Pulse Design Group pioneers virtual reality in healthcare architecture

MetroWireMedia toured Pulse Design Group's virtual reality lab this week to try it out for ourselves.

The new and exciting industry of virtual reality is proving to hold tremendous potential for the future of entertainment, design, and the unthinkable. Here in Kansas City, a local architecture firm is pioneering the technology, becoming the first business in the area to take the tool to new heights.

For the past four years, Pulse Design Group has been researching the field of 3D virtual reality simulation systems. Through extensive testing, Pulse has assembled a team of experts who have created the most advanced virtual reality technology in Kansas City.

So what's the benefit of taking on such a complex, rapidly evolving technology in its infancy?

Steve Biegun, digital design manager, says that over any other advantage, the firm saw the ability to use virtual reality as a tool for improving communication between the design team and the end user. He says that while an architect can easily visualize what a 2D architectural blueprint will become, the average client cannot. But by using VR to mock up a design, those who ultimately use the space can see a realistic version far in advance. They can even walk from room to room, see intricate details and finishes, and make notes to change certain elements of the design.

Once Principal Rick Embers saw the capability to improve enhancement and overall client satisfaction, he set out to build a two-person team that would be entirely devoted to exploring and learning the ins and outs of virtual reality. The duo, consisting of Biegun and Callum Vierthaler, has since built two special computers and worked with a number of iterations of the wearable tech.

“When we first got going, it was like looking through a screen door," Vierthaler said. "You could really see the potential for the technology, but as with most technologies in their infancy, you could tell there was a really long way to go."

Pictured: The University of Kansas Hospital's Indian Creek Campus, currently under construction at 435 and Nall.

In its early stages, the technology literally made users sick. According to Embers, one in three people who tried VR would become nauseous, returning to their office to lie on the floor for the rest of the day.

In its short few years of research, Pulse has paid attention as the technology has evolved, and has chased the latest equipment. The team's first foray into VR was via a first generation Oculus DK1 headset, the first of its kind in Kansas City. The team has also used the Oculus DK2, Oculus Rift (consumer version), and Samsung Gear VR. Today, the team uses the HTC Vive, a headset offering stunning visual details that also allows for the user to walk around the room as they are tracked by sensors. Vierthaler has also built a second, more powerful computer since then, which he recently used to give a virtual reality presentation to the American Institute of Architects in Philadelphia.

The tech is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a few short years ago. But as the local virtual reality pioneers, Pulse feels the pressure to effectively communicate and demonstrate its possibilities.

“We are trying to give everyone that first experience, not just so they will use it with us, but if you have a bad experience, you’re never going to use it again,” Vierthaler said.

Embers echoed that sense of responsibility.

“We’ve noticed that if you don’t capture (users) early on, they take off the headset and think that virtual reality is just 'okay,'" Embers said. "We really have to make that first impression stick so they understand what we’re doing here."

Thankfully, those days of nausea are no more. Today, surgeons and healthcare professionals step into Pulse's virtual reality lab, don a headset, and are transported to their yet-to-be-built operating room. From there, the surgeon can act and move about as if he's actually performing a surgery, moving lights, chairs, and equipment around until he finds the optimal arrangement.

The goal of the virtual design lab, Biegun says, is to allow designers and developers to see and experience a building in its design phase before it's built; That way, there is no room for error.

“It has become a design tool as well as a form of communication," Biegun goes on. "There are no surprises because it’s realistic and because we’re using the real models. It's not just accurate -- it’s precise. We can use the exact materials and the exact objects so there’s no room for miscommunication."

Embers is hopeful that this technology will one day eliminate the need for physical mock ups altogether. He predicts that augmented reality -- the same technology used in PokemonGo -- will be widely used in the future, as well. As the technology allows designers to visualize and express their work in such a realistic manner, he says, it opens up the potential for conveying ideas and designs in a whole new way.

“We can mock up things you can’t physically produce. If you were an artist and you were trying to sell a million dollar piece of artwork to hang in IBM, how are you supposed to convince them when all you have are 2D designs?" Embers said. "There is nothing like standing in a space and looking up and seeing it, and with VR we can do that."

As with every technological advancement, virtual reality is constantly changing and evolving. With new updates to the industry emerging almost daily, Pulse has to stay abreast of the latest happenings in order to continue to provide the best experience possible. Pulse is hopeful that the tech will soon allow virtual reality to become a shared experience.

“Imagine: My client is across the country. They put on their headset and I put on my headset, and we walk through the space together and make design decisions together,” said Embers.

Pulse Design Group is putting its expertise to work in academia through a recently announced partnership with the KU Center for Design Research. Pulse will team up with KU to develop a virtual reality laboratory and curricula. In a newly created program that launches this fall, architecture and industrial design students will learn how to develop buildings and create unique products using virtual reality.

Curious to experience the virtual reality lab for yourself? Pulse Design Group welcomes tourists. Find more information on the firm's website.