Looking at a digitally-altered reality is no longer just for gamers or Hollywood movie makers. Design firms are using alternative-reality technology to provide their clients with a glimpse at how a finished space will look.

Currently, alternative-reality technology is described as either virtual or augmented. Virtual reality is where the real world is replaced by a virtual one, similar to what happens when interacting with a game like "Second Life." Augmented reality, as described by Alan B. Craig in his book "Understanding Augmented Reality: Concepts and Applications," is a melding of the real world with a virtual one. Craig refers to it as "a medium in which information is overlaid on the physical world that is in both spatial and temporal registration with the physical world and interactive in real time."

Being able to "interact in real time" is one reason why design firms are using this type of visual technology. The renderings (interactive 3-D computer models) allow clients to see and virtually interact with what the design firm proposes. This is all before a brick is laid or a board cut.

Design companies have gone as far as to create specialized teams consisting of experts in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and software development to work along with the firm’s designers and engineers to construct interactive renderings of the client’s proposed design.

Creating an Interactive Rendering

The design firm Chute Gerdeman has such a team, and it is led by Randy Liddil, the director of the company's digital design lab. During a visit to the company’s headquarters and follow-up phone calls, Liddil shared details of how the team created virtual and augmented reality renderings.

First, Liddil mentioned that prior to having alternative-reality technology, the only way the design firm had to show the customer what they proposed was building a full-size mockup of the design. It was a good way to get the client’s buy-in, but any changes asked for by the client meant the mockup would have to be altered or rebuilt, and the design review would begin again.

That is no longer necessary. After the designers and engineers have fleshed out a proposal, Liddil and his team create a rendering of the design. During this process, the responsible designers and engineers check to see if everything looks right.

However, this type of computing is processing-intensive. Members of the team each have a top-of-the-line gaming computer with:

The team also has a 16-blade rendering farm to enable the creation of realistic, high-resolution images. Liddil also provided a list of the specialized software required to make it all work:

  • Autodesk 3ds Max
  • Adobe After Effects
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Premiere
  • Apple Final Cut Pro
  • HTML 5 360 Panoramas
  • Unity Game engine

Creating a Mobile App for Renderings

Liddil and Chute Gerdeman’s digital team decided to take the process a step further. They converted the augmented-reality renderings into applications that run on mobile devices. What Liddil calls 3-D virtual apps allow clients to walk through a proposed retail space, for example, and virtually see what it will look when the actual construction is completed.

To explain why this is important, Liddil offered an example where using augmented reality saved the day. One of Chute Gerdeman’s projects was on a tight schedule, yet the client’s representatives kept changing their minds about the design. Each change forced the project team to revise their CAD drawings. After several iterations, it became apparent that there was not enough time to build a mockup.

It was up to Liddil and his team to create a rendering that would accurately portray the design in a fashion that was understandable to the client. In less time than making the mockup would have taken, a 3-D virtual app was developed and loaded onto an iPad. With the iPad, the client was able to stand in the future - but currently empty - retail space, move the iPad around, and virtually see what was planned for that particular spot. The client was satisfied, and the project moved on to the next phase. (Get more nifty examples in 9 Cool Ways Companies Are Using the iPad.)

Creating an application for the iPad has definite advantages. Liddil feels the iPad application will eliminate the need for life-sized fully-stocked mockups.

"There still may be a physical space to walk into, and some of the smaller fixtures and components may be there. However, a lot of the merchandise, graphics, and lighting can be augmented virtually onto the tablet so a client can have more freedom to view multiple options of merchandise, graphics, colors and lighting just by adding those layers onto the augmented app," Liddil said.

Creating the 3-D virtual app also proved to be beneficial in that the app could be sent to the client. The client would then install the app on an iPad and check out the design.

Next Stop: Virtual Reality

Remember Liddil’s qualifying "may be" in the above quote? That was due to the Oculus Rift: an altered-reality headset that creates a stereoscopic 3-D view with depth, scale and parallax.

"As virtual-reality headsets like Oculus Rift improve - meaning better graphics, work wirelessly, and have higher resolution - the actual physical mockups and the content in those spaces will go away completely," Liddil said.

There was time for one more question. I asked Liddil what he felt would be the next "big thing" with virtual simulations?

"I believe the next big thing will be the gamification of virtual reality in all sectors of business. For example, users performing company-based training in a virtual world, and have fun doing it."