"From Virtual to Reality"
Draw & Code’s Phil Charnock ponders the impact of our VR interpretation of the Neuron Pod – a daring new building that opens this week in London.
Monday marked the opening of Queen Mary University’s bold and brilliant Neuron Pod building. Years in the making, it seems like a good time to revisit our virtual reality visualisation that may have played a small role in helping get this ambitious project built.
Virtual reality is visceral, arresting, memorable. Like all forms of spatial computing, the sense of presence is magnified and the scale of 3D objects and environments can be accurately represented. As such, it is the ideal medium for conveying the design of new buildings. Indeed, some of Draw & Code’s first immersive projects were collaborations with architects. Here are people who already think with this enhanced sense of presence and scale – spatial computing is made for them.
Our very first work with immersive technology and architecture was in collaboration with All Design. This practice was founded by the late Will Alsop, one of the most daring and exciting architects there has ever been. The work we contributed too was a nascent project that didn’t make it to the real world, but it did exist as both a virtual and augmented model. The former allowed us to get a 1:1 view of the building, the latter was all about seeing the proposed building in the context of its environment via an elevated vista of the scene. It taught us a lot about the demands of working within architecture, it also brought All Design an understanding of how immersive technology could work for them.
Fast forward to early 2015 and All Design were back in touch with a new challenge. Using the then-new platform of Samsung Gear VR, they wanted to present a wild new design to potential funders, sponsors and other stakeholders. This was Queen Mary University’s Neuron Pod and it was a suitably Allsop-esque design. Despite being so bold (upon showing it to a colleague recently they asked ‘do people actually go inside it?’) it had already gained planning permission. And most of the funding to realise the construction was also in place. Most, not all.
Queen Mary University were looking for a funding boost of £900,000 and had organised an event adjacent to their other Will Alsop building – the Centre of the Cell. In advance of this the Draw & Code 3D experts were sent the highly detailed CAD files of the proposed building. As with any model of this nature, when converting into something ready for a real-time game engine the amount of polygons had to be slashed. VR and its stereoscopic view means that another chunk of processing power is being used as the scene is rendered twice on the one device. Then throw in the fact that this is for a mobile device and it’s fair to say that a lot of polygons were going to be shorn!
So would losing polygons and making backdrops from screenshots of Street View (really!) mean a lesser way to view the Neuron Pod? We boarded the Virgin Train to London to showcase the project at the all-important Queen Mary University event, so we were about to find out!
Once at the venue it all felt very familiar. We had spent so much time in VR looking at the space next to the Centre of the Cell where the Neuron Pod was scheduled to be built that we felt a sense of familiarity with the immediate surroundings. That was VR doing its job right there!
Fast forward to the event itself and once the speeches were underway in the grand, modern lecture theatre there came a full, animated render of the Neuron Pod proposal. Everything was bespoke, the detail was sky high, light glinted off panes of glass, people walked through the scene and lens flare was cast from the sun above. Fewer polygons had been lost from the architectural models and there were certainly no screenshots of Street View involved! This looked spectacular and we collectively felt nervous – how could our mobile VR experience compete with this?
An hour later and it was our turn. At the end of the talks the audience were directed to come and try Draw & Code’s VR visualisation of the Neuron Pod. After seeing the superb flythrough we feared the worst – would people welcome a VR experience delivered via a mobile phone? The very first person to try the experience happened to be the artist responsible for the animated visualisation on the big screen. This could be embarrassing. Or so we thought.
See the photo of the guy looking up and smiling in a VR headset? That’s him. Phew, it had passed that little test. As for the rest of the event, walking away from the demo were a succession of happy, engaged people. It’s fair to say that virtual reality was a hit – just as All Design and Queen Mary University knew it would be.
While the rendered flythroughs were spectacular, immersive technology is in the same stage as when audiences were supposedly fleeing from moving steam trains on the cinema screens. Well, that would be true if it wasn’t for the fact that the idea of audiences running from the cinema was a myth. However, it is anything but a myth that people experience visceral reactions to virtual reality and its related mediums. This engages like no other moving images can.
Did Draw & Code’s VR version of the Neuron Pod contribute to it receiving its funding and eventually going on to open four years later? We’d like to think so – as software developers and animators we are used to shifting things around on a screen, not to seeing our work influence the built environment. Working in this studio may be a dream vocation, but the thought of having a tiny influence on the destiny of a lasting and impactful piece of architecture is a dizzying one, so excuse us if we celebrate the opening of the Neuron Pod.