(Editor's Note: A correction has been made to this article. See the end of the article for details.)
Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers anymore. An architecture firm, a construction company and a furniture dealer in central Arkansas, for example, are using the technology to offer their clients a better experience.
VR helps clients visualize a project, allowing them to better communicate what they want.
“We’re always interested in our clients having a detailed understanding of what the final product is going to be because that makes them feel better about it and helps them make better decisions during the process of design and construction,” said Chris Wright, director of virtual design for Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway.
“We live in the construction world,” he said. “We do this every day. But oftentimes we’re dealing with clients that this might be a once- or twice-in-a-career thing. So it’s really hard for them to look at a 2-D plan and really understand exactly what that looks like in the three-dimensional world.”
One benefit is efficiency. VR allows clients to make quicker decisions and decide on changes before they become expensive to make: before construction begins or items are ordered.
VR technology is also an inexpensive way to help clients visualize a project, although quantifying the cost of offering a VR experience is difficult. In the case of Nabholz and of AMR Architects and Evo Business Environments Inc., both of Little Rock, that’s because they have been using VR for just two years or less, and the ability to produce a VR experience is an add-on to software programs they were using before VR technology became more user-friendly.
Expenses can include a $1,000-$2,000 computer, $1,000-$2,000 worth of hardware (like the Oculus Rift headset, cameras, etc.), training personnel and the time they spend creating a VR experience for a client. Software licensing fees can be yet another expense.
Nabholz and AMR Architects use a software program called Revit. Revit was developed by Autodesk of San Rafael, California, and costs $2,200 a year, according to Autodesk’s website.
The firms had been using Revit to produce 3-D renderings and as a design tool, primarily. But the Revit technology now offers them the ability to give clients a VR experience.
Evo Business Environments, which sells office furniture and DIRTT (Doing It Right This Time) prefabricated construction products, is using a different software program called ICE, which costs about $5,000 a year. DIRTT is a global company based in Calgary, Canada.
“The software creates [digital] files for a factory that produces things like walls, millwork, ceiling and even timber frame structures,” Evo sales consultant Zac Cerrato said. Machines at the factory read the files, which tell them how to produce items for Evo like those he mentioned. “As a bonus, it also creates a file that is virtual-reality ready,” Cerrato said.
After a couple days of work, Evo can hand one of its clients a headset and, voila, the client’s experience is immersive.
“It’s just a better quality process for our clients,” Cerrato said. “The biggest thing is, for professionals and nonprofessionals, there is something about being in a space and having a sense of scale, real-life scale, that you cannot get with a 2-D drawing or even a 3-D model … .”
Offering a VR experience doesn’t necessarily attract new clients to Evo, he said, but it does improve existing clients’ perception of the company, builds trust with them and allows for more collaboration. Clients are more likely to come to Evo’s office if offered a demo, and the company can take a larger role in the design process, Cerrato said.
‘A Good Return’
Nabholz and AMR aren’t seeing virtual reality as a way to attract new clients either. Instead, they are using it to make existing clients happier.
“VR has become an amazing tool to help describe spaces,” said Adam Day, a partner at AMR. And, he said, the firm will be using it more in 2018.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to make sure that the client gets the product they want, and this is a tool that allows them to understand the product that much better,” said Wright, with Nabholz. “And anytime we can do something like that, there’s a good return.”
For Evo, that return includes the repeat business of Flake & Kelley Commercial in Little Rock.
Flake & Kelley partner and agent Bill Pendergist brought clients to Evo who were interested in leasing space at Simmons Tower at 425 W. Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock.
The potential tenants were treated to an immersive VR experience that showed them what an entire floor of the building could look like when built out.
“It just blew my mind,” Pendergist said, adding that he would make use of VR as much as he could in the future. He’s already brought three or four potential tenants interested in different spaces to Evo for VR demos.
Evo can even make changes during the VR experience, Pendergist said. If the client wants the virtual wall to look as if it were made of glass instead of drywall, an Evo employee can punch a few buttons on a keyboard and make that adjustment.
In addition, Pendergist said, the firm can immediately offer a price and timeline for the potential tenants’ desired renovations.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s George W. Donaghey Emerging Analytics Center, headed by Carolina Cruz-Neira, also offers an immersive VR experience to companies.
Nabholz partnered with her team two years ago on the $21 million Lost Kingdom exhibit at the Tulsa Zoo. Wright called it a complex and artistic project with a high visual impact.
Nabholz took its clients to the university’s Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, a virtual reality room that immerses users in the experience by projecting 3-D images onto walls.
It was used to show several people at once what the Tulsa Zoo exhibit would look like and revealed at least one safety concern with Nabholz’s design — tree roots that could have been a tripping hazard for visitors.
Thomas Coffin, senior visualization and operations manager at the university’s center, said Nabholz instantly sold the project’s design to the zoo’s president when the firm brought him to see the virtual version of it at the CAVE.
He also said VR is going to be a must-have for contractors, architects and engineers.
Cerrato of Evo adds that, already, “there’s tons of VR in Arkansas, and it’s being used for very cool stuff.”
(Correction: A previous version of this article misstated where clients of Flake & Kelley partner and agent Bill Pendergist were looking to lease space. We have corrected the error.)