Unison

A collaborative virtual environment that facilitates communication and understanding in spatial planning

Unison is a virtual reality solution for collaborators in communication and decision-making in spatial-planning. With the intuitive manipulation tools and a natural understanding of 3D space, Unison allows designers and project owners to communicate design intentions in an efficient way.

Project sponsored by HTC

Project type

Group project with James Pai and Xiao Yan

Sponsored by HTC (Mentor: Yihsiu Chen and Brian Espinosa)

Project Aspects

Literature Review, Interviewing, Participatory Activity, Ideation, Prototyping, Coding, User Testing

Introduction

Spatial design is a complex discipline that involves collaboration between numerous stakeholders from different professional backgrounds.  Because of the three-dimensional nature of built environments, traditional mediums such as floor plans are inadequate for conveying spatial concepts to non-experts. Communication is even more challenging when collaborators are not sharing the same physical space. This results in miscommunication and confusion between collaborators, potentially wasting significant resources to make design changes as the project progresses.

In this project, we investigated how we can help non-expert collaborators (e.g. project owners) to understand and express design intentions to improve communication in spatial planning.

Process

We started the project with a literature review and a competitive analysis of current solutions. This process helped us to understand the trend of the architecture industry and user needs. To gain a deeper understanding of the field of spatial design, we conducted 8 Subject Matter Expert interviews with industry experts to learn the process of architecture projects in the real world. Based on the research findings, we identified the focus area of our project as remote collaboration in the early design stage, and we further planned a participatory activity to get first-hand observation on how people collaborate remotely.

After we narrowed down our project scope and focus, we proceeded to ideation phase and arrived at our final concept. From over 80 ideas we generated through three different ideation methods, we grouped/combined ideas and formed the final solution. We created a fully functional prototype with Unity and HTC Vive based on the concept, and we later evaluated the prototype by conducting user testing. The user tests helped us to understand how architects and people with spatial planning experience use our solution and we were able to refine the prototype based on our observation and users’ feedback. Finally, a concept video and poster were created as deliverables which we presented during the open house session. A presentation was also given to both our program and our project sponsor HTC.

RESEARCH

As we began investigating our problem space, we came up with a list of research questions that would guide our research activities to help us better understand how architects and other designers currently work in the industry.  We wanted to learn more about their needs and preferences as well as potential pain points in collaboration. These questions also helped us to compare the two groups of interest: designers and their clients or project owners.

  1. Under what scenario or design stage do architects want the client to be involved in the design process?

  2. What are the current scenarios and use cases where designers have to develop or communicate three-dimensional concepts remotely?

  3. What tools are currently used and what are their most desired attributes, and what makes a good interaction versus a bad interaction?

  4. What are the pain points of communication in remote contexts?

  5. How do professionals and clients behave differently during concept discussion and critique?

  6. How do professionals and clients differ regarding their needs and goals?

Secondary research

From the literature review and popular media scan, we found that sharing the common ground (i.e. mutual knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions) is essential for communication between collaborators (Clark, H.H. & Brennan, S. E., 1991). However, architects and project owners working in a remote context are facing two major challenges.

First, it can be difficult for collaborators without spatial design backgrounds to fully understand the architect’s design intentions. Differences of expertise in project owners make it easy to misunderstand 2D artifacts such as floor plans and images, or how the final design might look after being built. These kinds of miscommunication can be extremely costly in the long run.

Another challenge is ensuring collaborators are referring to the same objects or locations during discussions. With gesture and gaze, referential communication diminishes the effort needed for mutual understanding during face-to-face communication. However, under a remote context, people might not be able to rely on these non-verbal cues to establish common ground. Remote collaborators need to spend more effort to get on the same page, resulting in inefficiency and possible misunderstanding.

SUBjECT MATTER EXPERT Interview

To gain a deeper understanding of the problem space and how industry experts collaborate, we interviewed eight industry experts who work as an architect, landscape architect, interior designer, urban planner, and construction project manager. We learned that some of the challenges they faced relate to the miscommunication between designers and project owners. This might be due to the use of jargon, the misinterpretation of the design intentions, or the loss of information during the back and forth communication

Some of the findings we concluded from interviews were:

  • Social: Communication with clients is more conversational and emotionally driven, non-verbal communication is essential during the conversation.

  • Clarification: Remotely communicated feedback from clients can be difficult without verbal description and discussion, and it often leads to misunderstanding.

  • Efficiency: Variety of communication and file sharing channels makes it difficult to manage projects effectively.

  • Visual Representation: Designers often need to spend time and money on building physical or high-fidelity CAD models to communicate their design concept with clients.

  • Learning Curve: Integrating a whole new technology or software into the designer's workflow is often challenging since they are often very busy working on projects.

Participatory Activity

From our secondary research and SME interview, we learned about the possible challenges, so the next step is to observe how people collaborate remotely. Since sit in on the meeting between designers and clients might interfere the meeting or there might be some proprietary information involved, we planned a participatory activity instead to observe firsthand how people collaborate in remote scenarios.

We planned a participatory activity to observe firsthand how people collaborate in remote scenarios. Each session of the activity involved an architect and a project owner, who were asked to work together and design a one bedroom apartment and a startup office under both remote and in-person contexts. In total, we conducted four sessions of the study with two participants in each session.

Our activity revealed three major challenges regarding spatial collaboration:

  • Lack of visual reference prevents collaborators from establishing common ground.

  • Limitations in communication mediums make it difficult for project owners to understand design intentions.

  • Use of jargon by the architects creates a technical language barrier that project owners are unable to understand.

These problems are exacerbated by the remote context that adds a layer of complexity to collaboration and results in considerable downtime making changes and waiting for review.

TWO MAIN PROBLEMS

From our findings, we found that there are three potential directions that we can work on.

  • Refine the information sharing process so designers and project owners could manage files and messages in an efficient way.
  • Visualize the design in a way that project owner could clearly understand the design of the space
  • Provide a way to recognize and present non-verbal expressions to both project owners and designers under remote context to facilitate the communication.

From the three problem spaces, we decided to focus on "Visualize the design in a way that project owner could clearly understand the design of the space." The decision was made based on the scope of the project and also the challenges we observed during the participatory activity that we consider critical for spatial design. 

  • Understanding spatial layout
  • Communicating design intentions

These challenges happen since traditional 2D mediums such as floor plans and sketches often fail to provide enough visual reference for project owners to understand spatial concepts fully. Although 3D mediums such as physical models and high-fidelity CAD models might seize this gap, they are often costly and are not typically used in early planning. As a result, there is always confusion or misunderstanding of design intentions in the early design stage.

Understanding spatial layout

By only looking at the floor plan, project owners might feel that the size of the room differs from what they expected, or they are simply not satisfied with the overall layout. "The sense of the scale is what people can't really understand." shared by Mike Fernandes, a Senior Project Manager at the City of Seattle. He added that it is not uncommon for project owners to ask the architect to make changes after construction starts, and this occurs because traditional mediums only provide indirect information on the design and layout, which is inadequate for the untrained.

Communicating design intentions.

The problem with communicating design intentions is another critical issue that needs to be addressed. From the participatory activity, we found that project owners often struggle with expressing their design intention in a way that architects can clearly understand. Two kinds of miscommunication happen during spatial collaboration. Architects misinterpret the project owner’s design intention such as “I want this room to be bigger”, or project owner get confused when architect using a jargon such as “Do you want me to make the ceiling double-height?” In either situation, this back and forth communication adds layers of complexity to the collaboration and consumes much time making changes and waiting for review.

Ideation

Based on all the findings, we started to design a solution with ideation. Design prompts were the core of our ideation. By generating design prompts, we had a better understanding of what kinds of problems are we trying to solve, who are the potential users, and how are we going to solve them

The design prompts we used were:

  • How might we empower clients to feel like they are part of the design team?

  • How do we elicit emotional connections between stakeholders and the project?

  • How can we make remote interactions feel more dynamic and personal?

  • How can we make complicated design tools intuitive enough for non-experts to pick up and use?

  • How might we help architects connect with clients on an emotional level in the absence of explicit social cues?

  • How can we minimize the technical language barrier for clients?

  • How can we help stakeholders transition between 2D and 3D perspectives for the better understanding of spatial flow?

  • How can we help clients view the design concept like an interactive story?

Five initial concepts and their storyboards

To assist the ideation process, we created an interaction map that illustrated the interaction and needs among stakeholders based on all the findings. With these in mind, we started to do individual ideation by coming up with 20 concepts from each person. After sharing the concepts with other members in the group, we proceeded to the second ideation method "wishing." This method enabled us to generate bold and unrealistic ideas, group them under different themes, and develop them into more realistic concepts. In the end, we grouped all the concepts into nine themes, combined overlapping ideas, and picked the top five design concepts that were most interesting and promising to us.

For each concept, we created a concept image together with a storyboard to help both ourselves and fellow students to understand the idea better. We collected feedback by presenting our ideas to other people so we could keep refining them until we formed the robust and compelling solution to the problem.

From the research we had done so far, we learned that one of the best ways to facilitate the communication process was through visualization, so among the five concepts we generated, we consider using virtual reality to present the 3D environment could be a potential solution for three reasons.

Firstly, virtual reality has the potential to present the spatial design in full-scale that even people without any 3D training will be able to understand the overall layout of the space. This could potentially solve the problem of misunderstanding and miscommunication of design intentions between project owners and designers, and to make sure that they are sharing the same vision. Second, building 3D models is the standard process during the planning phase, so for architects, they do not need to learn new skills to incorporate our solution into the workflow. Last, one of the core concepts of VR is that it removes the boundary of the user interface. The intuitiveness of VR allows both the project owner and designer to pick up quickly and focus on the project itself.

 

Concept Development and Refinement

By revisiting the problem space, we determined that the core value of our solution to be to "help to form common grounds between designers and project owners." We created concept image, storyboard, interaction model, and system diagram to demonstrate how our solution could solve the problem and to turn the concept into an executable and testable design plan.

 

The sketch and storyboard of the final concept

Prototyping

There was a debate whether we should build a functional MVP or should we use Wizard of Oz technique to test the concept instead. After a few discussions, we decided to build a functional program since the field of spatial design relies heavily on visual representations and how the design is present it, so we are trying to implement most of the proposed features that we will be able to acquire some more reliable observation data during the testing session.

We picked Unity as the tool for creating our prototype because it provides every function we needed and is supported by a vast user community. HTC Vive was used as the medium since it is currently the only Virtual Reality headset that supports room-scale tracking and position-tracked controllers. By using Vive, we created a VR application that not only allows users to experience the design in full-scale but also embedded intuitive controls and functions for them to manipulate the 3D model.

 

Evaluation

To know whether our solution met the user's needs, we designed a user test to learn about how the application will be used as well as whether it helps the user to understand the space better and facilitate the communication process.

The goals of the user test were:

  1. Understand how clients will use our solution to illustrate their ideas.

  2. Identify possible challenges and the learning curve of our solution for further refinement.

  3. Evaluate the core values that our solution brings to clients as well as its advantages and disadvantages.

Process

The evaluation process was conducted by comparing two tasks, one of which was based on traditional floor plans and the other was in a virtual reality environment. Participants performed the same four tasks with both our solution and pen/paper. In the end, participants were interviewed about their experience using both mediums

Key Findings

Overall, our solution received positive feedback that users had expressed interest in cooperating using our solution into the early planning stage. The top three findings of the user test were:

  1. Participants had more satisfying and reactive experiences with while manipulating and commenting on the model in virtual space because it provided instant feedback on the spatial change.

  2. Participants were more willing to experiment with different changes and specify the design when they are in VR compared to using pen and paper since they found that they quickly got lost when sketching on paper due to the permanent nature of the medium.

  3. The flexibility of jumping between small-scale and full-scale views increased participants’ spatial awareness. In particular, participants used the small-scale view for an overview of the spatial layout and jumped to the full-scale view to gain the sense of space.

Final Design

To conclude, our solution, Unison provides three major features.

  • Object manipulation: User can move the objects in the space to make changes and see it in real-time.

  • 3D markup: User can leave comments or draw the objects in the space to communicate their design intentions.

  • Viewpoint switching: User can gain an overview of the whole layout as well as to immerse them in the full-scale viewpoint.

It was designed to provide a clear sense of physical scale, enable collaborators to communicate feedback in spatial context, and encourage users to experiment with different designs.

Provide a clear sense of physical scale

Unison immerses users in the space, and at the same, allows them to see the bigger picture the floor plan provides. Users can shrink the space down to a small-scale or blow it up to full scale.

Enable collaborators to communicate feedback in spatial context

Communication is no longer limited to verbal or written comments. Users can express their ideas through object manipulation and 3D sketching. This allows them to make direct changes to the model and avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Encourage users to experiment with different designs

Unison is aimed to provide a satisfying experience by enabling users to make changes and see the outcomes in real-time. With clear visual feedback, users are more willing to experiment with and evaluate different design concepts and to reach a more confident decision.

 

By focusing on the early design stage, our concept stands as a compelling virtual reality solution for remote communication and collaboration issues in spatial design. The prototype evaluation has suggested that it successfully facilitates spatial understanding, feedback, and experimentation.

The core value of our solution is enabling real change in real time through a virtual environment. This helps users receive visual feedback immediately after they make any changes to the design. With clear visual feedback, users are better informed and able to reach a more confident design solution and a more solid agreement between collaborators.

Final Thoughts

We believe the core value of our solution will not only apply to the early design stage for future development - but it can also be a potential solution for clients to understand construction specifications. For example, any design request from the client side can be simulated with the physical engine and the outcome will be presented visually to the client during the planning stage. With virtual reality technology, our product provides a more realistic and intriguing user experience of spatial design activities. It is an example how new technologies such as virtual reality and real-time feedback can change the way people collaborate, and the possibilities are limitless.

We envision a future where even more stakeholders can benefit from our product, that anyone in the world can dive into to the same virtual space and bring their ideas to life.