Kittery design firm Tangram 3DS crosses over into virtual reality

A high-tech design firm in Kittery has developed a pioneering virtual-reality application for showing off the interiors of buildings that have not yet been built.

It's the latest tool being used by architects, interior designers and real estate brokers: fully rendered computer models of rooms that can be inspected from all angles in real time by donning a virtual-reality headset.

Tangram 3DS has been doing computer-assisted visualization and design for the real estate, architectural, engineering and interior design industries since 2003. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Bank of America are among its clients, and the company is currently working on a new high-rise headquarters for Comcast in Philadelphia.

The company launched its virtual-reality product this year, thanks to the advent of new viewing technology such as the Oculus Rift. Oculus and its competitors produce headsets that use stereoscopic images to trick the mind into perceiving a three-dimensional landscape, even though in reality each eye is looking at a different, slightly shifted two-dimensional image. The effect is similar to the one created by decades-old View-Master toys.

However, the modern technology uses sensors and accelerometers in the headset to adjust the images in perfect synchronization with the wearer's head and neck movements, giving users the sensation of looking around in a 3-D space. They can even look straight up at the ceiling or down at the floor.

While modern virtual-reality headsets were created primarily for entertainment, companies such as Tangram are proving that the technology also has serious business applications.

"Clients have been requesting it since January of this year," said Tangram's founder, CEO and managing director, Stefan Vittori, who has led presentations on using 3-D technology at international design conferences.

To make its design renderings compatible with virtual-reality headsets, Tangram creates what the company's director of visualization, Jared Foley, called a "spherical image." It is essentially an entire room mapped onto the interior of a sphere. In the virtual world, the observer is situated inside that sphere and can observe the room from all angles.

"We're creating an immersive experience for any user," said Jacques Pena, Tangram's senior visual artist.

Another benefit of the spherical images Tangram creates is that they also can be viewed in two dimensions on any computer screen or mobile device. While lacking the visual depth of a 3-D image, they still approximate the sensation of looking around a room by sliding a mouse cursor, or a finger on a touch screen.

"We send a web link to the client, and they can view the image from wherever they are," Foley said. "It doesn't matter – anywhere in the world."

Although relatively few households and businesses own VR headsets, the technology is expected to expand rapidly in the coming years, according to global market analysis firm IHS Inc.

IHS Senior Analyst for Games Christine Arrington said that unlike the failed push for virtual reality in the 1980s and 1990s, the latest technology is affordable enough to reach a larger market than the military and industrial applications that dominated VR two or three decades ago. An Oculus Rift headset costs about $600 and requires a relatively powerful home computer, but smartphone-based VR headsets such as Google Cardboard cost just a few dollars and work on most modern phones.

IHS estimates that 38 million consumers will have virtual reality headsets by the end of 2020, and that sales of the hardware will reach $2.7 billion.

This time, VR is not just a fad, Arrington said.

"I think there are several things about this cycle that are different," she said. "This time, the whole ecosystem around it (including hardware and software development) – all these things are being developed at the same time."

While entertainment still dominates VR with an estimated 77 percent of the market, Arrington said the growth of business applications for VR ultimately will catch up.

A DEVELOPING TECHNOLOGY

Vittori, Tangram's founder, is originally from Austria and his background is in architecture. He taught himself 3-D computer modeling and visualization in Austria and later moved to the United States for family reasons.

"It wasn't hard to find a job" with the skills he had acquired, Vittori said.

After starting a 3-D modeling department for an architectural firm and then branching out into other areas of the business, Vittori said he decided it was time to create his own company. Tangram has since grown to 11 employees.

Tangram worked with virtual-reality applications in its early days but ultimately abandoned them, deciding that the technology was too expensive and not advanced enough to be effective. But Vittori said a decade of technological progress has eliminated those concerns.

"We're already getting to the point where it's affordable," he said. "I think it's going to be exploding even more."

While the company does not disclose its pricing, its founder said the cost to convert building designs into photorealistic virtual-reality walkthroughs is still prohibitively expensive for many small businesses. But larger design houses, architectural firms and real estate brokerages vying for lucrative contracts are willing to spend the money to gain an edge on the competition in their presentations.

However, the VR images aren't just useful for marketing purposes, Vittori said.

Tangram can actually help clients identify flaws in their designs before they reach the client, which saves both money and potential embarrassment.

"We detect errors, because we have to build it in a virtual environment," he said. "We are helping in the design process, and in the marketing and sales process."

Tina Bryant, executive director of the Maine-based American Society of Architectural Illustrators, said there has been a lot of buzz around virtual reality at industry conferences lately, but that only a small percentage of firms have actually adopted the technology.

Bryant said it remains to be seen how popular VR will become as a tool for architectural illustrators, noting that it is still relatively expensive.

"That is the big question: Is this going to be the next big thing? I think we don't know yet," she said.

Regardless, Bryant said Maine is fortunate to have a company such as Tangram 3DS plying its trade in innovative ways.

"I'm familiar with them, and they're doing amazing stuff in their studio," she said.


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