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Virtual reality enables planning commission members, developers, neighbors, and others to experience firsthand how a new development feels.

Virtual reality expected to impact how cities grow.

On July 14, 2015 in a planning commission meeting in Springfield, Neb., a bit of history was made. We were presenting a plan for Springfield Pines, on a site that was also the location of the Lady Gaga music video “Nebraska,” featuring a large barn and cornfield that was soon to be a coved neighborhood. The developer was Graves Development Resources (GDR). What made history was that it was the first time virtual reality (VR) was used at a public meeting where commission members put on a headset to transport themselves into the completed development!

This amazing technology, originally intended for the video gaming industry, will soon have a major impact on the land development process and how cities grow.

The following groups benefit from VR:

  • everyone who judges submittals, be it a shed or addition in someone’s yard, to a new neighborhood submittal;
  • developers who commission a site plan and need to fully understand its implications prior to construction;
  • builders (and their clients) who need to visualize a home to assure maximum curb appeal and to ensure premium views are actually premium; and
  • planners/designers who want to “feel” the result of their work as if it were already constructed.

In other words, about 99 percent of those involved in development and redevelopment can benefit from VR in a major way.

Turning site data into VR

The headset used in the Springfield planning commission meeting was a prototype of the Oculus Rift. We do not use CAD in our consulting business because it is difficult to go from a 2D to a usable 3D live action environment. LandMentor, which we developed and use, (and which easily reads or writes in CAD (.dwg) format if requested), solves these issues.

Our goal was to eliminate the time and complexity going from a site plan to a virtual environment. We spent more than two years so far (the process is ongoing) on the VR aspect of the technology to eliminate this complexity and make the process as painless as possible. Also, if something is difficult to use and time-consuming, it pretty much translates to being expensive, which we wanted to avoid.

The entire virtual process only adds an hour or two to the planning process — an insignificant cost compared with the tremendous benefit of experiencing firsthand how the neighborhood feels.

We then continued to use VR at several other meetings, such as Pulte Homes’ Territorial Coves in Dayton, Minn., which no doubt expedited the approval process.

Development challenges

Communicating space — Looking at a 3D image of a development is like looking at a picture. With people and cars in the frame, you have some information to judge space, but it is not the same as being there. A video of a development is somewhat better, such as The Chandler in Frankfort, Ky. (http://www.rhsdplanning.com/TheChandler.mp4). However, an image or video cannot replicate the sense of space that VR provides.

Eliminating time-consuming tasks — With LandMentor, creating the 3D site plan is quick, often taking less than an hour’s effort, but even on large sites, no more than two hours.

Making VR flexible to site plan changes — A video game in VR has a known “environment” that does not change. A site plan during the design and approval process undergoes various iterations; thus, the environment changes. Standard VR engines (software that drives the hardware) are not set up for this flexibility, so we had to develop it.

Adopting simple hardware — The first VR headsets had complex interfaces, but last year we received a prototype from Microsoft to begin our VR software development.  These headsets are simple, perform well, and most important, are affordable.

Reducing motion sickness — Some people take to VR, some don’t. It seems age is not a factor. We learned not to use motion (moving about), but instead, set fixed positions to explain points. At any time, we can interactively move anywhere on the site, above it for fly overs, or even below to see utility conflicts. If someone reacts negatively to motion, we simply do not use that ability. It is also the reason why we do not support the VR motion controllers that come with the headsets and instead use standard X-Box360 controllers.

For example, if during a public meeting someone complains about how the development will ruin the view from their home, we still can move about to experience how the proposed submittal affects the neighbor — or not.

An image or video rendering cannot replicate the sense of space that virtual reality provides.

We also learned several methods to reduce queasiness. For example, instead of viewing from above, we place the viewer inside the cockpit of a Cessna and have them look out the window, which is more comfortable.

Making reality appear real — For those who have used SketchUp, it is an amazing software accomplishment from an ease-of-use and overall performance perspective that works well on a variety of computer platforms. VR requires a tremendous refresh rate (speed) to operate. SketchUp does not, and because it can work on slow computers well, the compromise is that the 3D appears somewhat cartoonish.

LandMentor previously used a higher-quality 3D engine for better realism than SketchUp but was nowhere near the realistic quality of a high-level software such as Lumion. The 3D engine that drives the headset is also used for all the 3D functions, and while still not as photo-realistic as Lumion, it’s getting much closer.

LandMentor is a system specifically for land development design and construction. It blends land surveying, civil engineering, planning, and site architecture into a single core technology. Because it is a precision analytical tool, many of the spatial or geometric functions communicate directly with its 3D, thus expanding VR beyond a view.

For example, we used it to determine if a site could support three-story buildings without a shadow being cast over the proposed single-family homes.  Because the positioning of the sun on a location on the planet is a function of video gaming, and accurate, we tapped into its power.


Rick Harrison is president of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio (www.rhsdplanning.com). He can be contacted at rharrison@rhsdplanning.com.

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