Open Scale VR for Architecture

Thanks to CoMotion Labs and Microsoft we got early access to a Windows Mixed Reality Developer Headset. We immediately began using it (not as directed) in pursuit of an “Open Scale” VR experience that would allow us to walk unbuilt spaces at full scale without teleportation.

We succeeded and have recommendations to refine this process.

Why Open Scale?

By opening up the scale, we can experience critical architectural moments like the flow of an entry sequence, the experience of moving through the building. The ability to study flow through a space is critical for practical purposes like wayfinding, and gaze tracking in retail, and making data driven efficiencies for LEAN Hospital Design.

We have been using the Vive or Oculus as the standard for our room-scale architectural and construction walk throughs. The magic of seeing unbuilt spaces at scale while walking through them on your feet is amazing, but when you reach the edge of the physical room, you’re required to “teleport” to reach the edges of the virtual room. The Vive and Oculus are bounded to their stationary exterior hardware. So while these tools have been great for understanding scale, they’re stuck. That’s not technically the case with the Windows MR Headset.

 Inside out tracking: Logan can’t see out, but the cameras in the headset are looking for “features” to figure out where the headset (and therefore Logan) is in space.

Inside out tracking: Logan can’t see out, but the cameras in the headset are looking for “features” to figure out where the headset (and therefore Logan) is in space.

Instead of external sensors, or “outside in” tracking, the Windows MR headset has “inside out” tracking. It uses two cameras to look at the world for features to figure out where it is in 3D space. This simplifies setup and creates the potential for Open Scale virtual worlds that are as big as we need them to be.

A huge part of experiencing architecture is by moving through it. If Goethe was right and Architecture really is “frozen music,” we can now experience the rhythm of an architectural design — not through a CGI fly through, but by walking on our own two feet.

We were ready to test the limits of Microsoft’s inside out tracking and the laptop’s outdoor capabilities. Equipped with a backpack, a gaming laptop with a beefy GPU and our Windows Mixed Reality Developer Headset, we set up at the park near our office.

Our Test Project: Principles of Wholeness

For our test, we loaded Logan’s old architecture school project into Unity — a Faculty Lounge with ground dimensions measuring at 82’ x 36’. The project was from a University of Oregon Design Process class taught by Jim Givins focused on Christopher Alexander’s Principles of Wholeness. As part of their design process, students performed a powerful exercise that required them to study proportion and scale by recreating their design’s footprint in an open field using flags and ribbon for walls.


 University of Oregon Architecture Students testing Building Size with Ribbon and Flags. May 5, 2012

University of Oregon Architecture Students testing Building Size with Ribbon and Flags. May 5, 2012

 Logan Smith attempts to mentally extrapolate building dimensions from the 2D exercise, May 2012

Logan Smith attempts to mentally extrapolate building dimensions from the 2D exercise, May 2012

The exercise of mapping out a building’s footprint at full scale is a practice as old as architecture itself but it yields surprising insight. Walking among the ribbons and flags, Logan discovered his first design iteration was too long and skinny. Extrapolating the 3D building from the field proportions, he could tell that proceeding with his initial design would result in a cramped feeling space. He proceeded making multiple other iterations in the field with flags, thinking through the implications at 3 dimensions. Unfortunately the exercise took a long time and he couldn’t iterate quickly. Mentally extrapolating 2D flag and ribbon into a full building is still a challenge in educated guesswork. Enter: Virtual Reality

Open Scale Workflow: How We Did It

Before going to the park, Logan imported his Faculty Lounge Sketchup model to Unity. Setting Unity to build for Windows Mixed Reality was more annoying than we have time to discuss today, but once that was complete the process of working in Unity was familiar. After adding a few materials and some lighting, it was ready to go into the backpack and out to the park. It was time to see if we could actually walk around the Faculty Lounge in open space.

After a minute of setup, Logan put on the MR headset, shut out the park, and started walking around his faculty lounge. All 82’ x 36’ of it. He even walked out of the building to see its exterior proportions. The actual area he walked was about 60’ x 110’ all without teleportation.


From the architect’s perspective, Logan remarked at how different the space felt when are walking it versus teleporting around it. He said he gained a truer understanding of distance and space.

How We Would Repeat It: Improvements

There were a few glitches that we think could be prevented using a different workflow to make this process Client-Ready.

1. Laptop Size. The laptop we have was never intended to be worn around. It is, in a word: enormous. In a client ready workflow, we would want to invest in the new lightweight backpack VR computers that are becoming the latest fashion trend if Autodesk University is any indication.

2. Laptop Settings. Even though it was set to not go to sleep when you shut it, the headset registered this a more of mild suggestion — likely to prevent idiots like us from using the headset in unapproved way we were about to use it. Undeterred, we ended up creating a stopper made of a glove and a mouse to prevent the laptop’s lid from shutting all the way. It did the trick. In the future we will probably use one of these cool foam stress balls we got at Autodesk University.

3. Location and Environment. There were times the headset would get lost and not be able to find itself without restarting the system. This is more our fault than the headset’s — we were definitely not using it as intended. The fact that we were using it in a leaf strewn park on a windy day was definitely a complicating factor as the system tracks features — including the videographer who was moving all around the place. The fact that headset did as well as it did in the circumstances was impressive. Next time we will go to a different environment to improve tracking features and ensure that the program height adjusts to compensate for slope.

Microsoft Mixed Reality Shows Promise

The Microsoft Mixed Reality headset and OS seem tailor-made to help business people ease into spatial computing. We imagine a near future of working in Revit on a desktop, then finding the building model in a application Window inside the new OS house. This would allow for a fluidity of experience and multitasking between applications that would be ideal for a spatial working environment. For a project where a more open scale is desirable, we would definitely refine this process.

Thank you Microsoft and CoMotion!

Maret Thatcher