Arch Virtual created this virtual view from on top of the proposed Spark building, looking down East Washington Avenue.
The view of Wisconsin’s Capitol from the ninth-floor meeting room inside the Spark building, on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, is remarkable for two reasons.
First, the building’s height, proximity and unobstructed views of the Capitol and Lake Monona make it second to none insofar as skyline views from public spaces go.
Second, the 800 block of East Washington Avenue is a vacant lot. There is no building, no ninth floor, no meeting-room view. But despite the lack of a building, there’s still a sense of vertigo in the virtual reality view — through Oculus Rift goggles — from on top of the nine-story building that will one day exist. (See a video of the project at Isthmus.com.)
“It’s a very realistic experience,” says Jon Brouchoud, co-founder of the Madison-based Arch Virtual. “We can now create animated virtual environments so you can tour a building before it’s built.”
In 2006, Brouchoud and his wife, Kandy Brouchoud, launched Arch Virtual, one of a growing number of local tech companies cashing in on rapid advancements in, and uses for, virtual reality. The economies of scale made possible by smart phone development have paved the way for virtual reality to leap from the pages of fiction to practical use in the modern world.
And Madison is at the forefront.
“Whether anybody knows it, Madison is already established as a leader in VR development,” he says. “We’ve done projects in countries like Oman, India, U.K. and Australia.”
Video games have been the primary use for consumer virtual reality products, but more companies like Arch Virtual are finding other uses for the technology. Architects by trade, the Brouchouds began using VR to help clients visualize their designs.
“We transitioned to it almost exclusively three years ago,” he says. “Architecture remains our core concentration, but we’ve branched out into other industries, like automotive and manufacturing.”
UW-Madison has pioneered some of the most cutting-edge developments in VR technology at its Living Environments Laboratory within the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.
The technology has been widely used to improve the quality of home health care and is increasingly being used in the therapeutic realm, as well. UW-Health now offers virtual reality therapy to help treat post-traumatic stress and help people overcome certain phobias.
“Virtual reality therapy is the use of computer-produced situations to make you believe and feel as though you are actually in a different place and situation,” according to its website.
During the therapy, patients can confront a feared object or even relive a traumatic experience from the comfort of their doctor’s office, the idea being they “will gradually be able to deal with the emotional and physical distress.”
The Spark Building is the much-anticipated innovation hub, a joint venture of American Family Insurance and StartingBlock, a technology business incubator. But for Brouchoud, it’s just the latest in a series of virtually animated environments his company has created for facilities around the world.
In 2014, Arch Virtual created a similar virtual tour of the Sacramento Kings’ new arena as construction got underway.
“We’re using the technology to solve real-world problems,” he says.
In December, Madison’s Plan Commission took a virtual tour of the Spark Building during the permitting process. Using photographs of neighboring buildings and reference points, Arch Virtual created the neighborhood context. Then, working with the project’s architects, they turned the two-dimensional blueprints into the virtual environment.
“The question now is, what happens next?” Brouchoud says. “We’re established, but we’re not necessarily a full-scale company. That’s where a community like Madison can help companies like ours turn the corner.”