VR + Industrial design process
I am an industrial designer and by far not an expert on VR. However, I want to share some of the notes I wrote down of how I see VR being a valuable tool in my future projects. I hope this story can give you some new thoughts to take with you into your next project and make you curious to try VR yourself (if you haven’t already), also to inspire you to share your experiences and how you use it in your process.
Before I tried VR I tended to think of how it could be a great tool to evaluate form and shapes focusing on an object. I saw it being a flexible and efficient complement to traditional ways of building physical prototypes and being able to use it to communicate 3D objects and ideas over distance. This was also how it was used by the people who helped me set up my VR environment and I’m sure many others use it in this way already.
I recently designed a vacuum cleaner for airplane interiors at Copenhagen Airport in collaboration with Sodexo, a company that provides professional cleaning services. During this project I frequently visited the Airport in order to spend time in the situation I was designing for. Doing this allowed me to get a better understanding of the space and how people relate to it, which reflects in the design decisions throughout the process. It is a way of working that in my experience is very important in order to design relevant products. Although, visiting the airport was a bit trickier than getting to other places I have designer for in previous projects. It took effort in terms of planning and traveling due to the time it took to get there, but also for security reasons, which would limit my number of visits. It was difficult to coordinate with the cleaning sessions, since the schedules were very unpredictable from day to day and some shifts took place during the night. Fortunately the staff and company were really helpful and made it possible for me to visit frequently.
While I tried to go there as many times as I could, I also built physical mock ups of the seats and the aisle in my workspace to create some relation to the airplane interior. In this way I could test idea principles, even though crude, in an ‘airplane situation’ and get a bit more sense to how it would behave in the real context.
Early in the process I also modeled a 3D simulation of the airplane interior. The idea was to use it to communicate concepts and solutions in 2D presentations. It was a way to detail my design to the proper measurements and a tool to foresee issues that might occur before making physical prototypes. At this point I had no intention to use it with a VR headset.
Vacuuming in an airplane.
Notes about the VR experience
Putting on the headset
The opportunity to try my digital environment in VR came when I was visiting another university. I got some help to set up the 3D simulation and all of a sudden I could walk around in an airplane and experience the space I was designing in. It was an amazing feeling and initially I was mostly appreciating the technology, but after a while I started to look around with an intention of using it for design purposes; I felt like sitting down and observing the environment, perhaps because I was surrounded by a lot of virtual chairs. Unfortunately, the seats I saw did not exist, so I removed the headset and grabbed a chair in the real world and placed it in the same place as the seat in VR. After looking around, sitting, I wanted to move down the aisle to explore the space further. This time I placed more chairs to also mimic the row of seats through the aisle. Placing the chairs made a great change in the way I could explore the environment. I could guide myself more easily by holding the armrest, using it to help me bend down to look under the seat. I knew what was behind me when my back touched a chair. I could tell when I would have stepped inside a virtual seat when I hit my knee against the real chair. The ways of implementing some physical restraints, even though it was roughly related, added a great level of understanding to the space I was in. It became a lot more immersive than just being able to see things that I could not touch.
Using VR as a playroom (reflection)
Using simple means to represent the VR environment in the physical world makes it a lot more immersive. The more things you are able to grab around you to make the VR a more tangible world, the more fun and valuable it will be. Thinking about the characteristics of the environment can also be a way of using props to create a closer experience to the real situation. An example can be using the typical clothes that are normal to wear in that place. If the real situation is outside or in a cold storage maybe a jacket is appropriate.
Arranging chairs to match the digital simulation.
Notes about having a discussion through VR
An experience of communication
I invited other people to come and have a look at my VR environment, to get some feedback and learn more about the controls and what possibilities there are. While they shared thoughts and explained functions of the software, I found that it is easy to have a discussion with someone in VR. Because I could follow what they were looking at on the screen it made it very easy to understand and get a better sense of what they were talking about. If I would have uploaded concepts of my designs for them to see, I believe I would have gotten great feedback that also would be linked somewhat more with the context, somehow a richer content. Similar to the feedback I got when I was able to discuss with people who tested my prototypes in the real airplane.
Observe others and get feedback (reflection)
Invite people to discuss the design in VR. I believe having the design in the environment makes it easier for others to imagine possible problems with the design and find other solutions. It makes discussions more fluent because the person can point and focus on things the discussion is relating to, instead of describing things with words.
When presented with an idea, many times we have to give feedback with the understanding of a space from memory. The accuracy of the feedback and ability to see problems or possibilities with the idea might be hindered because we can't recall some memories of the environment. We might not even know the environment in the first place. Having a discussion through VR can help the accuracy of the memory with things we would have overlooked, simply forgotten or never known. Of course this should come with a careful attitude since the VR environment is not the real environment.
Arranging chairs to match the digital simulation.
Notes about modeling the environment
The work to make it happen
I initially spent around two days on modeling the environment so that it would have the right measurements and forms as the real one. I had to go back and change some things and add some details to it later, but it did not take a lot of time. As I was testing prototypes in the physical mock up environment, I found it valuable to be able to view the ideas in a spatial comparison to more accurate measurements of the airplane interior. In this way I could refine the prototypes and also build on the ideas. I did this on a screen but could easily have done it in VR if I would have had the equipment close to my workspace.
The initial model was very rough and made to serve only the thing I wanted to check at the moment. Later it became more refined as the need grew for more details. Very much like the work flow of creating a physical environment for ideas to be tested in.
A complement to physical mock up environments (reflection).
Idea principles can often quickly be tested with a physical mock up environment, but when the mock up space has to be refined and more detailed it easily takes a lot of time and resources to get it right. The VR environment can offer a quicker way to test certain things, like spatial relations and detailed visualizations. Depending on the need, it is easy to be flexible in CAD and easy to change or add things later in the process. The option of complementing the physical mock up with a more detailed visualization helps to see how the design would work not only spatially or functionally but it could also help with the aesthetic understanding.
Working with 3D in VR compared to working with 3D on a screen does not have to take much more time and neither cancels each other out. However, the experience I had working in VR created a whole lot better understanding of the space compared to working on the screen.
Developing and refining the 3D model.
Notes about VR for storytelling
Feeling the atmosphere
When I was working on my presentation of the vacuum cleaning project, I was thinking of ways to tell the story of what it is like to work in a crammed environment and clean. So that the audience could understand the situation and see how the design I was proposing would benefit the working environment. Using VR for this moment seems like a perfect opportunity to tell the story, making the design solutions more impactful on the audience. Since my presentation I have experienced exhibitions where for example car interiors where presented in this way and the design was indeed a lot more impactful and understandable, compared to traditional 2D presentations. I was not able to find a way to have a VR set for my final presentation, but I think it would have saved me time both making the presentation and presenting, while also being more experiential than explaining it through video and pictures, as I ended up doing.
Making the situation understandable (reflection)
Recalling environments and places we have been in is difficult. Especially remembering details we normally don't have any need of paying attention to in the moment. Many times our memory tends to trick us when we think back on spaces. Using VR can quickly put us in to the situation, making it easier to get an understanding of the project, problems or thoughts and ideas we want to share. It might help others realize the value of the design that is not connected to the project. Or it may become easier to get new people involved in the project, perhaps it is a new team member who is starting and there won't come a chance to visit the context in some time. However, there are probably many advantages in memorizing spaces as well. As mentioned before, VR is not a substitute, but can be a valuable complement, to the real space.
Pairing the VR environment with other media can further enhance and create a deeper understanding of the atmosphere. The sound of the environment, for example, changes our perception a great deal; it can cause stress or limit the conversation with co-workers, something the audience might understand sooner and more direct through the use of VR. Another example can be to render the environment with less lighting if the situation often takes place at night time, to enhance the feeling of the atmosphere. There is a difference in being in a dark room and looking at a dark room through a screen or projection.
Using VR to capture more of the atmosphere of the environment.
VR is an interesting technology to implement in the design process, with more new promising possibilities around the corner. While trying it out I was happy to find other uses than my initial thoughts of how it would benefit my work. I now also see VR being a complement to physical mock up environments, because it allows another way of experiencing the atmosphere and details of a place which can be difficult to achieve in traditional ways.
VR can become a tool for having discussions about objects in closer relation to the context, comparing it to having discussions about an object separate from the context. In this way it might also become easier to communicate with people who are not familiar with the project, making it easier to understand and get into it.
The time spent on modeling an environment and setting it up can end up saving time, or using the time when visiting the real space for things that are not possible to check in VR. Sometimes we are very familiar with the environment in which our designs will live, other times we are completely new to it. Even though we do our best to immerse ourselves in the situation and physically be at the place we design for, at times it can be difficult to visit that place as much as we would like to. VR can be a valuable tool to get inspiration for new ideas or gain understanding of how our design works in the context, especially if that place is difficult to get to. It could also speed up the developing process by making us aware of unforeseen problems with the design at an earlier stage. Using VR in this way has to come with caution, since there are many things that are left out of from the real context. I believe it will be a beneficial tool for the design process, as long as we are aware that VR is a controlled situation and a step on the way as we design objects that are developed within the real context. Perhaps AR will create an even better bridge between the digital and real world. Since I have not tried using AR in my design process I thought it would be best to leave that for another story when I have more experience with it. Plus, industrial designers already are very used to working with CAD software in their process so it is an easy step to implement it in VR. A step I am not sure how it would translate with AR.
VR had a big impact on me because it was very easy to get immersed in the space and it becomes easy to picture scenarios where it will be valuable. However, my reflections leave me with some questions I am curious to explore in future projects:
Can VR be a complementary tool for designers to get 'away from the desk'?
Is modeling an environment the design will live in valuable for contexts that are not as fixed as the airplane I designed in but are more diverse between themselves, for instance living rooms or operating rooms?
Will VR make us visit situations less frequently, moving more towards a digitally developed design where physical interactions happens less in the process?
As CAD, CNC milling, Laser cutting and 3D printing has made us design less with our hands, will VR distance us further from the environment we design for? What impact does that have on the relationship between object and human?
Johan Edzén - Portfolio 2019