A demonstration showing how interior design faculty will use virtual reality to teach Americans with Disabilities Act standards, so students learn how to design spaces for everyone.
The Angelo Donghia Foundation has awarded the Department of Interior Design in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design a $49,000 grant to explore the potential benefits of using virtual reality technology in design education.
The grant funding will allow the principal investigators, Jisun Lee and Marjan Miri, to implement virtual reality, or VR, in the design curriculum for the second, third and fourth year interior design studios.
While VR is an emerging tool in the design fields, it is relatively new in design education — making this an exciting opportunity for Lee, an assistant professor of interior design, and Miri, a visiting assistant professor of interior design.
The interior design department is using the grant to purchase dozens of VR headsets, which means that VR can be an integral part of the curriculum and learning experience.
“The interior design program has a very high placement rate for students entering the profession,” said Carl Matthews, professor and head of the Department of Interior Design. “Adding competence in virtual reality is one more tool in the student’s belt to help place and keep them in top design firms.”
Lee said that, although other schools have also been doing design research with VR technology, they’ll be one of the first departments to introduce the technology into the curriculum on this scale. While Lee and Miri are the principal investigators for the grant, implementing VR will be a department-wide effort.
“Everyone in the department is willing to work on it, and everyone is excited and interested,” Miri said.
With their research, the professors will lead semester projects that incorporate VR in the design process at different studio levels. They will investigate VR’s impact on the learning experience of students in diverse interior design studio settings. They will empirically examine the effect of VR on students’ improved understanding of objects and spaces, while also exploring how VR influences students’ creativity.
“We want to find out how easy it is to use in the design studio settings and the empirical benefits that our students get,” Lee said.
Currently, Lee and Miri have found little research focused on VR technology in architectural and design education compared to other areas such as gaming or the medical field, where it has been a tool for training.
Learning this technology now is setting students up for success as professionals, Miri said, because VR is a tool more commonly found in firms. She said she has friends in professional practices who present projects to clients through VR.
“Instead of asking them to come and visit them in person and have a presentation, they can just send the demo to them,” Miri said.
Lee is hopeful that experiencing things in VR will help students when making decisions in the design process, because they can immediately see if something doesn’t work or if another thing works better. They also want students to be creative in applying the tool to solve design problems.
“We always say that our designers’ role is solving the problem in a creative way, exploring multiple iterations to find the best solutions and achieve the project goals,” Lee said.
Although there will be a learning curve for students, Lee and Miri are hopeful that it will be relatively easy for students to adopt the VR programs. Instead of having to learn new software, VR integrates with the rendering programs that students are already familiar with, like Rhino and Revit, through a plug-in program.
Virtual reality completely immerses users in a synthetic environment. They put on the headsets, calibrate them, and then navigate with handhold controllers and their own movements.
Lee said that being able to design the space and then experience the space at a real scale will help students understand design ideas — such as the relationship between space and human behavior, materials, color and light — on a new level. It will help them to better grasp how individuals move in spaces, such as the experience of someone navigating a space in a wheelchair.
“We see the potentials to expand students’ spatial ability and expand their design skills using VR,” Lee said.
Interior design students in different year levels will focus on honing different skills thanks to VR. For second year students who struggle with visualizing spatial limitations, this will help them understand the relationship between the space and themselves. They’ll also begin incorporating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards within their designs. Third year students will focus on spatial planning, such as wayfinding and circulation, and understanding client requests. In the fourth year, the students will integrate VR to improve the quality of their designs, as they focus on proportion and structure, as well as holistic design.
One of the benefits of embracing VR is the opportunity for peer learning, since students will be able to experience spaces designed by their classmates as well as their own designs.
“They can critique each other more if they can walk through each other’s models in VR and give each other critiques,” Miri said. They can say, “‘This space is working great, or this space is not working.'”
Before submitting the proposal earlier this spring, Lee and Miri both were experienced with VR as a design tool. Miri was introduced to VR during a studio project while earning her Master of Interior Design degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Since completing her post-doctoral study at Cornell University, Lee has conducted research that evaluates the relationship between human behavior and environmental conditions — and controlling the stimuli and conditions through VR.
“It’s important to note that professors Lee and Miri are new recruits to our teaching team,” Matthews said. “This illustrates the impact of bringing fresh and diverse talent into our design and learning community.”
Lee and Miri anticipate testing the VR equipment with students this fall and then fully implementing it during the spring 2022 semester. After using the VR equipment in the studios for a few semesters, Lee and Miri plan to share their findings at national conferences.