Project leader Paul Richens, director of the University’s Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies, said “The best way to learn about a building is to run around in it, and in a computer game that’s just what you do.”

The BBC’s Web site reports that the grisly blow-em-away computer game Quake II has been modified to allow architects’ clients to “run around” virtual buildings—without the guns and monsters. The idea is to let the people who will use a building see and comment on the arrangement of space within it, and learn how it will function.

The concept was devised by researchers at Cambridge University as part of a project on electronic communication between buildings’ architects and their eventual users. Project leader Paul Richens, director of the University’s Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies, said “The best way to learn about a building is to run around in it, and in a computer game that’s just what you do.”

“It’s very difficult for people to read architectural plans,” Richens said. “By making a computer game out of the building they can see much better what they are getting.” The point of Quake, though, is to go around blasting things with a collection of fearsome weaponry. “We had to take the guns out—the head of the department didn’t like that at all,” Richens commented.

The building the University put into the game is a shared computer research and teaching laboratory that Cambridge and Microsoft are building on the new science and technology site in West Cambridge. Initially they put only the basic structure of the building into the game, which looked more or less like the real thing does, halfway through construction. Having found that the principle worked, they put in all of the building—except that at that stage the architect had not decided what its finishes would be so it had Quake’s “grungy” textures.

Richens revealed that the elevators were a bit dangerous because “if you got in while it was upstairs, it came down and hit you on the head, and you died. And we had to spend a lot of time putting handrails on all the landings because people kept falling off,” he added.

Quake’s code is such that both the scenery and the 3D animated characters are replaceable. It means the architect in London, Geoff Cohen of RMJM, can take the sponsor, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, in Seattle, on a virtual tour of the building while being watched by anyone who cares to join in. Tours of this type could now also be done with other buildings. The chief advantage to insering the drawings into an existing game is cost. Established architectural virtual reality modeling systems tend to be very expensive. “We get slightly better results using a $50 game running on a $250 graphics card. So it’s extremely low-cost virtual reality,” Richens said.

Japan’s Institute for Architects is interested and the Martin Centre has worked with a Japanese company which wants to be able to load something similar into the new Playstation. The project has had about $135,000 in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, with a similar amount from Microsoft.