Virtual Reality: A Case Study

As we like to look after our clients even after finalising projects, we never intend to release their images, animations or virtual reality scenes prior to their launch. We realise the importance of this, so on this occasion, we have changed the names and small details to protect our client. We simply can’t wait any longer to share our journey with you!

Nearly a year ago, we were approached by Andi “So we have this model. Our architect made it. Can you turn this into a Virtual Reality experience for potential buyers?”. As you may be able to imagine due to our sheer excitement over anything VR related, this was like music to our ears. Andi came to us as we had a previous relationship, she also knew we were experimenting with Virtual Reality at the time. Andi had shopped around a little before approaching us, and to our surprise, this was based on the assumption that we would be up there with the most expensive. Fortunately for us, others she spoke to that claimed to produce Virtual Reality, started asking questions that indicated they didn’t have the depth of understanding that was required.

We on the other hand had been creating VR show apartments specifically for the property sector for a couple of years now, and will always endeavour to understand exactly what the client needs, that’s after all how we started experimenting with VR. Immediately, she knew we were on the same page and once she looked at the costs she was staggered. To be honest, so were we! This was way lower than we anticipated, production times were slashed substantially by producing environments in Virtual Reality and this allowed much more comfort in hitting their deadline.

After a little research, it turned out a lot of architects are already using Virtual Reality to model their schemes; we found the majority of architects use a program called Prospect on the Vive. It allows them to foresee issues that might otherwise go unnoticed until later in production when inevitably, there will be a cost implication. The models are detailed and accurate enough for this purpose. If we were creating still shots from this, we would use them as a guide and then re-model again as the fine detail isn’t quite there. This extra detail is how we achieve photo-realism.

We took a design tool and made it into a marketing tool, within the space of a few months.

Virtual Reality: A Case Study Image Foundry

A mass of time and cost was saved in using an available tool, this left us with two distinct challenges remaining; the quality of the look and the user experience. The quality of how the scenes physically look will always be vital to us; it’s what we do after all.  Whilst most of our internal CGIs can slip seamlessly into brochures full of multi-million pound marketing campaigns, it is well known amongst the industry that Virtual Reality is a medium prioritising experience over photo-realism. Thankfully, we are well practiced in this area and have a strong understanding of how to squeeze as much visual impact and detail out of the current technology. Whilst populating the exterior scene for Andi, we began to notice how some textures worked better than others, how some models caused issues more than others and how to solve those issues in future, whilst balancing the quality and experience.

The interaction was the next element we needed to consider; this governs the entire experience and has the potential to colour people’s perception of the subject matter. In this instance, the end user is a potential purchaser of a property within the scheme they are interested in. After discussing the location of their physical VR set up, it became apparent that this would be used as a direct sales tool to supply guided tours to users and for sales agent to construct a narrative, exactly how they needed it. Whilst still images will give you a snapshot, this gives you a live preview in real time. Virtual Reality now enables sales agents to show customers around the site, prior to the sites construction.

Ultimately the experience, whilst being free roaming, really is a guided tour.

We finished the exterior tour in two weeks which was an astonishingly quick time frame. Andi showed her boss (we’ll call him Dante for now) who was elated and the conversation moved forwards to expanding the tour to include one of the duplex apartments as well as providing an animation of the scheme and a 360 degree animated tour.

We ramped up production and Andi negotiated on cost. Big Boss, Dante, is quite a shrewd operator and put a lot of pressure on us, through Andi, to get the cost down. We agreed to this on a number of criterion which were somewhat fluffy around the edges. In retrospect this came back to haunt us. We learned very quickly that the grey area, needed in fact to be in black and white. We made an error and boy did we pay for it.

It became apparent to us, that although in fleeting conversations, agreeing to use existing CGIs as a style guide for the interior spaces sounded perfectly acceptable, this added a substantial amount of production time to each space and allowed no clear lines of feedback delivery. Thankfully, our client wasn’t based too far away so they would pop by the studio to see the work in progress. This was really helpful to the process, to experience the environment with the headset and give feedback live whilst viewing is something we would highly recommend to all of our clients. We also making a cracking cuppa so why not.

After we worked our way around styling, it all came down to how fast we could deliver. Back and forth, the styling ate up a lot of time which could have been agreed from the get-go in a few mood boards and props sign offs. We put our foot the floor to deliver as soon as possible but of course, this wasn’t as simple as we thought.

Virtual Reality: A Case Study Image Foundry

We came up against issues whilst trying to bake the lighting. Baking lighting is vital to see how the scene is going to actually look – although we can render in real time, with changes to props, textures and lighting, the lighting needs to be baked every time a change is made to be certain that the light and look is correct with these tweaks. This initial lack of understanding, as to why the lighting bakes would crash, held us back and we are so happy to have to poured time into understanding this process more.

Andi, becoming happier with the VR files we would package up and send across for them to test in their office, requested a really simple and early revision of a 360 animation. This is a relatively simple process. Once the VR environment is built, outputting the frames into a 360 animation comes down mostly to machine time, then a little TLC from our artist to ensure it looks smooth and packaged up nicely for online channels.

We wanted to keep the client happy and give them something to get their internal staff excited about Virtual Reality – for us, this was a bad move. We hadn’t signed off the environment, which means every set of tweaks and amends, of which there were quite a few back and forth as to be duplicated. What was estimated half a day to deliver the animation had turned into days and days of production time by the end. Not ideal for everyone.

We had some last minute back and forth but in the end, we and the client were really proud of the full VR Package we delivered. Now we have a firm grasp of the technical process, we can filter this into the client facing procedures, anticipating issues and understanding and explaining processes we must undergo for the greater good of the quality of the VR and of course, the delivery of the final product. We also spent a portion of time adding numerous textures, props and models to our VR library meaning the more VR Projects we do, the quicker the prop populating time becomes.

A whirlwind of a project, beginning as simple exterior, it grew into a full Virtual Reality Experience Package allowing entrance to interiors of apartments, an animated 360 video for YouTube as well as a full creative animation for marketing purposes.