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StartingBlock

Scott Resnick, the man in the beard and glasses shown on the left, speaks before the Plan Commission on Monday night, as American Family Insurance construction project consultant Alex King explores a virtual reality simulation using an Oculus Rift headset. 

Moments before the city's Plan Commission delivered the final municipal vote needed to greenlight a proposed center for entrepreneurship on Monday night, history was made. Or so claimed the leader of of the newly approved StartingBlock project, anyway.

In a four-minute presentation to the commission at City Hall, former alderman and current executive director of StartingBlock Scott Resnick showed off a new visual representation of the Spark, the eight-story American Family Insurance building that will house the entrepreneurial hub.

This rendering, however, was not a run-of-the-mill architectural illustration. Instead, it was a computer-generated three-dimensional model in virtual reality.

According to Resnick, it marked the first time that anyone had ever used virtual reality before a zoning commission before in the U.S.

"It's a tool to actually visualize what this building would look like in a post-construction world, but also to showcase the technologies that are being pioneered in Madison," said Resnick.

Arch Virtual, a virtual reality architecture firm based in Madison, designed the 3D environment for StartingBlock.

As Resnick spoke, American Family Insurance construction project consultant Alex King stood next to him wearing an Oculus Rift, a large ski goggle-like device used for experiencing computer-generated environments. The headset immersed King in a three-dimensional world in which the Spark loomed over the Capitol East Corridor.

The computer running the simulation also displayed everything King could see on a projector screen behind the dais. The first-person view, which wobbled about on the screen as King craned his neck to look about the virtual world, displayed a view of the glass and terra cotta facade as seen from across East Washington Avenue.

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Plan Commission members look on as StartingBlock Executive Director Scott Resnick talks them through a virtual reality tour of the planned "Spark" building.

"He can see the building as if he were actually on East Washington," explained Resnick to commission members. "What you don't hear, is there's actually the sound of cars passing by through this demo."

The display also showed off environments showing off a ground-level plaza area, and a rooftop terrace with views of the lakes, the Capitol, and the Madison Gas & Electric power plant.

Commission members later voted to approve the Spark's conditional permit in a unanimous vote — the last piece of the puzzle needed for StartingBlock to move forward. Construction is set to begin in early 2017.

Jon Brouchoud, a co-founder of Arch Virtual, said that prior to the Monday night meeting, he and others involved in the project conducted "a general search" to see if anyone had given a virtual reality demonstration at a land use hearing before.

"As far as we're aware, it doesn't look like any ones has ever used virtual reality, or put on a headset, as part of this process," said Brouchoud.

"I'm just excited to be part of the start of this," he added. "It's good to just plant the seed, and show people what's possible."

The Capital Times could not find another example of a virtual reality demonstration given before a zoning committee, although there are records of such demonstrations happening at city council meetings.

At the end of the presentation, Resnick paused a moment for questions, or for requests for King to look at certain views of the simulated building. Commissioner Michael Rewey obliged.

"On the street view of East Wash, it looked like there was still only a five-foot sidewalk in front," said Rewey. "Is that really going to be the ultimate plan?"

The answer from an architect representing American Family Insurance was no.

The commission also approved a conditional use permit for the "Cosmos," the latest astronomy-themed building from Gebhardt Development, which will sit directly next to the Spark.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.