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Nvidia building a case for virtual reality in architecture

Published on : June 03, 2016
Nvidia building a case for virtual reality in architecture

 Nvidia is building its future in virtual reality, in more ways than one.

The graphics chipmaker is not only counting on virtual reality to become a pillar of its revenue, especially from video gamers, but the architects working on Nvidia’s futuristic headquarters rely on the technology to design the building’s interior.

“You really get a sense of the scale of the actual architecture and experience that well before we even ever break ground,” said Scott DeWoody, creative media leader for the architectural firmGensler.

“We’ve gotten a lot of ‘aha’ moments, we’ve won a lot of projects, we’ve seen a lot of design decisions made faster, better and stronger once we put a client into VR,” he said.

Virtual reality is getting off the ground this year with the release of consumer-oriented headgear like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear VR. The video game industry is leading the charge, but the technology is also becoming an important tool used in other industries, like design and architecture.

“Virtual reality gives us the ability to sit down and show them what they would actually see,” said Callum Vierthaler, virtual reality developer for the Pulse Design Group.

 Vierthaler, who led a panel discussion on the future of virtual reality at a recent national architects convention, said virtual reality has become particularly important for his Kansas firm, which designs expensive health care facilities like surgical rooms.

So far, the industry is mainly dabbling in VR, due to the technical complexities. But most firms would like to jump in, and “we anticipate there will be a strong uptake,” he said.

For Nvidia, virtual reality is already front and center.

Nvidia has long made powerful graphics processors favored by the most avid video game players. The company is counting on revenue from virtual reality games and other applications that require those chips.

But Nvidia is also constructing a $380 million, polygon-shape building across the street from its current Santa Clara headquarters. The building, which can house up to 2,500 employees, is due to open in late 2017, although the project is two years behind its original schedule. For now, it is just one 250,000-square-foot building instead of two.

With the steel skeleton completed, Gensler is working on the interior. That requires constantly designing and refining interior walls, coverings and furnishings.

Gensler is combining photo-realistic 2D renderings, which architects have long used to show clients their work, with Nvidia’s Iray VR technology. Viewed on HTC’s Vive VR headgear, the technology accurately simulates what it’s like to stand in a building’s lobby or in a meeting room, including a sense of the scale of the room. It provides a 3D effect so realistic, viewers can peer around objects like chairs and support posts.

Hao Ko, a Gensler principal and design director on the Nvidia project, said his firm worked with Nvidia to create a tool that lets the architects quickly try different types of building materials and lighting situations in virtual reality.

The technology can simulate, for example, “how natural daylight is going to react according to different materials we have in the building.” he said. “It’s a whole heck of a lot cheaper to make changes in this (virtual) world than when you’re under construction.”

Virtual reality helps clients who can’t quite grasp how a project will look from staring at a blueprint, an artist’s rendering or a flat photo. Gensler needed virtual reality to get Nvidia founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang to approve designs and “really understand his building,” said Phil Miller, Nvidia’s director of software product management.

“It’s become both a design review and approval tool,” Miller said. “It’s become part of the process.”

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: bevangelista@sfchronicle.comTwitter: ChronicleBenny

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