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Q&A: Jon Brouchoud is a pioneer in combining virtual reality with architecture
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Q&A: Jon Brouchoud is a pioneer in combining virtual reality with architecture

Jon Brouchard-Q and A-01-10192016111505

Jon Brouchoud visits Cap Times for a Q&A session on Oct 19, 2016 in Madison, WI. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Jon Brouchoud remembers the first time he tried on a virtual reality headset in 2013. After firing up the system and strapping the bulky ski goggle-like contraption around his head, he found himself in a old Tuscan villa.

He looked around and saw a crackling fireplace, torches on the walls and timber beams on the vaulted ceiling. He walked outside and saw a sweeping ocean vista and cottonwood wisps floating in the air.

It was at that moment that Brouchoud, an architectural designer, knew that virtual reality would be a central part of his life's work.

Since then, Brouchoud has become a pioneer of introducing VR into the world of architecture. His Madison firm Arch Virtual has rendered major construction projects around the world, ranging from the new Sacramento Kings basketball arena to luxury condominiums in India, giving clients the opportunity to experience firsthand what a finished project would look like.

The company doesn't limit itself to architecture: It has also simulated operating rooms for medical-training simulations, and mountain roads for "test-driving" unreleased Suzuki car models.

Brouchoud has also helped introduce VR technology to Madison through the creation of a virtual reality Meetup group.

It's all part of Brouchoud's underlying mission: He doesn't want to treat VR as a simple home-entertainment vehicle. He wants to use it to add value to society, to help clients create change both in Madison and around the world — whether that change be the construction of a new campus residential hall, or the implementation of a new way to teach people skills on the job.

You've said that virtual reality is fundamentally challenging the way we visualize or conceive architecture. What do you mean by that?

The way that we look at buildings now — visualizing buildings through blueprints or animations or illustrations — is just a tiny frame into the building. It really is not an effective way of understanding what a building will actually be like. That's why people that actually are investing millions of dollars into creating a new building often visit a construction site and are surprised when they see it the very first time. They didn't realize how high the ceilings were going to be or how high their office would be. And I think that's a shame.

I think it would be great for people to actually understand what they're getting when they're investing this substantial amount of financial and physical resources it takes to create a building. So virtual reality is really the only way at this point that you can put someone into the space in such a way that they feel like they're actually there.

It's kind of a cliche to say this, but I imagine that what you're doing is very disruptive in how we approach architectural design.

Building owners immediately appreciate and embrace the immediate value of it. There was never any question there. But across the board, many other industries had been a little bit more reluctant early on to adopt the technology. There was a lot of doubt about the quality of it. But then, as more and more people were exposed to the technology and actually put the headset on, they say they're converted by contact.

It's quite common now in construction and architecture. We've worked with many of the largest construction companies in the country on projects, and they return with additional projects, because they see the value of it, their clients see the value of it.

What about in job training simulations?

Second to architecture, that's the most common request that we get, for medical simulation. And I think that's very disruptive in that industry, for medical training and simulation.

We started off doing a lot of work with just understanding how an operating room works in terms of equipment placement and things like that. Now, we're getting more into simulating dissection and more specific activities that doctors and nurses engage in to give them the opportunity to rehearse and practice these things.

Am I right in thinking Arch Virtual is experimenting with augmented reality as well?

We are definitely experimenting with augmented reality.

How does that fit into the picture?

A lot of people draw this very clear distinction between augmented and virtual reality. I see them as on the same spectrum. It's the same technology, just different ends of the spectrum.

With most of the projects that we've worked on so far, with the exception of a few, the real-world site doesn't exist. It's a muddy hole in the ground. There's no reality there to augment yet. Augmented reality has a lot of value when you're augmenting something that exists — when you have some reality that benefits from being augmented.

Why did you create the VR Meetup group?

Virtual reality is something that you have to see to believe. And early on, there were so few people who had the headsets. It was one of those things where the more people that we could have trying on, the better off we would be and the more interest would be generated in it. It was purely a means of being able to expose as many people as we could to that technology, and then start talking about some of the issues and opportunities and projects that we're working on. And we found that the community was amazing straight out of the gate.

Have you encountered a lot of VR skepticism?

I think it's almost 100 percent exclusively a matter of being exposed to the right content. We've had people come in that were very clearly skeptics, that put on the headset, and they were like, 'OK, what do I do?' And very, 'I don't care.' Then I fire up the experience, and by the time they're done, they're almost moved to tears.

There were some people very early on that would experience motion sickness. The resolution of the early displays wasn't that great. And a lot of people saw those early displays, and thought, that's VR — that's what it looks like. And it's no good. But you've got to try the latest stuff. You've got to play the Oculus Rift.

Now, I'd wager I could convince just about anyone that this is something significant. Even the most skeptical people try it on now and are just completely blown away.

VR still feels kind of like a novelty to most people. Will VR eventually be a fixture in our lives, and if so, how long would it take for that to happen?

This week saw the advent of PlayStationVR. And a lot of people have PS4s, so adding that virtual reality headset is not much of a jump for them. So right there, there's a tremendous increase in the number of people who have VR in the home.

I think applications are going to come out that are going to be just absolutely mind-boggling applications. There's already some things coming out that you try and it's completely amazing.

One of the latest demos that came out with Oculus Touch, "Bullet Train" — people will try that out, and they're calling me the next day, saying, "I couldn't sleep last night, are you guys hiring? This is the most incredible thing I've seen in my life."

It flips a switch in their mind when they see that, and they're just completely engrossed in it. As those people start to figure out the development process, and they get in there and dig in and start building things, we're going to see innovation coming out of that. It will be just like iPads, and mobile, and everything else.

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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.