Game Plan

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to designing a specialized building that truly meets the needs of end users, it can take more than a two-dimensional image to get it right.

One option is to build a full-scale physical model and have stakeholders interact with it during the design review process. A more cost-effective solution is to create a life-size interactive virtual prototype.

Sonali Kumar, a graduate research assistant, and John Messner, associate professor of architectural engineering, are using Penn State’s Immersive Construction (ICon) Lab to do just that. The ICon Lab, explains Kumar, features a three-screen projection system that allows computer-generated prototypes to be displayed in stereo at full scale.

man points to visualization of room as projected on a wall in front of a crowd of onlookers
Curtis Chan

Visitors attend an open house at Penn State's Immersive Construction (ICon) Laboratory.

“We’ve done a lot of studies where we developed three-dimensional facility models and then displayed them in the lab,” she says. “It’s kind of like being at a 3D movie. You really feel immersed in the space and think you are actually there.”

Kumar and her colleagues are taking the technology a step further, however. Using a 3D game engine, they’re developing an interactive computing platform that designers can use to capture domain-specific knowledge from stakeholders early in the design process. Dubbed the Experience-Based Virtual Prototyping Simulator (EVPS), the system functions a lot like a multiplayer video game.

In such games, a player assumes the role of a particular character and completes various quests or a series of clearly defined tasks in exchange for in-game rewards. Kumar and her colleagues have applied the same concept to hospitals—one of the more complex types of building to design—and have come up with different tasks that patients, nurses, and facility managers might have to perform.

“It’s just like playing a video game and running different scenarios,” she explains. “If you’re a patient, you can imagine that you’re looking at the facility while lying on the bed. Or if you’re a nurse, you can run a ‘patient emergency’ scenario where you have to find a crash cart and take it to the patient’s room.”

This type of approach, Kumar says, helps the design team communicate more effectively with stakeholders and gather valuable, decision-making feedback early in the design process.

“As an architectural engineer, I don’t really understand the work that end users are going to be doing. So I’m going to put outlets at a place in the wall where it’s easy to do so because that’s how I think about my job. But a nurse might say, ‘Why do you have the outlets here?’”

As nice as this sounds, developing an interactive virtual prototype is a time-consuming process. One of the questions Kumar and her colleagues are trying to answer is how to do it efficiently.

“The ‘how’ of it is a big challenge,” she acknowledges.

Her team begins by creating a three-dimensional model with Autodesk®Revit®, a commercial building design software. “We then transfer the model to visualization software like Autodesk 3ds Max to add realistic textures and then to the Unity game engine to incorporate interactivity. The ability to simulate scenarios and tasks requires considerable coding as well,” she states.

One way she believes they can streamline the process is by creating a database of standard components that can be used over and over. “Every hospital has patient rooms with beds,” she explains. “So if we create one bed that works really well, we can probably reuse it in the future on other projects.”

Already, Kumar has developed a 3D walk-through model of the new Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital to help hospital staff visualize how they will navigate through the building when it opens this fall. Her vision is that interactive virtual prototypes such as the EVPS will one day be widely used in the architectural engineering/construction industry.

“The idea is to have a decision-making tool for design review that helps both the end users and the project team,” she says.

Last Updated May 02, 2012