Traditional visualisation is changing, and VR is central to the evolution. We chat to Andy Thomas, Head of Visualisation and VR for EMIA at AECOM, to see into the future of visualisation.
Collectively, AECOM are the largest architecture and engineering practice in the world who traverse Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) and rank #1 in Engineering News Record’s ‘Top 500 Design Firms’ for the eighth consecutive year.
Andy Thomas has seen the changes in visualisation over the last decade and has his finger on the pulse of what’s next….
What has changed most in the last eight years?
The team has grown to a bigger beast to keep up with increased demand in 3D visualisation. The last 12 months have been less about growth and more about a shift to VR and a wider digital transformation across multiple departments in AECOM. VR has become an important communication tool for our clients, stakeholders, and for public engagement. We’re also seeing VR used more and more for design reviews.
Where has VR had a significant impact on public engagement?
There are several projects that really stick out for me with public engagement here in the UK, and I saw public reaction first hand at Waterloo Station.
Inviting the public to experience VR was infinitely more engaging than handing them a flyer on the station platform. Going beyond what is expected really matters because it shows that the public are deeply considered during major infrastructure developments.
A really sensitive project we were involved in was the A303 / Stonehenge tunnel scheme. Working on a project to transform connectivity to the South West of the UK whilst protecting one of the UK’S most iconic and sacred landmarks has been both a challenge and an honour. We produced a series of CGIs and drive-throughs of the planned route and tunnel; which was used during public consultation and for national news features.
We also created an interactive VR app in Unity, so the public could view the impact of the scheme in 360 degrees at key locations surrounding the site. This really helped to create an informed debate during important consultations.
Could you explain a little about your pipeline?
Each project and client will have its own unique requirements but generally, we have three main workflows.
- Interactive Apps are created using Unity.
- Immersive VR Experiences are made with Unreal for deployment with the HTC Vive.
- Traditional Visualisations or 360 views are made with 3ds max and V-Ray.
How does YellowDog help with your Visualisation pipeline?
We know 3ds Max and V-Ray really well and are comfortable pushing it to its limits, especially with the premium render power of YellowDog behind it.
We use YellowDog for rendering when we find ourselves in the perfect storm of big renders and tight deadlines. We get dedicated help from the YellowDog team to find the right render package and ensure our scenes are optimised before we press start. For a recent production, we had a public consultation deadline and it was project critical that we could deliver; YellowDog is so easy to use and the access to its powerful render platform meant that we could send off renders at 9pm and have them downloaded back to us, without any dropped frames, by the following morning.
Why HTC Vive for VR?
AECOM have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with HTC; which is essentially a collaboration to develop virtual reality technologies for the architecture, engineering and construction industry. The 6 degrees of freedom that the Vive gives is so important for the expansion of VR; as it allows content creators to think outside of creating scenes for people just to ‘look around’ and think more about environments for people to ‘explore’ without limits.
What is the current challenge of extending VR for AEC?
I’d say it is managing the expectation of what is currently achievable within VR versus the photorealism that can be achieved with traditional visualisation methods. This is largely a problem of our own making; the photorealism of quality CGI is truly amazing. Advances in computing power coupled with the accessibility of fantastic tools like V-Ray and 3ds Max have meant that renders look extremely close to reality – and clients expect to see that same quality in VR.
With VR, you need to cope with polygon counts to make your eyes water, hitting 90 frames per second, excessive computing times for light calculations; plus the physical installation of a substantial hardware rig so that the client can get the best experience possible.
Computing limitations have a thin hold on progress; disruptive technology and high levels of compute that YellowDog offer means that digital evolution and the increase in production speed is happening at a faster pace in VR than it did originally for traditional visualisation.
What are you excited about in VR this year?
I’m excited about the Vive Focus – scheduled for European release later this year. With inside-out tracking, no cables, no rigs, and improved comfort, it is the first time that people can experience immersive VR with that level of movement & freedom. Also, the Vive Pro has recently been released; which has a resolution of 1440×1600 pixels per eye. Content creators can get excited about producing higher quality scenes for VR and satisfying more clients.
The mobility and resolution improvements found in this generation of VR headsets is really exciting. Within the next 12 months, I expect to see more headsets following suit that can be used across gaming, art, and enterprise alike.
Is the digital transformation about people or technology?
AECOM is a huge equal opportunities employer so upskilling our staff and getting them savvy with technology means that we’re ahead of the curve across the board. Ultimately, the digital transformation helps us to retain talent, increase our client satisfaction, and stay at the top of our game so it is about people first and foremost.
People are looked after at AECOM; employees can get a healthy work-life balance which is hard to come by in this industry. Salaries are competitive ofcourse but employee benefits – such as flexible working, corporate social responsibility days, and involvement in The AECOM Foundation which supports children in developing countries – make this a people first organisation.