uses its cameras to map a user’s hands, then aligns a digital model of the user’s hands at their physical location. This digital model can be used to interact with the virtual environment. We’ve networked the tracked hands, which is a critical component of the nonverbal communication in the environment and its ability to facilitate natural feeling and conversation. It further reduces friction by eliminating the need for controllers – users simply put the headset on and explore the virtual space through conversation and walking. 

These features will go live this month, and we are looking forward to discovering how well they perform.

To recap, Mortenson’s Virtual Insights team has developed several innovative solutions to reduce the friction and increase the immersive and collaborative possibilities within one of our newest and largest virtual environments. 

We’re very pleased to have been able to provide such a useful tool to our customers and for Climate Pledge Arena and are very optimistic about the success of the latest version of the environment we have built. We have been impressed with the capabilities of the Oculus Quest and find its unique features enhance and facilitate a much greater range of applications for the AEC industry than the current generation of computer-connected headsets. 

This generation of standalone, 6DOF (tracking three axes of both position and rotation with inside-out tracking) is ushering in a new paradigm in the utility and application of immersive virtual walkthroughs, which is the culmination of over 20 years of experimentation of the technology from within the AEC industry.

About the Authors

Will Adams

Adams was pursuing his Master of Architecture degree at the University of Minnesota when he discovered virtual reality (VR) and its potential to impact design and construction. He began researching real-world applications of the medium through his work at Mortenson. As an Emerging Technologies Developer, he is growing a division focused on applying emerging technology to Mortenson’s customers’ businesses. His passion for architecture, programming and technologies like virtual reality led him to explore how the intersection of these fields can positively impact the rapidly changing building industry. 

Marc Kinsman

Kinsman is an Emerging Technologies Developer for Mortenson and works out of their Seattle office. In this role, he’s responsible for discovering and developing technology solutions to improve customers’ business outcomes. While this primarily takes the shape of interactive virtual reality services, Kinsman is passionate about using any emerging technologies, such as Internet of Things or Machine Learning, to facilitate better data-based decisions. He has a bachelor’s degree in construction management from the University of Washington, where his studies included a heavy emphasis on BIM/VDC, design-build, and building performance analysis.

Colin Sandeman

With nearly a decade of experience in digital modeling and design, Sandeman brings realism, attention to detail and a discerning aesthetic eye to Virtual Insights. He completed a BFA for University of Iowa while starting as receiver and punt returner for the Hawkeyes. He elected to continued his studies there by completing a Masters in 3-D Commercial Design, refining his appreciation for good design. Sandeman’s past projects have included U.S. Bank Stadium, Athletes Village at the University of Minnesota, and Target Center. He’s passionate about bringing projects to life and immersing customers in a new space for the first time. His current work explores how we can use emerging technology to ensure design decisions are functionally and aesthetically informed.

This material appeared in the October 2020 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneer,Dixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder