Space Planning with Stantec: How VR was not the answer

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been working with Stantec architects to identify, validate, and refine an early-stage architectural design application. In this post we cover:

  • How we validated and delivered a space planning tool in 3 weeks
  • How we came to the conclusion that a non-VR solution was the most effective and friction-free for space planning
  • How a digitized space planning application can optimize your workflow

As an immersive technology studio, we’re very interested in finding real applications for virtual reality. But just because VR can be used, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best tool for the job. Achieving the best product solution requires a careful approach: the first idea is not always the best idea, and when your focus is immersive tech, the first idea is XR. To avoid the pitfall of Maslow’s hammer, we want to clearly understand the problem and pain points before we tackle the solution, so we can know if the solution is really hitting the mark.

Plenty of examples of bad cases for virtual reality ;)

Discovery

In early September, we were looking to take on a new project. We had a few ideas in our idea backlog but they still needed to go through some validation. We reached out to Stantec (one of our architectural partners,) because they had demonstrated an interest in the architectural VR prototypes we had produced earlier in the year. Stantec is a global, values-driven architecture firm committed to advancing the design process for large-scale AEC projects, and we have been eager to get something in their hands.

Ideation and interaction prototyping

Through early brainstorming sessions, we identified first the opportunity of using virtual reality for an early-stage massing tool. Massing is generally understood in architecture as the process of determining the perception of the general shape, form, and size of a building.

VR massing prototype

We spent a week creating the prototype, and on review realized we could reuse the underlying interactions for something even more desirable: space planning. Space planning is the early-stage architecture analysis of how physical space is used in structures. Proper space planning ensures not only an efficient use of floor space but also an efficient circulation of people through the environment.

An initial VR prototype for space planning was subsequently developed, and well-received by several of our partners, giving us some early validation and reason to explore further. Time to dig a little deeper into our partners’ specific use cases for space planning.

Initial VR space planning prototype

Choosing a focus: Feasibility studies vs Gaming Sessions

After interviewing with several architects and computational designers, the takeaway was that Stantec performs space planning in two very different capacities: gaming sessions and feasibility studies. Gaming sessions are collaboration sessions with project stakeholders, while feasibility studies are to determine whether a particular project could be worthwhile from a business perspective.

We decided to focus on gaming sessions, as this was the first step in their process for many civic projects — or so we believed at the time. The idea is to engage key stakeholders for requirements gathering and project buy-in. Stantec’s process involves creating paper cut-outs for all the rooms in their program schedule and then taping them to a giant piece of paper, which they then document and digitize at a later time, using tools like Revit or Sketchup.

Paper cut-outs are great for encouraging collaboration and provide a satisfying tactile experience, but the process requires substantial set-up and risky manipulations!

When asking why they prefer paper over software, we received many interesting answers:

  • Paper cut-outs are easy to manipulate by a group of people
  • Paper cut-outs encourage participation from non-technical people
  • There are many non-technical people in the room

We also asked if they have tried using any software specifically for this purpose, and they responded that they had not come across an application that had the flexibility of paper without introducing additional friction points in their process. Existing applications like Revit were simply too cumbersome for collaborative gaming sessions.

Digitizing the gaming session is what we decided to start with. What we had learned about the inadequate solutions in the market and the ad-hoc solutions that our partners had come up with on their own were very positive indicators for a product innovation opportunity. But the gaming sessions we witnessed were table-top interactions, and perhaps not the best fit for a VR application.

Choosing the right technology

If not VR, what could be the best hardware fit for gaming sessions? AR could be interesting for viewing, but just as lacking for group editing. A projector with leap motion sensors to pick up hand movements? Giant tablets? We decided that our criteria would be low-cost and easily-accessible since we want to invest as little as possible while seeking further validation.

We decided on a common Android tablet. The multi-touch gestures are quite sufficient, and they are very forgiving during development. Our first goal was to digitizing the paper cut-out process and augment it with gestural interactions for object manipulation. Erik described our objective as “making their process better without making it worse”.

Development

We started by listing the features supported by an ad-hoc paper process and assigned them values based on how well we thought they performed. We created our backlog based on those features and added a few more. The goal of our first week was to completely digitize their current process, end-to-end.

“We started by dumping the program calendar as a bunch of squares, and providing the user with tools to move, rotate, and scale along a constraint-area”

Although it was *very* rough, we managed to meet our goal. It was nice to know that already they could use our tool as a replacement for their paper cut-out process and save hours! Furthermore, we were excited by the possibility to evolve our application to eventually support more features that Stantec has asked about, including 3d and VR viewing support.

Feedback from Stantec confirmed that the lack of visual quality and UX was acceptable for this stage of development, but the quickly done tablet interactions were too much of a regression from the nice tactile interactions from the paper cut-out sessions. We decided to direct the next week on improving the interactions, specifically by tweaking the rotation and scaling tools, and by adding in object snapping.

When assessing the interactions, we found that conventional multi-touch gestures feel clunky when used with multiple hands on a device. Feeling we could do better to support multiple users in a group setting, Erik designed a gizmo-style interaction for rotate and scale, more commonly found on conventional desktop tools, but a good fit for our situation.

Gizmo in action

Over the next two weeks, we continued to improve on the core mechanics and interactions. Our milestone 3-week review was coming up. We were happy with our progress but felt the project needed more validation before we deciding to continue investing time into this idea.

To our surprise, Alyssa from Stantec announced the opportunity of a pilot test on an upcoming civic architecture project! Most interesting was finding out that the project wasn’t going to require a gaming session at all! Instead, Stantec was to have solo space planning designs created by several Stantec architects. For Stantec, solo feasibility studies, in general, outnumber gaming sessions by a large ratio.

Conclusion

By deciding to focus on a tablet experience, we were able to mimic the paper cut-out space planning gaming sessions while improving Stantec’s workflow drastically. By committing to weekly reviews, we were forced to make decisions quickly. Each week we learned more about space planning and pain points, and by the end of the three weeks, Stantec was motivated to suggest a trial project.

Tablets offer the benefit of portability, ease of use, and easy collaboration. However, a desktop application affords precision workflows, a familiar interface, VR integrations, and easy setup. Fortunately, our codebase is well-maintained, so the refactoring to desktop was easy.

Three weeks of investment resulted in a SpacePlan for Tablet Android application available for anyone who does collaborative gaming sessions and is looking for something better than paper cut-outs or clunky CAD tools.

Furthermore, we gained keys insights that led to us working on our current project: a 360-degree SpacePlan application: precision desktop software that cloud-syncs to tablet devices for gaming sessions or VR for visualization and annotation.

Are you an architect or designer that struggles with space planning? Try SpacePlan for free by signing up for Scenarion Labs.

+Potential plug for partners (ex. We work with companies to develop useful tools… if you think your company might be interested in testing our products please reach out.