Spring 2018

Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will be the next pervasive platforms for work, communications, and entertainment, following the computer and the smartphone. Current headsets will soon be replaced by solutions that can range from glasses to holograms to interfaces yet to be imagined.

Following a strong industry push in hardware from companies such as Oculus (Rift), HTC (Vive) and Microsoft (several models), the race for software and applications is well underway. To address these new opportunities, in 2017 I led the creation of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab at CED, with a combination of my own research funding, equipment donations from Oculus (Facebook), and support from the Architecture Department.

Architecture is a natural fit for VR, as architects have always been designers of 3D environments. Our students are particularly well positioned to assume key positions in this emergent and disruptive field. With some of the industry’s major players located in the Bay Area, valuable research opportunities are emerging. To date, we have forged collaborations with Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm), Oculus (Facebook), and Autodesk, with more opportunities on the horizon.

Across campus, the VR/AR Lab is part of an important network of players including the Center for Augmented Cognition, the Arts+Design Initiative, and the recently created FHL, Vive Center for Enhanced Reality. Other upcoming collaborations involve the Academic Innovation Studio and the Center for Teaching and Learning, to explore the potential of VR in education across several disciplines.


VR/AR demo at the 2018 Berkeley Circus


Professor Luisa Caldas with Mohammad Keshavarzi at the 2018 Berkeley Circus

I taught the first VR course offered on the Berkeley campus, and have been exploring the potential of VR in education well beyond Wurster Hall. In my VR course, now in its third edition, students from architecture, city planning and landscape architecture have produced innovative projects and applications some of which have been presented to HTC, Immerex, and CED’s Circus student design and planning showcase. These projects will now be part of a campus-wide VR/AR event planned in April by the Arts+Design Initiative, for Berkeley’s 150th anniversary commemoration.

To make VR more accessible to all, we use a combination of display formats, from immersive experiences where the user just needs to look around and experience the space without needing to take action (as one might do for a client or sponsor); to urban spaces, landscapes, and buildings where users are required to move and explore by themselves, to game-like environments for advanced users where interaction and agency are highly valued. We are also collaborating with Industrial Light and Magic/Lucasfilm on a pioneering project for creating Universal Design standards for VR, promoting accessibility for all irrespective of age, experience, and physical abilities.

Some other areas of research and exploration in which the lab is currently active include:

1 – Visualization, design, and simulation in architecture, city planning, and landscape architecture

For visualization, students investigate the potential of VR in conveying spatial and conceptual information on architecture production. Departing from a user experience (UX) perspective, students explore conceptual issues in VR that reflect core dimensions of architecture creation, but may simultaneously challenge it using new forms of locomotion, haptic interfaces, and media such as sound, film, photography, and visual arts.

CED students are also developing new ways to design and create inside immersive environments. By connecting parametric design/Grasshopper with VR, architects can modify and create spaces with their own hands — a long-standing dream of many in the profession, particularly since the advent of digital platforms.

Our next step is to simulate design performance in VR, including sustainability and energy simulations, structural analysis, or other aspects. This new user-centric point of view, instantly placing designers inside spaces, offers a more intuitive and immediate understanding of design decisions. We have started with light simulation, with work currently being developed by graduate student Mohammad Keshavarzi (Rad_VR).

Light, a fundamental aspect of architecture, remains difficult to master despite all advances in computational design, due to its constantly changing nature varying across days, seasons, climates, and geographies. VR is a particularly adept medium to capture this complex and dynamic aspect of architecture by enabling designers to interactively navigate accurate light simulations in real time. We compare more traditional methods of daylighting design, such as DIVA for Rhino, with new methods where users are able to run Radiance simulations inside VR and combine established quantitative metrics with the unique experiential and spatial explorations provided by VR.

Rad Virtual Reality

Rad_VR used to explore daylighting in the Seattle Public Library, by Rem Koolhaas. Ongoing MS thesis in Building Science, Technology, and Sustainability, by Mohammad Keshavarzi.

2 – Virtual experiences and games

Students in the VR/AR Lab are developing projects that explore using VR as a new conceptual platform to address issues such as social inequality (Utopia/Dystopia) or climate change (Iceberg). See descriptions for both projects below. Formatted as virtual experiences or gaming apps, these works establish a critical and transformative discourse, constructing abstract narratives that can either be based on built environments or other forms of spatial structures and landscapes. Students address theoretical approaches as well as technical implementation.

3 – Augmented Reality Project for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

The BAMPFA Augmented Reality project, funded by the Arts+Design Initiative, makes visible the challenges of transforming the University’s old printing facilities into a world-class museum designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, through the most exciting aspects of its construction. Furthermore, the project enriches the depth and memory of the building by superimposing photography and video interviews of workers into the very fabric of their work, revealing their invisible faces and stories. Once completed, buildings offer few traces of the stories of their construction.

This project intends to render visible the narratives of workers who faced physical challenges to achieve the architect’s vision, and yet are still erased from the process like modern-day pyramid builders. Apart from its tectonic-poetic nature and social justice aspects, the project offers an educational dimension to architecture and engineering students, and to the public in general. The name of the project, The Hands that Built the Building, derives from a poem by Dylan Thomas, “The Hand that Signed the Paper,” and is a metaphor for power, visibility, and anonymity.

4 – VR-based education across campus: Maps of Berkeley

Maps of Berkeley is a new course for incoming undergraduate students across campus, focusing on cutting-edge, multidisciplinary topics addressed from different perspectives across our faculty, each providing unique and complementary insights into complex problems of contemporary society. Topics for the initial edition of the course include The Future of Work, Enhanced Human Beings, and others.

Using a combination of guest lectures, discussion sessions, and VR/AR films and experiences, Maps of Berkeley makes visible the research, teaching, and creative work done inside our campus buildings, and generates a critical, theoretical and active response from the students, from the lenses of the proposed topics, for which they have to develop VR or AR projects as their final deliverables. The course helps incoming students construct a broad and encompassing intellectual map of the institution that they just joined, and also gives them ‘virtual’ access to faculty, infrastructure, labs, and resources that they otherwise would not experience. With the Center for Augmented Cognition and Immerex, we filmed CalDay 2017 in 360 VR, as a starting point to test this approach.

Student Projects


By Sidharth Ramamurthy and Ming-Ya Hsu

VR: utopia-dystopia

Inspired by old science fiction movies, students were intrigued by the common theme of division in class systems. Utopia//Dystopia challenges those boundaries to narrate a discovery of what true Utopia may be. In a familiar urban scape of skyscrapers, a grid-like structure emerges from underneath creating a haunting and uncomfortable feeling. The experience starts in a frightening manner but users quickly adjust to the motion, actively merging the worlds and separating them again. The viewer finally realizes that the experience is most enlightening when the two separate worlds become one.


By Lydia Kontozoglou, Tanya Makker, Constantina Tsiara

VR: icebergs

The Iceberg project creates an experience where players feel the impact of global warming. Ice is melting, icebergs are shattering due to climate change. Players try to survive but by doing so they ends up destroying the world even more. The game never stops and players cannot avoid facing the consequences of their actions. While the experience is highly compelling due to the awe created by the icy landscape, simultaneously the designers aim to create a feeling of despair, trying to inform players about our impact on the environment. In a magnificent landscape, users are forced to carry the weight of destruction on their shoulders.

Unfamiliar Reality

By Iokian Li, Chris Gomez, Sangwon Kim, Hanwook Kim

VR: Unfamiliar Reality

Unfamiliar Reality connects VR to parametric design using a Grasshopper model. The user starts by being inside a familiar space, loosely inspired by the room from the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, and with its soundtrack too. As the user moves, space starts responding by expanding and contracting in different directions. The familiar becomes unfamiliar, space is no longer fixed but fluid.