Is virtual reality the way forward for smart home design?

Sometimes it's easier to show than explain, particularly when it comes to the smart home. What we do as custom installers isn't always that clear to an end user – and homeowners often struggle to see the value that a smart home platform can bring.

Live technology demonstrations can help clients visualise a smart home, as can 3D renders or video flythroughs. These approaches are not cheap, however, and won't always fully outline how a solution will work in real life.

Virtual reality (VR) is potentially a cost-effective way to resolve this. A VR experience can recreate a smart home in a headset, allowing customers to roam around an intelligent environment and see exactly how smart technology can improve their home. A virtual smart home could be as simple as a room showing a variety of technology, or it could encompass a whole-house build.

Andrew Lucas Southern Villa exterior shot of home and swimming pool

“Rather than having to explain your designs through equipment lists and written proposals, what if clients could explore their smart home or cinema room as if it were already built?” asks Hamza Abbas, head of business development at architectural VR specialists Andrew Lucas Studios. “That is the beauty of VR for this type of application – it makes you feel as if you are physically present within a space.”

This sense of presence is a key advantage of VR over other visualisation platforms. Users come away with a more accurate sense of the scale and scope of a project, and can grasp technical details that might not be particularly clear from a 2D drawing or a written brief.

How VR designs are created

The starting point for most VR experiences is a 3D model of the space, usually created from plans or drawings made using a visualisation program such as 3ds Max or Revit. After importing this into a bespoke VR editing platform, a VR design studio will tweak the design to add realistic colours, furnishing, equipment and details.

Following this, live environmental effects such as realistic lighting conditions, audio sources and interaction points can all be added. These interaction points allow users to inspect elements including in-wall speakers, lift-mounted screens or even motorised shades, which might not be visible once installed.

By placing technology in context, users can understand instinctively how everything will work together once completed. It's not only smart home installers that could benefit – technology manufacturers are also embracing VR.

Among the companies that have been quick to adopt VR is Schneider Electric. Having placed several of its systems into a residential scenario in VR, Schneider Electric can now quickly show customers how its home technology products can work in tandem in a residential environment. As well as making easier to explain the inner workings of their products, VR increases the opportunities for Schneider Electric to upsell other solutions, as they are able to use it to promote more than one product simultaneously.

How VR is being used in residential design

While VR might initially seem to be more of a luxury than a critical design tool, other professions in the design and construction industry have been quick to embrace its potential for commercial application. A number of architects and property developers in the UK and further afield are using VR, not just to present ideas to clients, but as a fundamental part of the design process.

360 image of Andrew Lucas Home Cinema plan

living room with home cinema in Andrew Lucas Studios Virtual Smart Home

London-based architectural practice Charlton Brown is among those who use VR extensively for their residential projects. In a recent build in Hampstead, London, VR was used by the architect to test how various finishes and fixtures would look throughout the house before the final design was presented to the client. Even more useful for the architect was the ability to show a hallway both with, and without, a glass flooring panel. This meant that the client could see exactly how this design element would change the amount of light that entered the floor below, allowing the client to make an informed choice on whether they wanted this feature included in the final build.

"By having a smart home built in VR first, a designer can judge the user experience of their specification before the client sees it, allowing them to iron out any unforeseen flaws in the system ahead of the installer seeking sign-off.”

“This collaborative approach could also be useful to smart home designers," suggests VR designer Tomek Florczak. "By having a smart home built in VR first, a designer would be able to judge the user experience of their specification before the client sees it, which would allow them to iron out any unforeseen flaws in the system ahead of the installer seeking project sign-off. If costly mistakes could be spotted earlier in the process, this would save smart home installers a lot of time and their clients a lot of money."

The different types of VR

There are a few different ways to share a VR experience with a client, depending on the hardware used. The quality of the build – and the detail and interactivity that can be shown – will depend on whether a phone-based or a computer-based headset is used.

side view of HTC Vive VR headset

A computer-based headset, such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, offers a more realistic experience. As well as higher graphics specs, both headsets can display dynamic lighting effects and real-time environmental interaction. Most importantly, users can roam a property in its entirety, letting them see it from every angle. Accurate time, weather and seasonal changes can also be incorporated, showing how the smart home will adapt based on a number of external factors.

There is a caveat to this: these headsets are not cheap to buy and need to run on a gaming-level PC, which pushes the price up further. While newer headsets such as the Windows-based Samsung Odyssey are able to run on a lower-spec machine, an optimum set-up will come at a cost.

A phone-based headset – such as the Google Daydream or Samsung Gear – gives the user greater flexibility than a computer-based model. Since loading these experiences is as simple as opening a URL on a phone’s internet browser, a client is able access their project from anywhere in the world. As these headsets are based on smartphones rather than computers, the cost is reduced considerably compared to a premium VR set-up.

samsung gear VR headset on display at show

Yet what a phone-based VR experience offers in accessibility, it loses in functionality. The reduced processing power of this type of headset means it cannot offer the same amount of interactivity or accuracy as a premium VR system. What's more, the user is usually limited to a few specific viewpoints, rather than being permitted to explore it freely.

There is a third option beginning to emerge: an untethered headset which doesn’t need either a computer or smartphone to be able to run VR. The first of these is likely to be the Oculus Go, which launches in 2018. However, these headsets will still offer reduced image quality and functionality in return for more flexibility for the user.

A memorable experience

VR has the potential to be a great tool for helping clients who might not technically minded to quickly understand exactly what is being proposed. The sense of being present within a design, rather than simply viewing it, means that a client can connect with a project on a more emotional level than they would otherwise be able to.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of a VR design is that it is a memorable experience. Users that can visit their smart home in VR will often be enthused by this experience and will want to share it with others. As so much business in the smart home trade relies on word of mouth, VR could be the perfect way to market your company and your services organically.

Ben McCabe is the editorial and marketing lead at smart home installer Andrew Lucas London and at Andrew Lucas Studios, a virtual reality consultancy and the developer of a VR platform for creative, commercial and residential projects.