Diversions 2020: A Virtual Art Gallery

In the Gensler Houston office, we have been hosting an annual art event since 2014 that showcases the creative “diversions” of our fellow coworkers. Employees are encouraged to submit their personal work and passion projects – nothing Gensler or client related – and our office-turned-art-gallery typically displays everything from traditional art mediums to furniture, handcrafted jewelry, baked goods and infused alcohols.  Diversions has grown to become one of our best cultural and inspirational office events each year because it allows us to learn more about our coworkers and see their creative talents and passions firsthand.

Only a few months after we moved into our new office, the news of the pandemic hit and we all went home. Most of us haven’t been back since. Fast forward to September, we are still at home and we realize that our beloved Diversions celebration may not happen this year – a year when we need inspiration and culture the most.

We decided we weren’t going to let COVID-19’s cancel culture take this one, so we set off to make it virtual. Despite working from home, this year’s gallery was designed to virtually showcase the art in our own Houston Office with over 100 pieces in 20 different mediums.

To enter our virtual office gallery, click on the photo below. To learn more about how we made it, keep reading.

Click Image to Enter Virtual Diversions 2020

The Making of Virtual Diversions

Challenge: Create a virtual art gallery inside the Houston Office where people can interact with the art, read information about it and possibly link to websites where the user can find out more about the artist or maker.

There are many ways to make a virtual art experience. We knew we wanted the user to see the artwork displayed throughout the office and we had a pretty good 3D model started, so that step was mostly out of the way. Then we needed to figure out how we could allow the user to interact with the art so that they could get a good close-up view of each piece and read a few facts or quick description about the art.

This took a bit more thinking and experimentation. We tried a few different mechanisms for dealing with this and eventually ended up using the service Yulio to create a 360 interactive virtual tour of the office. We ‘hung’ the artwork in our 3D model, exported 360 panoramic images, uploaded those images to the Yulio website and added all the custom notes and photos to create the full experience. We ended up doing it this way primarily because it was the easiest way to share a virtual experience with a simple weblink; however, on the way there we developed a more experimental version.

Walking and interacting with art in Unreal Engine

Using unreal engine, a game/experience development software, we added interactivity to our 3D model elements and created an experience that allows the user to freely walk around the office and interact with the artwork in a similar but more custom and personal way. This interactivity was created using the Blueprints system in Unreal Engine which is a type of visual programming similar to Grasshopper for Rhino. Utilizing this workflow allows us to reuse these blueprint scripts in future projects. This R&D brings us closer to being able to deliver this type of custom experience to our clients which will allow them to engage in a more unique way with their projects.

Quick look at player character blueprints system in Unreal Engine

This type of experience could manifest in many different ways including a training experience where clients can take new employees through the building, show them around or train them how to use specific equipment. We could also create an experience that takes a potential tenant through a new development, highlighting the amenities and possible floor plan layouts. From a design perspective, we can create custom experiences for proposals that tell an interactive story where each stakeholder can freely walk around and discover the design in a truly exploratory way. 

While you’re in the exhibit don’t forget to check out my mandala art on display!

Angela Palmer Mandala Gallery 360 Panoramic

The Diversions Team

Design Technologist: Angela Palmer & Bryan Brady 

PR: Nina Miller, Shaina Pherigo, Katelyn Howard

A Simple VR Game

puzzler test 2

As part of the Udacity VR developer Nanodegree program I am currently taking, we get to make games. For me, this is really exciting because I grew up playing video games and to be able to make one of my own is a real treat.

As beginners, we often take very small steps on the way to becoming an expert; this game is a prime example of one of those small steps. There is only one hurdle to overcome in the game but technically that’s all you need…right? Although the scale is small, there were quite a few steps to finish the game which provided a great balance of creativity, experimentation, frustration, and problem-solving. The main focus for this part of the course was on design. We created a Simon-says type game in a mysterious dungeon setting.

Initial Design Scheme

puzzler sketch

This sketch shows an idea to put the dungeon into a cave and have the Simon says game be on a wall that opens once you win. I had big ambitions at the beginning of the class. Once I realized that I would need to create all the prefabs for this model I decided to settle for the design elements provided by the course.

Defining the player

Before the design process could begin we needed to understand who will be playing our game. For this, we assign a motive and background to a prototypical character of our ideal audience.

Anthony, 24 – Software Engineer
Anthony is a software engineer who loves to play indie games because of their uniqueness and simple nature. He relates to simple games because he can better understand how they are built. Anthony isn’t sure he will like VR games so he wants to try something that is easy to pick up. 

Dungeon Design Iterations

For the course, we were provided a generic prefab for the dungeon which included the door, one floor tile, and a few wall & ceiling pieces. As a way to make my project unique, I created a clerestory in the dungeon. This adds a bit of drama to the scene while the player is in-game which is important when creating an engaging VR experience.

Final Model Close-up
High Ceiling.PNG

I wanted the dungeon to feel old and dim with a magical twist so I experimented with the lighting to try to find the ideal mood. Below is an example showing the before and after of the lighting for the fire torches (fire not yet present). In the top photo, the room is much too bright because the light at the torches has too much of a spread causing all the light to bleed together. The bottom image corrects this by making the lighting more local to the torches.

puzzler test 1
puzzler test 2

User Testing

During user testing of the build, the player noticed that the spacing of the orbs along with their position relative to the player did not feel good once in VR; so, these items were also adjusted for the bottom image. This is an example of why it is always good to constantly check your model in VR while in the design process.

After further user testing, additional ambiance was added to the game via color adjustments and flame particles.

Final Build

The final build features a start and restart screen, movement mechanics, ambient & responsive sounds and a game logic that asks the player to repeat the pattern created by the orbs lighting up.

Key takeaways include:

  • Test the model often in VR. Although it takes a bit of time to frequently build the app and test it on the device, this is helpful in preventing larger scale changes at the end of the project and ensures the project feels comfortable in the VR setting.
  • Design with the player in mind and user test often. When designing a game we need to establish who the audience is and then cater the design and user experience to them. Furthermore, we need to take into consideration differences that we may have with the user such as motion sensitivity in VR. User tests are a means to test your design to make sure it feels good to the player.
  • Design should be used as a tool to guide the player through the game. We can use elements like sound to provide feedback to the player which helps them understand how the game works. A negative tone plays in the game when the player guesses the wrong sequence which helps them understand they chose the wrong answer without having to explicitly tell them in text that is cumbersome to read in VR
Final Model

Overall, this was a fun project that focused on the design side of VR development.

Becoming A Digital Designer in the AEC Industry

The advent of the computer has changed how we design and build. It has created an infinite amount of potential for complexity and purpose in building design. Over the past few years, I have come to realize that architects and designers have no choice but to increase their digital understanding and skill sets if they want to stay relevant in tomorrow’s design age.

The software and tools that we are being introduced to will upgrade the expectations of our output exponentially in the coming years. We will be expected to deliver projects smarter, faster, and more uniquely than we ever have before and the only way to do this will be with a digital design influence. With this in mind, I’ve started the Becoming a Digital Designer series to catalog my growth as a digital designer in hopes that it might help fellow architects and designers navigate the complex and diverse world of digital design.

The core benefits that digital design brings to the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry include

  • increased efficiency in design and construction
  • informed and responsive design
  • creative freedom to express complex form, pattern, and texture

Although there are many firms and professional independents that are boldly experimenting and developing with these emerging ideas, the full potential of this has not yet been realized in the larger industry. In the coming years, we will see a phasing out of traditional methods and an influx of digital methods from the next generation of designers who have a much deeper understanding of digital processes.

What do I mean by digital design?

In the AEC industry, there are many different ways to organize this idea. Below is a good start to understanding some of the different aspects that digital methods bring to the process.

  • Visualization: how we tell our story and sell our designs
    • 2D Media, Rendering, Virtual/Augmented/Mixed realities, Video/Animation, Web/Application Development, Augmented sketching
  • BIM (building information systems)/ 3Dmodeling:: how we document and analyze our buildings
  • Software/add-ins: How we understand our buildings
    • Tools that have been developed to optimize, inform and enhance the existing software to provide unique and specific solutions for project needs.
  • Data capture and analysis: how we inform our designs
  • Computational design: how we add complexity and precision to our designs
  • Fabrication: how we build our designs
  • Electrical/ Hardware engineering (sensor/connected buildings) : how we connect our designs

Simply put, digital design is using the computer to aid and inform the design and construction process. This translates to a variety of methods during the building process from project capture to design development to construction. Below, the diagram illustrates where certain processes may come into play throughout the project.

project timeline

Most of these digital services utilize new and different skill sets that step beyond traditional architectural knowledge. This will require most professionals to seek training and/or continuing education to attain these new skillsets in order to provide adequate processes and designs. In order to take full advantage of these services, we need to embed experts with these skillsets onto our project teams and get them to knowingly train people on the job. Without this, all the knowledge lives with a few key people and the projects suffer.

I’m not saying everyone has to learn everything; just that the more we learn the better everything gets.

The path to becoming a comprehensive digital designer is quite overwhelming for a beginner due to the many seemingly unrelated subjects; however, if taken one step at a time, the knowledge will develop to a level where the designer feels comfortable using diverse digital design methods at all stages of building design and construction. The hardest part is starting.