Virtual Friction


The development of Virtual Reality (VR) is closely linked to the exploration of unknown territories. Virtual Reality, slowly emerging since the1920s, really took off in 1966 when NASA introduced this technology for flight simulation systems in its space program. As it was too expensive and too risky to train the astronauts by practising the real thing – launching them into the cosmos – methods had to be developed that could provide the trainees with a simulated experience: a small physical stimulus of acceleration, supported by and combined with visual information, was extrapolated and amplified in a ‘knock-on’ effect by the brains of the astronauts, providing them with the mental environment required to practise for the operation in (real) space.

30 years later, back from outer space, the technology of Virtual Reality is used to project, process and define our planet’s architectural and urban transformations. It is emerging as a significant communication, management and marketing tool in the fields of architecture and urbanism.

But what influence, what impact, will this technology have on the project of our environment? Will it have a ‘knock-on’ effect? Will it accelerate developments, and if so, in what direction?

How will this technology influence the structure of architectural practice? Will it sustain the innovative reservoir of plurality (of small offices) and their potential interconnections or will the market enforce uniformity?

Will it encourage the exploration of unknown territories and reinforce experimentation and innovation? Or will it have a strong conservative influence, perpetuating the dominance of precedence and the déja-vu? Will it be a technology for cloning Reality or a tool for processing the Virtual?


Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that gives the user an immersive experience, enabling him to navigate and to interact in real time with a computer-generated spatial environment. Although a multisensoric approach is considered, next to immersiveness and real-time interactivity, to be an important aspect of VR, the architecture-related applications of VR are based on visual information and stimuli: it is viewpoint-dependent imaging, where the single static viewpoint of traditional Renaissance perspective and the series of linear dynamic filmic viewpoints are multiplied into an endless number of viewpoints to be interactively chosen in real time.

The history of VR has progressed commensurate with the increase of computing power (enabling a real time interactivity and the processing of large amounts of data) and the emergence of visualisation techniques as radiosity (not yet available in real time). The development of VR is also closely interwoven and bound up with the research on interfaces and input-devices: from spatial environments, like the recent developments of the immersive stereoscopic projection rooms (CAVEs) to “responsive workbenches”, collaborative environments based on the paradigm of the engineer’s working table; from body extensions, like head mounted displays or tactile gloves, to the futuristic research on the internalised interfaces of Virtual Retina Display, based on the concept of projecting an image directly onto the retina of the viewer or to experimentation on implants placed into our spinal cords, optic nerves or even into our brains.

With the development of technology, the range of VR applications expands: combat pilots and also their counterparts, surgeons, are trained with the aid of VR; the next generation of fighters practises war games with the help of the entertainment industry. VR has become an indispensable tool in automobile and industrial plant design and is on its way to conquering architecture.

At the moment VR requires very powerful computing and within the architectural market is still supplied by specialised rendering service companies. However, as computing power doubles on average every 18 months and the cost of the technology relative to power is declining by 35% a year (Moore’s Law) and as VR will be easily accessible via communication networks, it will quickly become state of the art for middle-sized and small architectural practices too. The implementation of networked VR, as remote visualisation and shared /distributed collaborative virtual environments will enable small (and specialised) architectural firms to form networked offices and flexible long-distance global collaborations, enhancing trans-locality.

VR (networked or not) is developing into a very important tool for architects, providing a visual framework to communication. VR can be implemented to support collaborative environments within the design team, thus contributing to the integration of architectural consultants and engineers during the process of design. It can also be used to help organise construction by simulating the work at the building site and to assist facility management. VR not only helps manage the design and building process, but is also increasingly being implemented in the marketing of architectural production. It facilitates the communication of projects to municipalities and potential clients, demonstrating their impact in the urban environment and illustrating their possible uses.

Upgrading communication per mouse click, VR is a powerful tool for involving the client and will function as an instrument for integrating and strengthening the market forces within the process of design. Market control will expand. The conservative mass market will force its expectation of the “known”, perpetuating the precedence and prevalence of the déja-vu. On the other hand, VR will encourage experimentation, providing visual support in the anticipation of the “new”. As an effective marketing instrument, VR will merely accelerate market development trends, enhancing the polarisation of the architectural market. It will reinforce the splitting of the architectural field into the mass market on the one hand, and on the other, the experimental market, widening the gap between re-production and innovation.

The strong point of VR, making one 1: 1 visualisation and walk-through technically possible at an early conceptual design phase, could work as a shortcut in the design process. The pressure of “creating early consensus” could harbour the danger of shrinking the time of the design phase. VR is a powerful communication tool, exteriorising the design process. But the tool adequate to counterbalance this development, a genuine internal architectural design tool has not yet been generated by the electronic revolution.

The instruments of Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD) are derived from the fields of engineering, transferring experience from these fields into architecture. Today’s CAAD tools follow the (engineering) paradigm of linear development in the design processes. They concentrate on the organisation of data, reducing the creative process of architectural design to the management of information. Very much based on the organisation of pre-designed architectural elements that can be duplicated, copied and modified, they have a conservative influence on design. CAAD environments are organised on the basis of libraries (of architectural modules) encouraging reproduction and cloning. Today’s CAAD environments in no way function as laboratories for experimentation.


Experimental design environments still have to be developed. Genuine electronic design tools providing the space for the process of design could be integrated into the marketing and management instruments of VR and CAAD, creating a more balanced situation.

There is no reason why CAAD tools should be limited to mimicking the analog drawing methods, as conventional CAAD programs do. The exploiting of the inherent possibilities of digital technology, like artificial form generation, present a huge challenge to architectural design. Automatisation should be implemented to produce a continuous generation of elements, thus supporting architectural explorations with an infinite formal reservoir. On the other hand, the tension between the analog and the digital design process has to be explored to generate new hybrid, combined analog-digital, design methods and tools. Developments like 3-D scanning (converting analog shapes to digital data) and stereolithography (from digital data to analog shapes) will help combine and integrate analog and digital design tools, enhancing the strong points of both. Future developments like multisensoric interfaces, introducing tactility in virtual design environments, will support bodily intuition as a creative power. A certain unsharpness/fuzziness, a quality of analog design that supports creativity, should be intentionally implemented, leaving room for the forces of imagination. The totalitarianism of the “perfect” visualisation will give way to the act of vision; the fascinating passivity of immersiveness will yield to the adventure of exploration.

The introduction of VR and CAAD is still supported by traditional Renaissance perspective, a geometrical construction for reducing (the parameters) and controlling experience through definite predominant vanishing points. This (closed) Euclidean 3-dimensional space of perspective visualisation will transform and dissolve into fluid topological spaces and be extended with the help of additional parameters and poles. Layers of conceptual notations attached to the design files will expand the design environment, generating the space for the imagination driving and unfolding the process of design. Notations (of ideas, of forces, of forms) will be the tools for merging analytical investigations with the intuitive design process. Virtual design environments will function as externalised, multi-layered mental maps, as dynamic mental holographs, powered by the creative force of (co-)notation.