Seeing is Believing: Comparing VR & Mock-Ups

Seeing is Believing: Comparing VR & Mock-Ups


The design process, at its core, has always been one of communication. Through the design process, architects can transform the aspirations, needs, and desires of our clients into a meaningful physical reality. In that respect, we are translators: we take the idea and translate it into a built form. For generations, the language of that communication was drawing and modeling. We used pencils, pens, watercolors, clay, wood, and cardboard as a reflective tool of communication: our clients told us how they wanted their spaces to be, and we responded with drawings and models and held them up as if to say, “Is this what you mean?”. This was the beginning of a long, iterative process of “Yes, that”, or “Yes, that’s’ what I meant but now I see that’s not what I want.” Sometimes the response was “No, no, not that, you don’t understand me at all.”

Maybe we weren’t speaking the right language.

So we at IKM are continually searching for the best language with which to communicate with our clients. 3D computer modeling has been an invaluable tool in helping us communicate with users of the spaces we design as well as other design partners. It has enabled us to explain, in a quick form, how the spaces are organized, where key pieces of equipment are located, where storage and cabinetry are located, etc. However, this form of communication still relies on a sometimes-tedious back-and-forth process of iteration – the users tell us what they want, we go away and draw, meet with users again, look at drawings again. Revise, rinse, repeat.

New languages of communication have emerged in recent years that are enabling us to shorten the distance between idea and realization.


Physical Mock-Ups: A Day in the Life


St. Clair Hospital Modified Masterplan, Operating Room Mock-Up


Physical mock-ups have become a standard practice in the design of healthcare facilities and have the potential to become more prominent in the development of other technical spaces. In this process, full-scale models of critical spaces are constructed, frequently in a warehouse or some other large, vacant space. Walls are constructed of drywall, equipment is moved into the room, casework is built from plywood or other rigid materials, light switches, medical gas outlets, monitors and other items are temporarily installed. The creation of mock-ups provides staff and users with the opportunity to provide substantive feedback on the design based on a full-scale representation of critical spatial components. The mock-ups are designed to be somewhat flexible and movable so that components of the room can be moved and manipulated to exactly the right location. Decisions are documented and become the basis for continuing design.



Crystal Clinic Inpatient Rooms and Healthcare Conference Mock Up Activity


However useful they may be, though, the construction of physical mock-ups can be expensive and time-consuming. They require a great deal of time and space and are built from real construction materials, only to be torn down and discarded. Recently, though, new products have been purposely designed for the resource-friendly construction of physical mock-ups. These products allow for quick manipulation of key spatial elements without the waste of time and materials associated with the use of permanent construction materials. These demountable systems allow for quick, early-stage decisions regarding factors that may determine overall department footprint. In this way, significant macro-level decisions can be made early that can have a substantial impact on travel distances, operational efficiencies, reach ranges, and a whole host of spatial determinants.


Virtual Reality: Full-Sensory Experience


Enscape Rendering of Seneca Valley School District Aquatic Center


Recently, we have seen the maturation of virtual reality (VR). This technology allows for a far greater level of detail, realism, and complexity than even a full-scale mockup allows: paradoxically, the virtual experience of a space is more real than the physical experience of it. The VR experience allows a user to be at the sink, not at a representation of the sink. Items such as lighting and finishes can be realistically represented. In addition, because the VR experience is created from a computer model, it can be manipulated and modified with much greater speed than would be possible with real-world construction materials. This enables rapid iteration and experimentation without the waste and risk associated with a physical mock-up. “What if the sink was over here?”, “What if the room is 3 inches wider?”, “What if we flip the whole room?” become questions that can be answered in real time.


Enscape Rendering of Allegheny General Hospital Cancer Institute 


There are a few notes of caution to add to the discussion of this exciting technology. Frequently, participants in the VR experience can be a bit flabbergasted – they can be so distracted by the experience of the virtual space that it is difficult to get critical, informational feedback about the content of the space. For this reason, we think that users should be engaged early and often in the VR environment so that putting on a headset and stepping into the virtual space becomes a normal part of a meeting. Additionally, current VR technology tends to be limited to a single-player environment. This means that critical decisions regarding real-world use of the space by multiple users cannot be fully fleshed out in a truly collaborative manner. This also requires effective control of the meeting: people who do not have the headset on have to be fully engaged in the discussion for fear of meeting participants drifting off, checking cell phones, getting more coffee while they wait for “their turn” at the headset.


Enscape Rendering of West Liberty Elementary Classroom


Advancements of this technology suggest that the problem of engaging stakeholders simultaneously will soon be one of the past, as new tools allow multiple users in a single VR environment. This will allow for a fuller exploration of a space that includes scenario-based analysis, time-and-motion studies, and other team-based activities. We also see advancements in the creation of a dynamic VR environment – doors that can be opened by the user, operable cabinetry, equipment that can be moved through space – virtual space. Additionally, the virtual environment is becoming increasingly immersive with the addition of simulated sound and temperature control.


A Time for Both

When assessing the value of these two methods, it may be more a question of when than how.  The use of the quick-breakdown physical mock-up seems to be best at the earliest stages of design when high-level decisions are being made:  the location of the nurse station relative to the patient rooms, or the grouping of infusion chairs, or the usefulness of a same-handed patient room. Mock-ups also allow user groups to anticipate and address safety issues not explicit in a drawing.

VR is a different experience and tends to occupy a different place in the design process – frequently, it is used for validation of design decisions, rather than an enabler of those decisions. We think we can change that. By bringing VR to the table earlier, we can fully engage our clients in the experience of their space as it is being designed. In doing so, we can change the language by which we communicate with our clients: we speak in a virtual environment in the language of architecture.



John Keelan, Principal, AIA, ACHA


“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” – Atticus Finch