How virtual reality and 3D-printing are changing how we make a house our home.
To bring a three-dimensional idea to life, we humans tend to sketch a two-dimensional prototype. Initially, we scrawled on the walls of caves. Then, with the advent of the printing press, we began translating our ideas on paper. Over the last decade, computers have finally made it possible to bypass the 2D phase of idea generation. But, until now, you needed a master’s degree of expertise to take advantage of these new technologies. So when the extraordinarily intuitive 3D app Tilt Brush became available to the general public last April, it marked a seismic shift in the history of human creativity.
Tilt Brush enables you to “paint” in three-dimensional space with a wide variety of colors, brushes, and textures. To scale, rotate, and walk around your work. To import 3D models into it. Even to sync your images with music. Indeed, with Tilt Brush, you can create an entire world from the virtual ground up.
This past August, indie-rock band Ball Park Music, unveiled the first (though certainly not the last) music video made with Tilt Brush. It featured visually drawn lyrics that pulse with the beat, colorful laser beams, and all manner of trippy scenes. “As someone who’s spent a lot of time in virtual reality and Tilt Brush,” director Jaymis Loveday explained on Reddit, “the piece is kind of exciting, but not mindblowing. For people who don’t VR, their brains have been unilaterally melted.”
Even though the environment you create in Tilt Brush only exists through the lens of an HTC Vive virtual reality headset, a new wave of 3D authoring tools with real-world applications are already hitting the market.
Released last October, the Paint 3D app for Windows 10 empowers the masses to create in 3D and share the results across PCs, smartphones, tablets, and the HoloLens — Microsoft’s “mixed reality” holographic visor that enables you to overlay digital 3D content onto the physical world. When it comes to re-imagining your home, the possibilities are literally endless. Say you’ve been thinking about changing the color of a pendant light in your foyer from white to black. Simply scan the white fixture, upload it, paint it black, don your HoloLens, and “install” the digital version in your actual foyer. If you like what you see, export your creation to a 3D printer. In other words, you can now make it real.
Digital Design Assistants
Simultaneous with the release of Paint 3D, Microsoft announced a partnership with the world’s largest home renovation platform, Houzz, to capitalize on the new app’s interior design potential. In the launch demo, a customer browsing the popular site selects a chair, then pulls it into his living room with a HoloLens. At $3,000, the gadget isn’t exactly a mass product, but this spring, Microsoft will put out a line of mixed-reality visors starting at an accessible $299.
In the interim, home retailers from Wayfair to Lowe’s (another Microsoft partner) are busily digitizing their catalogs for 3D viewing. Similarly, Ikea’s pilot app, The IKEA VR Experience, invites you into a virtual kitchen, encouraging you to provide feedback as the company fine-tunes its own ambitious forays into virtual shopping.
Meanwhile, several new online retailers have combined Ikea’s flat-pack model with innovative tech to offer unprecedented degrees of customization at a fraction of the cost. The best of this trend, Tylko — a Polish word that translates as “the only one” — offers bespoke shelving, as well as a table template conceived by the legendary SF- and NY-based industrial designer (and Tylko backer) Yves Béhar.
Tylko’s augmented reality app and desktop platform enables you to visualize what a table or a shelving unit will actually look like in your home; the basic shape remains consistent, but you have free reign in determining the right dimensions to fit your space — not to mention your budget. Each time you adjust the measurements, the color and density of the wood, or the number of rows and columns in a shelving unit, Tylko provides you with an updated price quote. Béhar dubs this self-empowering approach to furniture shopping “adaptable authorship” — and it’s going to become commonplace much sooner than you think.
You can also say goodbye to the days of taping paint chips to your wall; with Home Depot’s Project Color app, simply hold your camera phone up to your room, then click-paint your walls to get a realistic sense of how one out of 1,000-plus hues plays with your décor. Cabinet Collection, a Dallas-headquartered custom kitchen outfitter, offers an even more immersive shopping experience: once you’ve settled on your specs, they’ll transform 3D renderings of your renovated kitchen into a 360-degree environment you can explore via the cheapest VR headset on the market, Google Cardboard.
Frontlines of Home Furnishings
An increasing number of professional designers are uploading 3D printable files to Shapeways — the go-to 3D-printing service and marketplace. “Even a novice like me can build off their designs,” says Shapeways VP of Community Engagement Rebecca Fretty before reeling off several creations on the site that have caught her eye: “Custom planters, switch plates, tableware accessories like napkin rings and wine stoppers. Like me, I think people just want everything to feel more personal.”
To that end, Shapeways has partnered with designers across many verticals. Just last year, it collaborated with Philips and HP to showcase the technology’s endless potential as well as the capabilities of its 5,000-square-foot factory in the Queens section of New York City.
But let’s say you’d rather leave product design to the experts, leveraging the power of 3D printing to acquire their work on a limited-edition basis. OTHR, a New York City startup launched in May 2016, enlists some of the world’s most acclaimed talents to craft sleek, heirloom-quality, 3D-printed objects that look and feel as if they were handcrafted.
Every two weeks, OTHR debuts a new piece: a porcelain bookend; a bronze cake knife; a geodesic steel bottle opener. Each piece gets marked with a serial number, and once it sells out, it’s gone forever. By 3D-printing objects in small quantities, OTHR incentivizes designers to take greater risks while ensuring the singular nature of your purchase. Everybody wins.
While today’s mass-market 3D printers can only produce pieces at object-scale, it is now possible to conceive of a future when anyone with sufficient means and desire will be able to design and print their own house. A Chinese construction company called HuaShang Tengda accomplished the feat last summer, using ten 3D printers to build a two-story concrete villa onsite in just 45 days.
No sooner had it been completed than Tennessee’s Branch Technology — inventor of the world’s largest free-form 3D printer — invited architectural firms and amateurs alike to submit prospective designs for America’s first single-family, free-form, 3D-printable home.
The winning entry, “Curve Appeal,” by WATG’s Urban Architecture Studio, was an undulating, futuristic-yet-functional living structure, construction on which is slated to begin this year in Chattanooga.
Branch Technology also recently partnered with acclaimed New York City architecture firm SHoP on a pair of trailblazing structures to demonstrate the sheer beauty of digital fabrication. Inspired by the shape of a jellyfish, these two pavilions, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” formed the gateway at December’s Design Miami exhibition before moving to a plaza in the city’s Design District.
“We don’t want this to be a one-off thing,” SHoP cofounder Greg Pasquarelli has said to the five-year-old industry news site 3ders.org. “Sometimes you have less ability to be experimental with a 1,000-foot-tall tower so you take opportunities with smaller projects to push what you can do. The speed at which you can do small projects like this is great since you can test new ideas and these then seep into your hand and eye, eventually impacting how you design in the next few years.”
Beyond 3D printers, architects are increasingly using virtual reality to invite clients and curious fans alike to explore life-like, digitized versions of their structures with the aid of a headset. When Manhattan-based Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels unveiled his spectacular Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London last June, it was accompanied by a VR component that empowers anyone to stroll along its curving wall of translucent fiberglass blocks, step inside its cavernous interior, and experience its spellbinding optical effects.
The implications for anyone who commissions an architect from here on out are clear: while you may not be able to make heads or tails of a 2D blueprint, the opportunity to wend your way through a lifelike simulation of your prospective dream home (before the contractor starts making it a reality) is bound to ensure a far more favorable result.
Take house-hunting. Where we once lost our precious weekends to hopping from open house to open house, soon brokerages and agents will be posting links to 3D tours on Facebook that we can take while waiting in line for lunch. Where we once shared interior design ideas via 2D images on Pinterest, soon we’ll be fielding feedback from our friends in the form of immersive environments. Anytime you decide to rearrange the furniture in your living room, or think about swapping out your couch for a custom loveseat, you’ll be be able to compare a cross-section of reactions from the people you trust.
“The 3D revolution has only just begun, and 3D literacy is already starting to penetrate,” says Oluwaseyi Sosanya, co-founder of Gravity Sketch. Initially conceived as a 3D authoring tool for professional industrial designers in 2013, the pioneering London startup has partnered with Shapeways and will release a new-and-improved version of its app this month, aimed at a mass audience.
“It’s going to be more intuitive than simply sketching on paper,” Sosanya promises. “We will democratize the design process.”