VR takes space planning to the next level


Thanks to quickly evolving virtual reality technology, or VR, furniture manufacturers now can let clients move through a future office space outfitted in their products.

Swedish company Configura, with its North American headquarters in Grand Rapids, debuted its CET Designer Virtual Viewer Extension product recently at the NeoCon annual contract furniture trade show held in Chicago.

Visitors to the Configura booth could slip on a pair of Oculus Rift goggles and use gaming controls to wander through a designed virtual space.

“It’s enabling our users to show the new space (to clients) before it exists,” said Johan Lyreborn, Configura CEO. “It’s a new type of experience. You can ‘walk’ around and see everything in 3-D.”

Lyreborn said he expects the interactive technology will help with decision-making.

Up until now, renderings have been the best way for someone to get an idea of what the office will look like and how the furniture will fit into the space.

“Looking at a rendering doesn’t give a good experience,” Lyreborn said. “You don’t understand how it will look when it’s done. With this type of technology you can ‘walk’ into the space and ‘walk’ around as if you are actually in there.”

VR technology can be combined with GPS to enhance the experience further.

“If you have a window, you can actually find out what is outside,” Lyreborn said.

Lyreborn said benefits of VR technology in space planning include increased efficiency, accuracy, decreased environmental impacts and increased client satisfaction with the end result.

Configura isn’t the only West Michigan company focusing on VR technology.

Brian Knapp, founder and creative director of Externa CGI, said his company has specialized in 3-D renderings and animation since it was founded in 2000 and is now moving into VR technology.

“That is where the industry is going,” he said.

Knapp said furniture manufacturers don’t make up a large portion of Externa CGI’s business, which concentrates more on industrial and medical clients, though he said the furniture industry is ripe for the technology.

Knapp gave a presentation at NeoCon earlier this month explaining VR technology on the market right now.

He said his company is focusing on Google Cardboard because it utilizes a smartphone screen and has a low-cost entry point of less than $20, versus spending $600 on a VR headset such as Oculus.

“Since we aren’t doing entertainment things, the Cardboard is easy,” he said. “I would be surprised if it’s not heavily adopted.”

Knapp said the benefit of seeing a space before it’s built and furnished is important, especially as companies work to reduce their square footage.

“Everyone is trying to stay in an eight-foot square,” he said. “With VR, you get a more accurate representation and can navigate through an entire floor of a building, so you can understand the flow of the space before the furniture is even ordered.”

Knapp said right now there is no breakthrough VR product out there, and many companies are waiting to see what products gain market dominance.

He said he thinks many furniture manufacturers will outsource VR for now, while bigger furniture manufacturers may eventually bring it in house.

“It’s a pretty large investment right now for companies to make,” he said.  “I expect it’ll be five to 10 years before they’ll be ready to do that.”

He said the technology is still rather expensive, and there aren’t a lot of people with the expertise to do the job.

There also are kinks to work out with the technology.

Lyreborn said users sometimes experience dizziness.

“We feel the technology has to be a little faster,” he said. “A lot of people feel dizzy when they move around in this. We know the reasons; it’s just we have to improve the quality,” he said.

Both Knapp and Lyreborn agree the technology is quickly changing, and right now the sky is the limit on what will be developed and the applications that could come from it.

Mixed reality, or MR, is one likely development.

Lyreborn said Configura eventually expects to have MR technology available to populate the virtual world with people, so the virtual experience could include realistic interactions.

“You could use it for support or product training. All this will happen,” he said.

Knapp said VR, MR and augmented reality — adding computer-generated elements to views of the physical world — have potential in many industries, including automotive, real estate and museums.

“Real estate is a main one, particularly apartments and condos for millennials,” he said. “They are into it and will respond well to being able to look at apartments this way. Also dorm rooms; we’ve been talking to colleges.”

Right now, a lot of the work in virtual reality is educating people on the technology and the opportunities.

Knapp said an Externa CGI VR presentation planned for the public in its studio later this summer will focus on education.

He said anyone interested in trying out the technology can visit externacgi.com/vr for demos.

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