Customers aren’t the only ones embracing game-changing new technologies in restaurant spaces.

Designers, too, are leveraging technology to revolutionize the process of creating, presenting and modifying projects, tapping tools and programs that first emerged in the gaming and entertainment industries to go where traditional restaurant design and rendering techniques can’t — into the interactive, 3-D virtual environment.

Broader adoption of specific technologies, such as 3-D modeling and virtual reality, is gaining momentum as design and architecture firms make the investment and hire design technology experts, and as clients warm up to — and even begin to expect — their use.

Rohit Arora, design technology manager at MBH Architects in Alameda, Calif., says increasing adoption by designers in the restaurant and retail space has partly to do with costs for the technology coming down. But more important, he says, infrastructure advancements now make using it with clients easier and more practical than ever before.

BookandBourbon Photo ExteriorIn designing Book & Bourbon at Louisville Airport, Chute Gerdeman’s Digital Design Lab team utilized interactive, 3-D virtual modeling and fly-through animation to help the client visualize the design and make changes in real time. The image on page 60 is a screen grab taken from the virtual model; the photo below shows the finished space. Images courtesy of Chute Gerdeman“Very low-cost or even free delivery platforms are becoming mainstream, so I could take a 360-degree image of an existing place or finished work and post it on social media, for instance,” Arora says. “We’ve all now seen these 360-degree images on Facebook and YouTube, etc. Previously, even if you were to create this work, how would you deliver it? You’d have to send a flash drive or send or take the computer in person. Today, you can send it via a Dropbox link or YouTube video. The underlying infrastructure in terms of the connectivity has also improved. So it’s a culmination of all these things that has brought us to this point.”

Arora, an architect before crossing over into specialized design technology, joined MBH two years ago as the firm’s first design technology manager. He held previous positions with Bay Area tech start-ups and was an AutoCAD software QA engineer and IT/CAD manager at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the San Francisco-based architecture firm credited with designing some of Apple’s first iconic stores. His is the sort of skill set that trends suggest design firms will increasingly seek to add as they delve deeper into tech-enhanced design.

So is Randy Liddil’s. He joined Columbus, Ohio-based Chute Gerdeman in February 2015 and now serves as vice president of the design and branding firm’s Digital Design Lab. His credentials include photography, web design and extensive 3-D modeling and animation work in a previous positon at WD Partners and Glavan Feher Architects.

Working at the intersection of design and technology, Arora and Liddil are helping to introduce both their own internal teams and their companies’ clients to emerging design tools that bring spaces to life in a virtual sense and offer advanced insights into projects in a real-time, interactive, 3-D environment.

Take the T-Shirt Test

Just because high-tech solutions like 3-D modeling and virtual reality are becoming increasingly common, however, doesn’t mean every client is ready for or willing to invest in them — or that every project is a good fit for their use.

Arora says he explains to clients that the technology is just a tool and uses the example of T-shirt sizes to help determine what “size” or level of technology may be best for them. “I go with small, medium and large,” he says. “Small will be something like simple 3-D panorama or a 360-degree virtual walk-through of a site, similar to what real estate agents do. It allows you to give a clear picture, move that 360-degree picture around and look at the furniture, layout, fixtures, etc. And then we can create a 3-D model of that to show how the space will look when we’re done with the design. Using your phone and a wireless Google Cardboard unit, you can get a good feel for how the space will look, how the lighting will work, etc. This is the small T-shirt because it doesn’t require a lot of hardware; it’s very low cost and accessible to anyone.”

Medium, in Arora’s example, jumps up to include a live virtual reality (VR) walk-through of the space. The client either comes to MBH offices or his team goes to them, bringing along the necessary VR headsets. Employing specialized headsets and more computing power, this medium level offers even more realistic views, taking clients into a virtual model that shows, for example, how lighting would work at a certain time of day or a certain time of the year based on the weather, according to Arora.

Finally, the large T-shirt in the analogy adds the element of interactivity within the 3-D virtual environment. In this case, Arora says, “We either bring the client in or take the computer to their site. We can use some gaming technology that enables us to interactively design with the client and do virtual mock-ups. They see the space and, in real time, work with us to swap out colors or finishes or fixtures. We can come to design decisions much faster than with traditional drawing and rendering. So that’s the really high end. It takes a lot of effort, in part because we have to program it into the virtual environment, but it’s very attractive because it’s so realistic and immediate.”

Which “size” clients opt to try on depends a lot on budget — how much they have to invest in programming time. That alone can add up to a couple of weeks for the large-scale, interactive example compared with a few hours for the medium.

“We’ve done the full-scale interactive models with a few large clients, but most aren’t quite there yet,” Arora says. “But even if the client isn’t willing to pay for it, however, it’s a good way for us to be designing. Compared to how you would visualize the space in other models, here, you’re standing at your height in the space, so if you’re a tall or short person, you’ll feel that. Traditionally, there’s no way of really knowing a lot of aspects of a space until the thing is built.”

ExteriorViewFront ScreenGrab BookBourbon

Arora suggests that broader adoption of the programming-intensive design models will require a shift in thinking about how project dollars are spent. “The basic premise is that designing this way saves money down the line,” he says. “You spend a little bit extra in the beginning, but you can make better decisions and more easily come to consensus later because the technology has come to the point where it can really replicate the actual physical aspects — the texture of a fixture and fabric and lighting. And there’s no lag time. Earlier, if you wanted a rendering of how this piece would look, it could take a few days to produce that. Now, if I have a model in 3-D, I assign the material, and within a few seconds, I can see how it’s going to look. And if you’re going to be opening multiple locations, you can do prototyping once in virtual reality and then start building, quickly making modifications for future locations as needed.”

Evaluate Client Capabilities

Even clients who are willing to spend the extra dollars up front to deploy high-tech design solutions may still not be ready or able to do so, however. Those with a hodgepodge of aging hardware or those who lack IT support, for example, could wind up being more frustrated than wowed.

Liddil says his Digital Design Lab team has seen software platforms improve to the point where, over the past four years or so, they’ve added virtual reality, augmented reality and gamification within virtual models to their list of services. And business enterprise solutions make it fast and efficient to send such models directly to clients and make updates in real time.

A major challenge, however, is that many clients simply don’t have the IT support and/or hardware necessary to get into the game. “One of the biggest things in terms of hardware is people on the client side might be using a variety of different devices,” Liddil says. “That can be a huge drawback because we might have to tell them that they can only use it on a particular device, like the iPad. And then Apple could come out and say they no longer support this particular type of graphic on older iPads. So we have to tell them that if they want it to work efficiently, they have to have it on this kind of hardware in their company.”

Lack of IT support at the operator level is another challenge. In larger companies with IT support, Liddil says his team simply contacts the client’s IT manager to communicate everything that needs to be installed on the client’s devices. In cases where that sort of support isn’t available, it can take significantly more time and effort on the design team’s end to ensure that the client will be able to view the models.

“We’re trying to work on ways to visually explain the process and what they need to do on their end if they don’t have a strong IT department,” Liddil says. “But in general, it’s really important at the start of a project to find out what devices and operating systems they have. That way, we can customize what we’re doing so that when they get on their old computer that uses Windows XP from almost 15 years ago, the models will still work.”

When designing Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen, a new full-service restaurant by HMSHost at Louisville Airport, Liddil’s team built a full virtual model with fly-through animation, immersing the client via iPads and Google cardboard in the interactive, 3-D virtual environment. Compared with traditional methods of rendering and creating fly-throughs, time savings were huge.

“If we were to have used old-school methods for Book & Bourbon, it would have taken about 300 hours to send it out to a render farm,” Liddil notes. “That’s time that we have to charge for. But with the virtual model, everything is baked in and changes can be made in real time. They’ve now come back to us asking if we can do the same thing for the back of the house to increase efficiency. We’re doing some augmented reality with an iPad and a virtual reality model so they can actually move equipment around in the back of house and see what feels too tight and what doesn’t in real time. And we can add programming. For example, we can program it so that if someone clicks on a piece of equipment, they can access a PDF for information about its maintenance requirements and contacts.”

Going forward, Arora and Liddil expect the pace of adoption of high-tech design solutions for restaurant projects to accelerate. And like everything tech-related, they look forward to significant enhancements and more cloud-enabled mobility.

One advancement Liddil expects is greater use of augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality, a combination of virtual and augmented. “You’ll be able to see the entire space and what it’s going to look like and people walking through using crowd or traffic simulation,” he says. “All that kind of stuff will come pretty instantly through augmented reality. Virtual will still be used, but I think AR will actually be used a lot more because there is a lot more than can be programmed in. For instance, we could program 200 people coming into a space over the next half an hour and see what happens, where the backups are.”

Arora, too, expects augmented reality to become more prominent as a design tool, in part because it doesn’t require a headset. He points to retail companies such as IKEA, which uses AR and virtual 3-D modeling to let customers add fixtures, furnishing or accessories to spaces for a visual “try before you buy” experience, as an indication of how mainstream the technology is becoming.

As for those goofy-looking headsets, Arora says that despite their benefits they bring challenges of their own. For one, some people experience nausea when using them. Determining client comfort level is important, as is always being prepared to offer alternative ways to view the models, he says.

Arora’s team is also working on ways to overcome the constraints of virtual reality headsets, which he says are currently a single-person experience. “We’re trying to create a solution that allows a group of people to collaboratively be inside the same model and see each other’s avatars or presentations and discuss and make changes in real time,” he says. “Physically, they may not even be in the same location, but they could all still get inside the virtual model. Because, despite all of the advancements and changes, the basics are the same: Design still starts with a sketch and will always be a collaborative process.”