Regardless of how groundbreaking a design may be, it will never be realized if the architect or firm can’t get their audience on board during the pitching process. In order to do this, they rely on a wide array of rendering tools and techniques. However, even the most advanced 2D (and even 3D) models are incapable of overcoming a fundamental flaw in human psychology: We can’t conceptualize large objects and spaces in the abstract.
The good news is that the maturation of visually immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) in recent years has provided architects with a practical means to compensate for humans’ weak spatial imaginations. New software and hardware has upped the level of realism in virtual environments, meaning that architects can invite key stakeholders to experience a design on a 1:1 scale. This allows them to get an accurate sense of the building or structure before construction even begins.
Grappling with our hardwiring
In a seminal 1974 article entitled “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman argued that three fundamental heuristics—simple, efficient rules that people use to form judgments and make decisions—underlie most of our conscious actions. Though subsequent research and debate has raised significant challenges to Tversky and Kahneman’s conclusions, their three heuristics—availability, representativeness, and anchoring—continue to influence contemporary decision-making theory.
Of the researchers’ three heuristics, anchoring bears most directly on architectural practice. According to their original paper:
“In many situations, people make estimates by starting from an initial value that is adjusted to yield the final answer. The initial value, or starting point, may be suggested by the formulation of the problem, or it may be the result of a partial computation. In either case, adjustments are typically insufficient. That is, different starting points yield different estimates, which are biased toward the initial values.”
This “anchoring” phenomenon can have some pronounced effects. For instance, in one experiment, Tversky and Kahneman had one group of students estimate the product of 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 in five seconds and a separate group of students estimate the product of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 in five seconds. Both groups greatly underestimated the answer (40,320), but the first group returned a median estimate of 2,250, while the second group delivered a median estimate of 512.
After controlling for all other factors, Tversky and Kahneman attributed this disparity to the students’ innate anchoring heuristics. While the first group “anchored” their estimates to the calculation 8 x 7, the second group anchored theirs to 1 x 2. Even though both groups understood that the final product needed to be a larger number, the students who began their projections with 56 were much more likely to deliver a higher estimate than those who began with 2.
It’s easy to imagine the profound effect that this heuristic — which Tversky and Kahneman insist is as common among highly-trained professionals as it is among schoolchildren — has on a field as mathematically-oriented as architecture. Whether beginning with a small digital rendering or a physical model extending only a foot or two in each dimension, the starting points from which most architects depart are miniscule compared to the final product. Because of our anchoring heuristics, architects and owners alike will envision a building on a similarly small scale. Without a method of rendering a building at full scale, any attempts to conceptualize the finished product will fail.
How VR counteracts anchoring
With the aid of VR technology, architects can circumvent this anchoring heuristic by eliminating the need to project, estimate, or conceptualize altogether. VR software enables designers to create incredibly detailed, immersive environments, which they can operate in to test, refine, and pitch a project at its executed scale.
Since many architectural features can’t be easily replicated on scale models, a 1:1 interactive model is more than just convenient. It also enables architects to demonstrate their building’s optimal functions (e.g. how people will be able to use the space, how the space will react to changing conditions). With VR tech facilitating real-time data integration throughout the design process, architects can avoid guesswork and show how a building will actually look and operate under any environmental condition or circumstance.
Every architect still needs a compelling pitch, of course. With the assistance of VR, however, designers can offer clients an accurate and adjustable model that neither requires an active spatial imagination nor relies on an anchored size or scale. The benefits are wide-ranging, but put simply, VR enables architects to fully represent their vision without losing anything in translation, all while allowing key stakeholders to experience the finished product before it even exists.
In other words, it’s going to change the future of design and the careers of thousands of architects along with it.