Virtual Reality Architectural Research

One of the most dynamic parts of living in China is the amount of opportunities it provides. Sometimes it’s hard for others to understand when I try to explain that in the last 5 years, I was given a full scholarship for my masters program, my son was born, we bought a new house and a new car, traveled with my family to Thailand twice and the US twice, and I have only been working part time jobs with short-term contracts (because I am also a full time student) yet I’m still making enough to pay for all of this. Wow, when I look back at it, even I am struck with how wild that sounds.


The Shipping Container Retreat House

It’s hard to pick a single opportunity that stands out above and beyond the rest but if I had to choose one, it would probably have to be taking part in designing and building the SC Retreat House (pictured above). The project is basically a huge shipping container home but what make the opportunity so wild is that I designed it and watched it be built while still studying as an architecture student and completely unlicensed in the profession. Now, there are a lot of people who question whether or not I should have taken on the responsibility of such a project without first gaining some solid experience and an architectural license. To all of those people I say this, “There are countless architect who never received their formal licensure and while I hope to earn mine at some point, I will not let that stand in my way when I have the chance to realize one of my designs.” So was the project perfect? Far from it! I learned a lot from working on the project and most of those lessons would be placed under the heading, “Don’t do it that way ever again” but remember, mistakes teach us things and I am happy to say I made plenty of mistakes learned a lot from this project.

As this project began to take shape, I realized that if I did it right, I would be able to use a lot of what I was learning to put together a great thesis and that is exactly what I’m doing. However, it’s not just enough to write a thesis about shipping container houses. Even as hyped as the concept still is, there are just too many people out there doing it and remember I am writing a thesis not a book (not yet anyway). So I needed to narrow things down a little. What I decided to do was focus on one very basic problem that the project overcame. That was, “How to make a 2 meter by 2 meter metal box feel comfortable?” So I started looking at human perception of space and comfort levels and the thesis started to form into something more academic.


Basic concept of placing two containers side by side

There are of course loads of books to reference interior space and the psychology of architecture, though I couldn’t find a single one that dealt with shipping container homes. The closest I have come, are two other confined spaces that are inhabited, those dealing with prison design and life on a submarine. This meant that I would need to gather some new data, data that was directly related to shipping container houses and if possible my own design. As much as I would love to bus 150 or so people out to the building site to let them experience the space and answer questions about spatial comfort, it just wasn’t feasible. So I started looking into the next best thing, Virtual Reality.


My son using Google Cardboard (a very simple VR headset)

One of the more modern tools architects use is 3D modeling software (and there are loads of different programs out there), so naturally when we designed the building we also made a 3D model of it. The question was, whether or not that model (which was made in Google SketchUp) could be translated into a virtual reality platform so that people would be able to wear a VR headset so that the environment was stereoscopic (binocular vission). They would need to experience the environment well enough to answer a questionnaire about spatial awareness.


VR Model in progress

Thanks to Paul Kueber down at TerraSame it looks like we will be able to pull it off! For the last few weeks, we have been emailing and talking over Skype, working out glitches and problems in my original model, making it more VR friendly. At the same time, Paul has been working tirelessly using a VR gaming program called Unity to make all this possible. We aren’t quite done yet but as you can see from the picture above, things are looking pretty good.


Screen Shot from the TerraSame website

The next step will be to add some details to make the lighting as ‘life like” as possible. We also have a lot of work to do on the background and surrounding environment. There are also some texture tricks that I am looking forward to trying out. Another friend took some time out of his schedule to do a fly over using his drone and was able to capture some really fun video footage of the SC Retreat House, which will be used in my thesis presentation. With all of the technology that is going into this thesis, the final presentation is going to be awesome. It’ll also be interesting to see some of my professors experience VR for the first time. I am really looking forward to it.


Flying the drone inside the central garden of the SC retreat house



3 responses to “Virtual Reality Architectural Research


    • Thanks for the insight! The model still has a lot of detail work to finish but it’s coming along nicely! Stay tuned because I will be posting more about this project over the next month or so!

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