When virtual reality sheds the virtual

By Arman Gukasyan on December 4th, 2012

When Google Earth was released in 2005, it forever changed the way we saw the world. It literally mapped out our future. Whether it was the possible location of Atlantis in the Mediterranean, the discovery of Southern Africa’s biggest rainforest near Mozambique’s Mount Mabu or huge unknown craters in the Sahara, Google Earth promised to transform our relationship with our planet.

But the three-dimensional buildings in Google Earth were only the first iteration of what is to come. The visualisations of those buildings were mostly skin-deep – but all that is is about to change in a way that will revolutionise the way buildings are created and how long they will last. It also promises to unify architecture, construction and engineering as a collaborative trinity.

Google Earth didn’t just help archaeologists and treasure-hunters: it also allowed us to explore the “built environment”. Combining 3D gaming graphics technology and crowdsourced 3D building models made with automated processes such as SketchUp, Google Earth generated an ever-more complete virtual world that now mirrors our existing natural and built environments.

Explorable virtual environments are about to take this intricate detail to the next level, at which users will be able to explore and interact with the internal three dimensional environments and components that the buildings are made of. That’s what I’m trying to build with my company: our product, Revizto, allows architects and planners to convert their detailed 3D building models into virtual 3D buildings that can be shared to the cloud and explored by anyone.

As anyone who has ever had a hand in the building trade can attest, architecture and construction are complex activities. Yet the complexity of the technology used for design tends to hamper collaboration. Architects and urban planners use complex software to develop highly detailed virtual building models for construction, and to study the way buildings impact their environment.

But, with the notable exception of SketchUp, the software is expensive and hard to use, putting it out of reach for most people. Moreover, architects and builders are rarely at liberty to share a building’s 3D data, even if they wanted to. They talk to each other but they don’t really work together as a team. It is a typically vertical business, crying out to be flattened.

By using 3D gaming and cloud technologies, it will soon be possible for design professionals to share detailed 3D buildings in a secure virtual environment, much like Google Earth. Anyone will be able to interactively explore a building to understand how it is made, and how will look and feel on the inside and outside, without expensive software or special skills to view it.

This technology will enable people to construct buildings more sustainably by facilitating collaboration between designers, builders and users of buildings, catching problems earlier in the design process, creating a better understanding of the building and its impacts at various scales, and ultimately resulting in more efficient use of energy and materials.

And, once a building is completed, the same model can be used to manage and maintain it, and provide valuable information for real estate, urban planning and emergency services. People who never previously dreamed of building their own house will to be able to plan, budget for and build it.

Imagine the day when users of Google Earth can click on a building and see much more than just landmark information: they will be able to virtually enter the public spaces in the building and explore them. Museums, airports, malls and historic buildings will be able to share their spaces publicly so people can plan a visit, or be virtual tourists if they can’t get there in person.

There are exciting new business models that will be created by this technology. Mobile apps at a relatively cheap price point will mean a instant market for these virtual tourists at a price they can afford and serve as a marketing tool for real visits.

Just as 3D printing is creating “makers” from people who were previously only consumers, 3D visualisation tools are going to change the way we live, the spaces we live in and what we do when we are in those spaces.

Arman Gukasyan is chief executive of Vizerra