VR for All: Creating Accessible, Immersive Design Experiences at the Urban Scale

Within the design service industry, custom virtual reality (VR) experiences have historically been reserved for private meetings on big budget projects that require specialized, expensive equipment. Owing to cost and perceived technical complications, they are seldom used at the campus- and community-scaled projects, or open freely to anyone who can access a web address on their smart phones. However, with new low-tech solutions such as cardboard goggles and web-based platforms, VR can be an easy and accessible way to engage communities and share the experience of urban-scale interventions- especially to those neighborhoods who have historically been underserved or have had limited collaboration. Through accessible immersive design experiences, we hope to empower all communities to imagine, test, and provide input with these more equitable approaches.

As part of a mobile workshop for the American Planning Association (APA) National Planning Convention, we recently created a unique VR experience that would test the deployment of easily accessible VR to a large group of people, outside, within an urban revitalization scenario. This allowed APA tour-goers to walk through an existing historic, decommissioned healthcare campus while ‘seeing’ a new potential design implementation. The Sea View Healthy Community, a collaboration with the NYC Economic Development Corporation, helps define the vision for a mixed-use community focused on holistic health at this historic TB Campus on Staten Island. It seems appropriate to explore this idea of equitable virtual reality in a place that has a legacy of public health and, we hope, will be an inclusive neighborhood designed around championing wellness and social cohesion. This reflects Perkins+Will’s commitment to health and wellbeing in all we do, including how we engage our communities and design our projects.

We took over 40 participants around the Sea View campus and stopped at four VR locations that distinctly highlight key aspects of the proposed design. As tour-goers stood in front of historic landscapes and structures that have sat unused for over 50 years, they slipped on the provided cardboard goggles and accessed a web link teleporting them into an immersive experience that revealed the same buildings restored, activated, and complemented with a new thriving public realm.

Creating these immersive imagined futures for the tour was fairly straightforward and piggy backed on much of the work that was already created through the creation of the vision for a holistic health mixed-use community. First, our team captured existing 360-degree images using a special camera on a tripod. Then the proposed conceptual design were combined with existing 360-degree site images using a combination of 3D modelling and phototshop . Beyond new infill projects, this also included the beatification and updating of historic buildings and surrounding landscape to create a true sense of revitalization and activation. We then uploaded the four VR images to our InsiteVR account (a platform that hosts VR images on the cloud) and generated a sharing link that participants can use to access the images. We wanted to keep it simple, you just use your device, something you are comfortable with and simply type in a provided a web address. Word to the wise: make sure your site has a strong network signal so people will be able to download the viewpoints quickly.

At Sea View, we provided every participant with cardboard VR goggles, a card indicating the location and number of each view on the map, and the web link to access the VR images.

To differentiate the different viewpoints, our team identified the exact location of each with clear color marks on the ground, allowing the user to align precisely with the VR images. The participants could stand there wearing the goggles and enjoy the experience without any extra technical support. While looking into the potential ‘future,’ a tour guide explained the details of how future tenants could be using each facility on-site woven in with a history of the historic buildings. Being able to picture the story while it is being told resulted in an effective form of interaction and a lively debate on potential implantation strategies.

As we continue to discover new ways of bringing diverse communities and individuals together, tapping into existing technology that most users are already comfortable with is key. And while we don’t pretend this is the only answer we think it’s a step in the right direction.  The exciting thing about this approach is that the links live on beyond a curated event and anyone can go to the site own their own and access the VR views with or without goggles. This democratizes the design process, allowing people to understand, through immersive accessibility, the new designs and extends opportunities for providing input and being part of the process of change and revitalization. We encourage you to check out the views live, with or without goggles, the next time you are at the Sea View Campus!

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