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Dipping in a Toe or Going Full Belly Flop: Incorporating Augmented and Virtual Reality into the Design Process

By Raymond Kent, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CTS Principal Innovative Technology Design Group, DLR Group

Raymond Kent, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CTS Principal Innovative Technology Design Group, DLR GroupRaymond Kent, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CTS Principal Innovative Technology Design Group, DLR Group

The ability to design complex things continues to advance at an exponential pace as computing and processing power, communications platforms, and advanced visualization tools permeate design studios at an ever-quickening rate. This is driven not only by the technology advancing, but costs for this technology dropping coupled with aspects of the technology reaching into everyday life through our cell phones, smart technologies, sensors, and more. The ready use of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in what was once relegated to testing labs, tinkerer’s garages, and a relatively small segment of the gaming industry has now exploded onto the landscape of everyday tech with the promise to change practice in everything from product design to education to entertainment to architectural design.

Designing with the Tech of the Future

Currently there are a variety of ways to engage in AR/VR with a range of price points to match, each with their advantages and drawbacks. For novices, wading into this world can no doubt be a daunting task, but the enticement of the possibilities for collaboration and new design techniques far out way the hesitancy. To make that transition, there are some key considerations when deciding to launch an augmented or virtual reality design project that must be considered:

1. Define Your Objectives

Whenever you’re considering use of these technologies, you should establish a clear value-add to leveraging the technology by understanding several key factors to consider before selecting which technology to use. The technology should take a back seat to what actual experience you’re working towards. The goal should always be to tie back to the core mission, brand, or business objective always asking why is using this type of platform necessary, and what do you expect the outcomes to be?

"​The ready use of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in what was once relegated to testing labs, tinkerer’s garages, and a relatively small segment of the gaming industry has now exploded onto the landscape of everyday tech"

2. Select the Technology

Once the objectives are outlined, a review of what the available technology is to meet those objectives. There are many factors to consider: Which makes better sense: augmented or virtual reality? Will an existing technology on premise work? Will it require custom software or off the shelf products to allow the goals to be accomplished? Will multiple platforms be used requiring cross-platform translation? What control devices are required to navigate the environment and what are the limitations for the users? Are there outside design partners with their own technology that may cause compatibility issues?

3. Try before You Buy

First-time users are often awestruck when they initially experience new AR/VR technology. It’s exciting to try new things, but sometimes in their excitement, users lose their ability to deliver actionable contributions or feedback. It’s helpful to schedule training sessions with the team to acclimate everyone on how to best maximize your use of the technology. This could – and often should – include leveraging similar examples or test runs of the current project for your team to try out for themselves before any required constructive meeting.

4. Understand First Person Design

Just as in the real world, in AR/VR, users see things from a different perspective. The iterative and interactive nature of AR/ VR allows each user to contribute to the environment in their own unique way. This feature is exciting, but it will be important to design the framework and boundaries for the environment rather than have it be endless. Too large and the team gets lost. Too small and you could wind up virtually tripping over each other.

5. Separate the Good from the Bad

Know the limitations of the team and when to supplement with outside help. Investing in quality content will make the experience of designing in AR/VR much more effective, more dynamic, and more memorable. Know your comfort level with creating content, and find the right partner with the right experience to help fill any gaps. The teaming requirements should tie directly back to the original objectives and how best to achieve them.

6. Mobile vs. Dedicated Environments

Adding a mobile platform to the mix requires additional levels of consideration. Wil the mobile platform require interactivity, or will it be for viewing only along a prescribed path? Can it be viewed through a third-party app or will a new app need to be created? What operating system/s will it be available on? Mobile app developers will tell you that some of the biggest challenges are creating apps for multiple platforms and multiple versions of operating systems even on the exact same device.

Having controls outside of the AR/VR experience that would be necessary to contribute fluently in the design process will slow down the experience and make it less desirable at tool.

7. Duration and Timing of Delivery

Having realistic expectations of the development, setup, and delivery of the experience in order to get the most out of the design process is crucial. The best way to mitigate any learning curve or delays start with the above objectives being defined, the right technology being selected, and the right competent team assembled. This will not, however, absolve you of any delays or complications. Development of the tools to achieve the goals can take on average 12-16 weeks for simple scenarios to as much as 3-6 months before design even begins. If set up in manageable time frame however, the benefits of leveraging this technology in the design process can produce benefits that no other method can achieve. The good news is this set up can parallel other initial developmental design processes or can be shared across multiple simultaneous projects.

8. The Environment for the Environment

Where the technology will be used is just as important as what the technology is. Mobile applications have the least number of controlled environments but offer the most flexibility, however, the output can be affected by the real-world environment (e.g. sunlight glare, ambient noise, poor acoustics in the space). AR in a dedicated enclosed controllable environment requires fixed items in the room, lighting control, and attention to color and pattern on surfaces to maximize the technology’s ability to display content.

Following these best practices can put your design project on a good path for success. I recommend starting off with unique aspects within a smaller project’s total design project so you can acclimate to the process and get a feel for how it will be beneficial.

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