Health Matters: Designing with Virtual Reality

Ryan Spiering


Virtual reality (VR) design tools have been growing in importance by bringing new levels of reality to the design process. For designers and healthcare facility owners, VR offers an immersive spatial experience of work-in-progress. Facility owners, especially, can experience space planning in ways not possible with 2D drawings, giving them more information in decision-making.


Unlike 2D design and presentation tools, VR offers stereoscopic 3D functions that replicate our binocular vision to create perceptions of depth, scale, and distance. A typical VR headset has a screen to display an image, motion-tracking system to capture users' head movements, and a processor to update information based on movement. Several popular options include:

Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted display (HMD) that connects to a PC or laptop, has a built-in HD screen, uses a camera to track users head movements, and employs wide-angle magnifying lenses to create a larger field of view. With the Oculus Rift, users can view a variety of experiences powered by a desktop computer and multiple software applications. A key component is positional tracking, in which a camera pointed at the headset tracks movement and updates information to the VR model. This allows a user to lean forward, turn side to side, or stand to explore a virtual space.

Google Cardboard
This inexpensive, head-mounted display is growing in popularity. The user creates the headset with a flat piece of cardboard folded to form a base. Two magnifying lenses enlarge the screen and two small magnets create a simple click button. The headset is complete with a smartphone that acts as the screen and onboard computer. Various smartphone apps split the screen into separate images for each eye and access the phone's accelerometer to respond to a user's head movement. All of this combines to create a 360-degree virtual environment for the user to explore.

Design Labs
While software companies generally have led VR development, architects and universities have advanced the technology, as well. For instance, the University of Minnesota's Virtual Reality Design Lab (VRDL), launched in 2012 in partnership with the College of Design and Computer Science & Engineering, offers a multi-user experience within a large-scale virtual environment. Located in the courtyard of the College of Design's Rapson Hall, the VRDL uses a series of ceiling-mounted cameras with 1-to-1 positional tracking to monitor multiple users equipped with custom-designed Perception headsets. Designers and facility owners can then assess different user reactions to the same proposed design and better understand how groups of people experience a space.


For the Medical College of Wisconsin's Moorland Reserve Emergency Department addition in New Berlin, Wisconsin, planners worked with nurses and ER staff to review proposed layouts using an Oculus Rift. A nurse's comments regarding visibility across the unit led to the replacement of a sheetrock partition with glass openings in the medication and nourishment rooms. This change opened views to the entire corridor, increasing visibility of four extra patient rooms from each nurse's station. Using traditional design tools, the nurse may not have noticed how the partition blocked views until after the unit was complete. Because it was early in the design process, the changes were made cost-effectively.

In another instance at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton, architects on site used cell phones to capture 360-degree images to send to the main design office during construction. Using a VR headset, design team members noticed errors in a material application, which they then relayed to the on-site architects. Many of the image details would have been difficult to identify using traditional still photography, yet virtual reality enabled team members to see the space in more vivid detail.

Finally at Fairview Southdale Hospital Emergency Department expansion in Edina, Minnesota, the design team led a virtual walkthrough of the space prior to construction. Stakeholders tested the new space using the University of Minnesota's VRDL system, assessing caregivers' sightlines to treatment spaces and wayfinding for patients. The team made several enhancements to the flow and function as a result of the virtual reality experience. 


As a planning, design and presentation tool, virtual reality offers solutions to complex design challenges, allowing designers and facility owners to experience spatial solutions and assess design success. For designers who have led advances in technology--from pen-and-paper drawing to computer aided design and drafting (CADD), building information modeling (BIM), and 3D flythrough--virtual reality represents the on-going evolution in the design process. For healthcare facility owners, virtual reality offers an immersive experience that enables them to better understand spatial concepts and make informed decisions that improve design outcomes.

Topics: Technology