Immersive Design, Virtual Reality and Bim



“The first thing you can use real-time rendering is not for pretty pictures, but for quality control.” (Marcello Sgambelluri, Autodesk University 2016)

Every day in the AEC industry, technology offers new digital solutions to real design problems. It is a well-known fact that data management and transmission are the key points of contemporary design, but how to do it is not as obvious.

The transition from material to digital media has already changed the rules in information sharing. This is not to be understood exclusively for the technical field, but rather as a global phenomenon that has changed the approach to daily activities.

In the construction industry, the change in approach to design and management of an artifact goes hand in hand with the hardware and software solutions on the market. An example of this advancement is “immersive” design, performed with virtual, augmented and mixed reality tools, simulating or superimposing a digital environment on reality.

The origin of these applications comes from the Gaming Industry. The possibility of exploiting video game products in different sectors has led to the creation of serious games, and their integration to the AEC sector is increasing every day. The definition of products in a Data-centric market has also led to a mutation for VR (virtual reality) products, which, while previously related to model geometry management, now interface directly and indirectly with BIM industry products. This means that the integration of BIM and VR allows the complete reading of the information contained in the modeled geometries. This is an important achievement when considering the ability to query objects within a photorealistic navigation environment.

The benefit of navigating within a simulated immersive environment is not only for the end customer, who is allowed to directly observe the actual product that will be built. Immersive design can also be useful for the designer to observe the quality of the product he or she is gradually defining. This advantage is accentuated when software tools are combined with hardware tools, using navigation viewers (VR Headset) or motion tracking systems.


The evolution of VR systems has seen the production of solutions by different software houses, each relatable to BIM products and able to use them in different ways. Wanting to perform a rough classification, one could distinguish products that interface with the BIM model either directly or indirectly.

The most widely used BIM authoring software (Revit, ArchiCAD, etc.) allow integration with VR tools via add-on modules launched directly from the work environment.

Solutions of this kind (Enscape, Lumion, etc…) allow real-time transfer of the BIM model into a virtual photorealistic simulation environment. The advantage of this use lies in the ability to vary design solutions and observe changes applied to the simulated model in real time.

Indirect integration applications between BIM and VR consist of importing information models into third-party software. We typically refer to gaming software (Unreal Engine, Unity, etc.) whose functions have been extended for the AEC sector. Unlike the aforementioned mode, which is certainly more user friendly, here you are dealing with more complex applications that require in-depth knowledge regarding:

– 3D design in general;
– The ways in which individual software reads BIM information;
– The construction of logic for the development of a working VR application;
– The ways in which developed applications are shared with the public.

These applications prove more difficult to develop, but they allow the use of more functionality than direct applications. In fact, the end result consists of a true standalone application, similar to those seen in the gaming industry.

On the hardware side, great developments have been made on HMD (Head Mounted Display) systems, headsets (Oculus, HTC Vive, etc..) and their integration into VR software used in the AEC industry. These devices leverage various technologies to simulate user navigation in the virtual environment, such as head tracking. The concept of immersive design is based precisely on overlaying digital images in the user’s field of view: by following head movements, the device updates the field of view in the virtual environment in real time, giving the user the impression of actually being inside the simulated environment. Movement in the immersive environment is generally performed using controllers, held by the user. There is also the possibility of using Motion Tracking systems, devices that scan the real environment using lasers and are able to determine the movement of the human body to simulate navigation in the virtual environment.


The advantage reserved for engineers using immersive design is something analogous to the change due to the transition from 2D to 3D design. Being within the simulated environment establishes a more “carnal” relationship between the designer and the work, directly involving him or her and increasing attention to detail. In even more practical terms, it is most useful to observe changes to the design variants fielded in real time, speeding up the decision-making process on the alternative that best represents the designer’s desires.

One strength of immersive design lies in the photorealistic simulation capabilities of the software used. Real-time simulation has dramatically changed the rules of the design communication game, dramatically reducing the wait time for quality renderings. A high level of quality is achieved by using materials that better simulate the physicality of objects, or artificial lights based on photometric parameters of real existing products. The ability to combine these elements with increasingly sophisticated rendering engines allows for simulations that are extremely close to reality.

Tools for “direct” immersive design are now capable of importing modeled scenes and providing preconfigured tools for simplified creation of photorealistic scenes. This means for the designer to go from the BIM workflow to observing the results in just a few steps. It is allowed to apply realistic materials to imported geometries, to place new objects, to simulate natural and artificial light, and finally to navigate the created environment as if it were a real space. One will be able to observe the simulated environment with a headset and move through one’s design with hand controllers, better evaluating the quality of the design choices made.

The operational possibilities multiply when ad hoc software is used for VR application development. Since these are tools for creating logic on a programming language (e.g., C++), the possibilities for development are almost endless and limited only by the actual needs of the practitioner. Customization is total: in addition to the model photosimulation procedures mentioned above, you can create your own custom tools, graphical interfaces, and logical rules that define the use of the finished application.

In short, it extends the concept of visualization only to the possibility of interacting with the BIM model more extensively. Using dedicated programming tools, tools for reading the parameters of BIM objects and transposing them into the GUI can be realized.

Elements can be created that guide the user in navigating and using the tools in a personalized manner, thus having a greater chance of meeting customer needs. Such sophisticated tools are also used for training operators by simulating working environments, as well as controlling remote machinery.


From the perspective of the client, the advantage offered by immersive design concerns the use of the concluded and shared VR product. The product is intended to be shareable regardless of the application used in the design stages, and generally consists of an executable file from any computer.

The client will be walking within the virtual space that best simulates the appearance of the artifact that is to be actually built. They will have the opportunity to preview the finished product of the order, understanding directly and unambiguously whether it fully meets their expectations.

Such an output can enable not only navigation within the simulated environment, but also interaction with the virtual objects present. It is crucial in this case that the tools be as user friendly as possible, since what is necessary to create is an enactive environment, that is, where the user builds his or her own knowledge as a result of actions taken. This means integrating tools that are easy for even a non-technical audience to use.

A major advantage of using immersive design as a communicative output lies precisely in allowing actors outside the design to have a say in the finished product. Just think of creating applications that allow the choice of one design variant over another by pressing on simple buttons. The customer will find himself in a position to compare variants in a simplified way and get an idea of the one he is most satisfied with.

By deepening the level of customization, you can guide the client to make personalized decisions within the project itself, allowing them to change configurations or materials of the modeled objects through a customized graphical interface.


The reality of industrial artifacts is an extremely complex one, where elements of different disciplines are mixed and the amount of information to be handled is very large. The case is not only for realities where the presence of plants is significant, for which the use of VR applications can help control the arrangement of MEP elements.

Their usefulness may relate to those industrial settings where nonphysical elements intervene, as in the artifacts of tower companies. In this case, ad hoc applications can be created to visualize information not generally contained in BIM design software, such as the electromagnetic impact due to the presence of radiant systems in an urban context.

Applications of this kind require an integration of information derived from BIM modeling to others of a different nature, forming a container of heterogeneous data that could not normally be related.

Through the products of immersive design, the client will have the opportunity to observe in an accessible way the results of different kinds of technical analysis in the form of graphic effects that are more understandable to him.


The use of immersive design for work environments can prove crucial, as it allows a space to be virtually constructed from the perspective of its end use.

Real-time photosimulation, coupled with the ability to navigate firsthand within the virtual space, allows the designer to directly evaluate some fundamental aspects of the design, such as the arrangement of light sources and the spacing of furniture.

In this type of application, VR tools can allow objects to be positioned directly from the immersive display, using controllers available with commercially available headsets.

By doing so, it is possible to draw from a preconstituted library of objects and arrange the architectural elements of the environment directly around it, simulating the work environment to be created while already having the impression of being in it.

The key to this type of application certainly lies in the ability to impress the client with an environment of engaging aesthetic impact, using the tools of immersive design to communicate the strengths of a project in all its features.


When considering the entire life cycle of an infrastructure project, it is easy to see how its complexity affects not only the design phase but also the implementation phase. Construction of major works can be simplified by immersive design using augmented reality or mixed reality applications.

Augmented reality is applied through mobile devices, on whose screens virtual elements are superimposed on real images. Their use involves the placement of a real element recognizable by the devices, such as QR codes printed and placed at points of interest on the site.

By doing so, a simulation of the placement of a large plant can be displayed on the device, verifying its actual footprint in the real space even before it is placed. Additional applications may involve displaying fact sheets of items placed on the construction site, giving additional information to construction workers.

Mixed reality is to be regarded as a better integration of augmented reality into the world of immersive design, since it applies its principles using a Head Mounted Display or headset. By doing so, the aforementioned applications can be viewed not on a mobile device, but immersively by an operator moving around the site.


For example, in a large construction project, the operator could move by observing the current state of progress and simulate its future progress, thus ensuring the efficient execution of the work.


In conclusion, immersive design offers the possibilities for adding value to contemporary design from the qualitative point of view in both the production and communication of a project.

Engineer Saverio Camillo Saviello
R&D BIM Division – La SIA


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