Virtual reality has been purportedly just around the corner for decades now. Science fiction has teased us with mocked up versions of the technology, featuring immersive virtual worlds accessible by face and body-worn gear. But in spite of our eager anticipation, in actual reality the rollout has been at a snail’s pace.

One application for the technology that’s been picking up steam in recent years is creating lifelike 3D models in VR. Using advanced CAD engines, builders and architects are able to create sophisticated and detailed models in a virtual workspace for everything from cars to buildings to giant robots. The technology offers users sets of tools to draw, paint, or move lifelike 3D objects into a simulated, immersive environment with relative ease.

Virtual reality-based modeling also has the potential to revolutionize collaboration during the building process.

Well-known Companies are Already Testing the Waters

Scads of companies, including some big names like Google and Oculus, are rolling out their own software and hardware to enable virtual reality design, allowing users to draw and manipulate complex visual models in the total immersion offered by VR. Using their own hands in a virtual space, designers can create complex geometric shapes and augment them to their exact desired specifications. The resulting designs can then be imported into a design program or even 3D printed.

This has wide-ranging applications for many industries that rely on the ability to quickly create and alter designs as a project progresses. The technology offers a level of detail and immersion that a computer screen or blueprint can’t, and allows project managers or other stakeholders to see the ongoing project in an immersive, manipulable environment. That granular level of control and VR immersion lets designers see how their finished structure will look in ways never before possible.

Designs and schematics can also be built using traditional 3D modeling software and then uploaded directly to VR, converting a somewhat limited screen-based model into something you can walk through and touch in a virtual environment. This enables architects to tweak designs and add layers to projects in virtual space before the designs are ever created in the real world. The technology even allows manipulation of environmental factors, like daylight, to give a truly comprehensive view of how the interior of a structure will look in various lighting conditions.

When Introducing New Technology, Simplicity is Key

Ease of use is a big selling point for virtual reality modeling at this early stage, and companies are working to make their interfaces as simple and user-friendly as possible to lower the barrier to entry.

Google’s Blocks is a free VR app usable on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets that focuses on making 3D model creation as simple as possible, while still offering a complex range of design applications. Its suite of six simple tools (shape, stroke, paint, modify, grab and erase), allow the fast creation and export of models both simple and advanced, limited only by the user’s imagination.

Vive Studios and Sixense recently unveiled its MakeVR 3D modeling platform, which is based on the same 3D ACIS modeling kernel used in industrial-grade CAD programs. Its two-handed motion controller interface allows users to create objects with their own hands that otherwise would have required a keyboard and mouse.

There are many options available to dip your toe into 3D modeling in virtual reality, and most share the same core set of tools. Some allow additional tools to be incorporated, but most are designed to meld simplicity with, enabling builders of all skill levels to try their (virtual) hands at creating lifelike 3D objects in virtual space.

Virtual reality-based modeling also has the potential to revolutionize collaboration during the building process. InsiteVR offers a virtual reality environment in which professionals can share the same screen in real time to review their models and tweak the designs collaboratively, whether they’re in the same office or across the country. Once inside the virtual environment, the architects, builders, engineers or other workers can all see what the other is doing, and the program allows for marking up or adding to a design in that shared virtual space.

Even though it’s still early days for virtual reality 3D modeling, many companies are seeing the possibilities for future applications and jumping in with both feet. As the technology progresses and improves, it appears likely that down the road virtual reality modeling could become as indispensable a tool for builders and architects as computer screens, blueprints and T-squares.