IFE member test-driving the VR setup on campus.
VR for Architecture: Breathing Life into the Masterplan for IFE at Kjeller
Masterplanning in architecture can be a daunting task given the complexity of today’s modern cities. Grape Architects, an Oslo-based multi-disciplinary practice was given the task to help the IFE (Institutt for Energiteknikk) develop a “Research & Innovation District” in the community of Kjeller, an area just north of Lillistrøm in Norway.
IFE’s goal is to become “..the Nordic region’s most attractive research park for renewable energy, petroleum, nuclear medicine and digital systems by offering world-class research infrastructure” states Siw-Hege Gundersen, IFE’s Chief Technology & Real-Estate Officer responsible for the development of this vision. Since 2016, Isabel Ruiz Lopez and the team at Grape have been developing the masterplan for their vision however, they have been challenged with many obstacles from removing the nuclear business and clearing the security zones for development, maintaining high ambitions from an extremely complex logistical process, and moreover, promising an attractive, innovative, and sustainable goal as part of the Masterplan vision. Thankfully, the evolution of VR & AR technologies broke through the complexities and shined light onto their vision.
A Natural Convergence
It was neither coincidence nor luck, but rather, two parallel groups working simultaneously in which led to a natural connection as a result of a converging technology. IFE’s Virtual and Augmented Reality division headed by Michael Louka focusses on digital simulations and seeks to find novel ways of linking real-world assets in the virtual space whereby simulations in VR can help them to validate their design proposals for industries in the energy sector such as oil & gas, wind, to cancer research and medicine. In parallel, Grape’s VR-Zone which is deliberately setup in front of their main entrance, had already established a regular flow of clients, consultants, and staff – all of whom met regularly to discuss and iterate on their projects.
Thus, both Grape and IFE were already engaged in a sort of digital twinning of 3D assets in order to facilitate their design proposals. So naturally after a few short emails between the two, Peter Christopher Bach and Mikel Salazar from IFE’s VR team were onboard to collaborate on the Research & Innovation District VR model. Their visit to Oslo gave them the opportunity to test the Varjo Aero headset – a test which took them only a few minutes to positively comment on the device’s clarity and high-resolution output. Given that they have been using a wide range of VR headsets within their departments 25-year history, it was decided that Aero would be the obvious component for the VR experience as part of IFE’s Internal User Meeting Event – a two-day exhibition for employees and guests to discuss and digest the architectural masterplan proposal.
Peter Christopher Bach (right), Olaf (middle), and Mikael Salzer (left) at the Grape office in Oslo testing the VR model.
Marte Nyhus from Grape test-driving the IFE VR Masterplan model using the Varjo Aero.
Large Scale Challenge
Grape’s Masterplan includes roughly a dozen new buildings in which 82,000m2 of new floor area is added to its existing 56,000m2 of its facilities more than doubling its capacity. IFE is arguably Norway’s leading research Institute for renewable energy, oil and gas industries, and cancer medicine apart from almost a hundred other divisions in its large institutional framework. Their aim is to create the most attractive research park in the Nordic region.
The vision of the Research & Innovation District is not only for researchers but also for students, foreign workers, and of course local citizens to live, work, and study there. They see this area as a collective technology park, full of innovation and sustaining a high-level of knowledge a diversity.
Architectonic elements such as plaza’s, sidewalks, and roads mingle with each other blurring the boundaries between pedestrian paths, cyclists, and vehicular traffic with a touch of Sci-Fi – imagine autonomous robots just going about doing their business.
IFE’s Virtual and Augmented Reality division is focused on the simulation of these aspects and seek novel ways of linking flows to their datasets and research via digital virtualization. In relation to their involvement in simulating models for various energy industries for safety-critical requirements, modeling the architectural and urban requirements involve a very similar approach – they both require the use of VR and AR technology via a parallel digital twin model. It is only then that users can validate designs based on trials within the VR/AR environments.
Collaboration & Workflow
The collaboration began with many rounds of trial-and-error from heavy 3D file-exchange issues to unsupported hardware and software issues. Central to any successful 3D collaboration work is the production pipeline, something which the Hollywood Film Industry knows very well however sadly, the architectural and scientific world seem to never truly catch up and learn from! Most architectural practices in Norway predominately use Revit as a foundational tool simply because it incorporates BIM – Building Information Modeling whereby every 3D object is semantically tagged and parameterized in the hope to improve the building processes. IFE on the other hand, writes their own software – some of which are commercial products like 3D Float® and ProcSee®. They operate a high-level of research and their skills lead them to investigate and develop their own software based various industries outside of architecture like oil & gas, nuclear energy, and medicine. Luckily, IFE established Unreal Engine as a foundation for their VR work – a widely used VR capable software not only used in the film industry but also in gaming and independent studios to individual 3D enthusiasts. The challenge from both sides was the intermediate step of preserving 3D assets, meta-data and libraries accumulated along the way. The solution was through the real-time renderer TwinMotion – coincidentally made by the same creators of Unreal Engine – Epic Games. Thanks to the DataSmith plug-ins, both Grape and IFE found a way to run parallel models as they desired for their own use cases.
The innate problem for architects who use BIM are required to use the semantics of defining each 3D element in standardized categories with the aim to preserve all the entities that hold a stake in their project – these can be from accountants that are only concerned with monetary budgets, regulators that only care about the property boundaries, and clients that only want maximum profit for a minimum. Thus, the role of the architect is to ensure that the balance between all entities is carefully thought through in a way that drives the design forward. Although it’s easy to literally sync within the BIM world, it unfortunately is the opposite once you step outside of it! For Grape, converting their IFE Masterplan 3D model resulted in many failed attempts thus leading to a somewhat negative memo from Mikael Salazar outlining the fact that Grape’s BIM file conversions had more bits of data for decorative architectural elements (like doorframes and handrails) than actual useful building information! In other words, Grape had a lot of unnecessary 3D geometry that were not even useable nor relevant for IFE. Fortunately, both parties agreed to crunch through the export trials again in order to produce an acceptable working model. This ultimately lead Grape to utilize Rhino 3D as it natively supports the majority of file types and can also prove to be a viable visualization platform.
Moreover, IFE’s goal is to apply their experience gained from previous development of 3D editors in nuclear facilities to create new software solutions for architects in return. For them, it’s not so much about visualization nor BIM data itself, but it’s about enabling the data to literally influence the simulated 3D environment in a collaborative XR platform for their users. This in turn can give value back to stakeholders, regulators, and find compelling reasons for the stake holders to test-drive both the architecture and the inner workings of the facilities before it is built in the real physical world. Such depth can give any project a better sense of value and help define a viable future without much cost or disruption.
The User Meeting Event
The event was in planning for well over half-a-year and Grape knew that they had to find a way to convince senior IFE staff and partners that the Masterplan is right for them! Grape knew that they had to somehow reflect the vibrancy of IFE’s forward-thinking mindset. Aside from the traditional 2D drawings and physical models, it was decided that a VR presentation can give the veteran employees a fresh new view.
They also would naturally be able to find their way around the campus as they had been working at those facilities for decades and know the area inside out. Thus, the final link in the setup would be the Varjo Aero headset and the visual fidelity of the VR architecture model – both needed to capture their hearts. On March 22nd and 23rd 2023, Grape presented the Research & Innovation District Masterplan to an audience that were not only convinced about the new buildings but seemingly felt the desire to port themselves back into VR just to take another tour! Their experience solidified their optimism and warmed their hearts.
Nils Morten Huseby, Siw-Hege Gundersen, and other IFE administrators discussing over the physical scale model of the Research & Innovation District masterplan.
The architecture VR Setup at IFE Kjeller during the User Meeting Event where a giant 4x2m industrial LED screen was setup to facilitate the VR user’s view for everyone to see.
Grape’s Isabel Lopez in action during the User Meeting Event.
The Physical Result of the Virtual
As part of the IFE Event, each staff member received a book where all of the 3D views used were also QR-coded giving the reader an opportunity to teleport themselves into the vision. The beauty of this technique was that it gave everyone instant accessibility via mobile device without the hassle of larger peripherals. This ultimately leads us one step closer as we now have enough resolution with modern-day technology that everyone literally has in their pocket! In fact, the same QR-codes were also pinned in their precise locations on-site via permanent signage for IFE staff members to immerse in the current existing versus the new “overlay” of what is potentially coming. Both Grape and IFE seek to fulfill the creation of a community in which the future generations can further push the envelope for research and technology.