What The Design & Building Industry Can Learn From Video Game Designers

The design and building industry can learn from video game designers, who create immersive, realistic, and measurable experiences that capture users’ hearts and minds.

The design and building industry can learn from video game designers, who create immersive, realistic, and measurable experiences that capture users’ hearts and minds.

According to gaming expert Jane McGonigal, “Gaming is productive. It produces positive emotion, stronger social relationships, a sense of accomplishment and, for players who are part of a game community, a chance to build a sense of purpose.”

The building industry would do well to understand her statement. Video game designers are creating digital worlds that are immersive, realistic, and measurable, allowing for social and interactive experiences among users. As designers, engineers, and contractors, we are trying to create a similar digital representation of the built environment, but we have yet to create an immersive and social experience on the level of today’s video games. 

Generally speaking, designers in the A/E/C industry use modeling software to create a physically accurate model, while engineers simulate energy consumption and lighting scenarios using another software program. Contractors use additional software to predict constructability and coordination. Simulations and calculations are created using different tools. The way clients and building users interact with a digital model is rarely considered. Meanwhile, the gaming industry is accomplishing similar scales and scopes of work within a single gaming engine.

While building information modeling and the software that supports it have come a long way in the past five years, these innovations still have far to go to answer the challenge of McGonigal’s statement. As an industry, we have failed to develop a social community for building users that is immersive and engaging.

As the future of design quickly becomes more social in nature, the design and construction communities should look to merge the advanced virtual-reality technologies of today’s gaming engines with building information modeling to create the most immersive, interactive BIM environments possible.

Gaming and BIM: An Evolution

Video games first captured our collective attention in the early 1970s. Early renditions were designed around crude graphics and featured basic controls with which players could interact. The 1980s saw the birth of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and video games evolved into a $900 million industry. By the 1990s, a transformation from flat, pixelated images to 3-D graphics unleashed a massive wave of innovation in game design and console hardware. Each year welcomed releases of new, improved consoles with better processing ability and games that exploited the new capabilities of the hardware upgrades. During this time, the first engaging simulation games were created, taking full advantage of the design and construction communities’ collective experience.

While video games were innovating and creating new, exciting ways to play and engage people, the building industry was undergoing its own technology evolution. In the early 1980s, computer-aided drafting started to take hold in architecture and engineering offices around the world. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the ability to model 3-D shapes was introduced. Some of those modeling technologies crossed over into video game design.

At the turn of the century, the groundwork for the consoles of today was being laid. The release of systems such as Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and the Nintendo GameCube brought the world 32- and 64-bit computing power, and games became even more realistic and immersive. Suddenly games could incorporate the world environment to affect the story and the game play. During this period of innovation, gaming engines made tremendous progress toward creating more realistic environments.

At the same time, the widespread use and adoption of software that could interact with a BIM process also started to take hold in the architecture and engineering industry. External pressures such as the creation of the LEED rating system, globalization, and the dramatic acceleration of computer hardware innovation fostered the rapid adoption of BIM processes and software.

Today the current crop of video game consoles and the video games created for them are pushing the boundaries of technology with amazing capabilities both in their hardware and the ways that players interact with games. BIM software, while making impressive strides among integrated design and construction teams, has fallen short when it comes to integrating these technologies with non-building industry professionals, including owners. The existing capabilities that BIM provides offer a strong foundation for creating environments, but as an industry we must take this technology to the next level to allow for interaction within those environments.

BIM Workflows

One of the early promises of BIM was that it would enable designs to simulate the environment in which a building would exist so designers could see how it would behave. To this day, this is as close to prototyping that the building industry has come. The typical types of simulations used to test the digital prototype’s performance are based on energy, lighting, the flow of fluids within and outside of the building, and the building’s appearance. Using models created with BIM software can provide these simulations.

A variety of programs are used to accomplish these simulations in our firm. We create building models using Autodesk’s Revit program. All of the physical data resides in these files, and all architectural elements and building systems information are modeled there. Most visualization is accomplished within Revit, including static renderings and some smaller video walk-throughs. For energy modeling, we use a combination of Autodesk’s Green Building Studio and Ecotect software as well as eQuest electronic work order management software. Autodesk’s Ecotect and 3DS Max Design are used for daylighting calculations and some light calculations, whereas Revit and Autodesk’s Navisworks simulate construction, coordination, and constructability. Most of these simulations require an export from the Revit program to another file format. These simulations take considerable time and effort to accomplish but are still much faster and more effective than workflows used in the past.

Video games accomplish many similar simulations and they manage most of them on the fly. When video game designers create environments, the physics engines that are used in the gaming engines are able to render materials with the proper lighting conditions, all in real-time. Weather and other external factors that could impact those environments are taken into account. The beauty of those simulations is that they occur in the same program, at the same time, and take into account all factors simultaneously.

Immersive Environments

Imagine having the ability to create a building model that could be explored, interacted with, and modified. Users could move furniture, turn lights on and off, and hear the different sounds within that space. Video games already have such realistic visual environments that mentally transport users to that world. There are even games that employ acoustic reproduction to immerse players more deeply into the surrounding landscape. Transferring these existing capabilities from virtual gaming realities to the design and construction environment would allow for greater buy-in from the building’s users, who could experience their space before it was built.

Another aspect of immersive environments mastered by game developers is the incorporation of metrics. Having the ability to measure and record what is happening in real time is a feature of most video game engines. The sandbox nature of some popular video games requires that calculations on the environment be continuously run to account for all of the changes. This approach requires complex calculations about lighting conditions and visual accuracy as well as actual physics of materials. If we applied this capability to BIM environments, users could observe how buildings and landscape are affected by everything from a structural fire to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tornado.

The ability to move through a visually and acoustically rich environment is only part of the equation. Users also need to have information about the different objects at hand within the building. VIMTrek by SmartBIM uses a gaming engine to bring Revit models into their software and lets users navigate models and select various objects within the model to query their properties.

The video game environment goes beyond immersing a single user into the digital environment. Simulations exist that predict how groups of people are likely to respond to an environment. The Anvil and AnvilNet gaming engines that Ubisoft developed can populate a Renaissance city in Italy with citizens. It then uses crowd techniques to show how a day in the city might look. It is amazing because factors like weather, time of year, and activities of others in the crowd all impact how each citizen behaves at any given time. The ability to predict and simulate how crowds move through buildings both in the interior and exterior is invaluable as a design validation tool. It also helps to create a more immersive environment for a single user.

True Interaction

If BIM is to fulfill the promise of a digital representation of the built environment, then the way that users engage the models must fundamentally change. Currently, it is possible to use basic navigation in native BIM software or a model view to navigate through an environment. It requires a little education and training but can be accomplished by a person who has some computer skills. The main controllers in that exchange are a mouse and keyboard. This is not a bad way to navigate for those of us who use modeling software every day, but it can be a distraction for people who don’t.

This is why the video game industry has spent millions of dollars developing controllers that seamlessly interact with their games. Today’s digital controllers allow for more environmental interaction by introducing vibration to the player. These innovative controllers came on the market recently. It is through these devices that the merger of video games and BIM can become the future of our industry.

Nintendo’s Wii gaming system, which makes use of a non-traditional motion-sensing wireless controller, has opened the door to a broader demographic of users. This new form of player interaction was the first controller and game system to take advantage of a player’s movement and body position. It was a much more natural and intuitive form of control that enabled virtually everyone to play video games.

A software tool kit released for Windows-based machines enables users to apply the Wii’s wireless controller functionality on their personal computers. When I installed this software on my laptop, I was able to use it to run Autodesk’s Design Review, taking a Revit model and creating a DWF file. By loading that DWF file into Design Review, I was able to navigate the Revit model using gestures and controller movement. I showed the technology to peers who had never used 3-D modeling software, and they were almost instantly able to grasp the controls and learn how to navigate.

On Nov. 4, 2010, the most innovative piece of video game equipment ever created was introduced. The Kinect, from Microsoft, was released on the Xbox 360 platform and was the first face-recognition, voice-recognition, gesture-based controller ever to hit the market. This device, which contains three different cameras, enables players to become their own controllers. Players stand in front of their televisions and walk, run, jump, throw, and dance to make their on-screen avatar move within video games. Through facial and physical recognition, the system recognizes which player is standing in front of the Kinect sensor and can even handle two players simultaneously. The Kinect’s user interface has opened the world of video games to everyone.

The release of a new software development kit for Windows PCs has created the possibility for the Kinect to be used to navigate building environments. This development kit is potentially the catalyst of change for building environment interaction. It is a portable solution that delivers high-definition visual and acoustic simulation. It accounts for changing variables in the digital environment as well as in the real world.


Game Changer

The capacity exists for us to create a design and enable people to virtually inhabit a building before it’s constructed. If we can channel and use gaming technologies properly, we can collect data about behaviors, space usage, where people spend the most time, what excites people, and ultimately, what people would change. This capability is essentially the promise of evidence-based design: measuring a prototype well before the building ever breaks ground.

The ability to use a gaming engine to view a model is just the beginning of our industry democratizing the digital representation of designs to users. It lets them experience, affect, and ultimately help shape the built environment. Once we achieve this as an industry, the possibilities are endless. Maybe one day not far in the future, a designer will have the ability to “live” in the environment as he or she designs it. Once we successfully merge the immersive environments and simulations of the gaming world with existing BIM technologies, there’s no denying it is destined to be a game changer.

John Aaron Phillips is director of technology and BIM services for SHP Leading Design, where he is an associate. The firm is headquartered in Cincinnati.