In a world at one’s fingertips, a million people live on a rocky surface. Its murky ether, ultramodern architecture, futuristic vehicles, and lack of congestion on the roads are enough to know it isn’t Earth. These people don’t need spacesuits, however. They breathe air organically, grow food in 3D printed dome structures, commute via an Hyperloop system – but it isn’t Matt Groening’s Futurama biosphere either.
It’s Mars. Or at least, it’s a virtual rendering of Mars, generated by crowdsourced design ideas and architectural and engineering technique, accommodated by HP’s Mars Home Planet project. It is merely a fun use of HP’s marketing dollars, though it’s certain to illuminate the lightbulbs above the heads of Elon Musk and co, and shows just how computing hardware and immersive technologies can be used to better imagine how landscapes are brought to life.
Musk is in the midst of a three-way race: NASA, Mars One and his own Space X are driven to be the ones to land the first humans on Mars, and ultimately have people live up there. NASA is hosting a years-long competition to source design ideas for 3D printed Martian homes; Mars One wants to establish a human settlement up there through a reality TV show; while Space X has set itself a target to have 1 million people living on the planet within a century of its first visit. It is a testament to the development in technology that sees each setting their momentous launch dates prior to 2040, and a couple even within the next decade.
That tech isn’t just exclusive to the unmanned spacecraft currently in orbit, sending back images of craters, sand dunes and information that reveals a 12-mile body of water submerged beneath the Red Planet’s south polar ice caps. Purring in the background is a series of computing hardware technologies, fundamental to pretty much every operation the aforementioned trio will embark on. Leveraging the vast processing power to hand, experiments will be running, missions tracked, and communications enabled. NASA has 120 HP ZBook Workstations on its International Space Station alone, and there are many more functioning on Earth below it, and in the future, potentially more far beyond. And that’s just NASA, and those are just HP products.
Thousands more are using hardware from Dell, Lenovo and Fujitsu, in sectors like media and entertainment; finance; and software development. More than half are sold into architecture and engineering. Some 87,205 of those architects and engineers have been in a Mars-related race of their own, utilising workstations and design capabilities in CAD software to build infrastructure, simulated of course, on the Martian terrain.
“I want to walk around the future of Mars and be amazed. I want to walk around, fly around, get transported around on the far-out Hyperloop of Mars and see these worlds come to life,” was the instruction of Sean Young, HP’s Head of Global Industry Segments and leader of the project.
Mars Home Planet has aimed this last 12 months to not just paint a picture of what an inhabited Mars might look like, but create a virtual reality of it, and in October an Unreal file containing the end result will be available for public download. While it won’t necessarily act as a blueprint for life on Mars, it does mirror the future of architecture here on Earth.
Back down to Earth
Key to future productivity in the design of our buildings and structures is the spate of VR-ready workstations being brought to market by the likes of Dell and HP, among the two leading vendors in the space. The former was number one globally last year for shipments, and has 47% of the market share in the UK, the country’s capital being the setting for the company’s recent Future of Architecture event where architect, Sam Jacob presented alongside John Burton, a Dell Precision Workstation Technologist.
Dell didn’t just gather a set of journalists to boast, it did so to demonstrate how it has reached that status, and the impact innovation in the market might have on a key vertical. The company’s Precision division has the broadest portfolio of workstation products on the market, with its 21 commercially available models. It includes fixed tower workstations; standard mobile laptops; flexible rack platforms; two-in-one laptop/ tablet devices; and the Canvas, an interactive station that enables the user to sketch designs as if they were using pencil and paper, and quickly share with collaborators within a few clicks. They each boast varying levels of processing power, graphics ranges and storage space, but such is the wealth of choice, Dell feels it has every vertical market requirement covered.
Newer products have graphics cards compatible with VR technology, the extra performance kicking in when users go above 90 frames per second, and the company has a team in place dedicated to VR technology to assess its potential development. The company has also recognised a trend of customers moving to mobile devices, and so is bringing to market two-in-one devices for increased flexibility, and laptops that run off six core processors with up to P52000 graphics, and 128gb of RAM, almost matching the performance of fixed tower platforms.
“The more we can provide them with experiences, ways of seeing, and ways of understanding, the better the end products are.”
HP is providing stiff competition with similar ranges of VR-ready fixed tower platforms, as well as mobile devices, and two-in-one products. It has its own VR headsets – two being launched as the Mars Home Planet VR Experience was premiered at Siggraph 2018 – to be harnessed in parallel with the VR-ready machines.
Its most unique commodity in this territory: the Z VR Backpack PC. This, as the name suggests, is a computer that can be worn like a backpack, and when teamed with a VR headset, enables the user to place themselves in a room as they design the interior, for example. You can walk around the room, pointing to spots on the floor and transporting yourself there instantly. The colour of furniture can be altered, and you can move the window’s placement to ensure the room gets some natural light, but not too much.
It’s innovation to this scale that has architects and designers salivating at the prospects, not just in the work they produce, but the better communication with their clients they’re set to benefit from along the way.
Putting it into perspective
Jacob, who is currently working on the renovation of Surrey Street Market, described using the Canvas as ‘pleasant and natural’ and having a ‘real haptic quality of drawing on a piece of paper’, while he wants to be able to bring VR into his studio to have greater control, rather than rely on collaborators. VR is, perhaps, the technology to cause widespread disruption in architecture in the coming years. It enhances interaction in the planning and design phases, even allowing clients to experience the building at the focus of a project before bricks and mortar are on the ground, and not just view the rough aesthetics and scale portrayed through cardboard models.
“You have standard ways of making drawings,” Jacob told TCT, “which in a strange way has stayed the same for a long time. It’s beginning to change with Revit and BIM, but at the end of the day we’re often sitting with a bit of paper with a plan, which we could have been doing in the 16th century. It’s amazing how fast that is changing. Rather than being outside the drawing you’re in it, things are flying past you, you look backwards, they’re behind you. That’s a really exciting and interesting way of thinking about an idea of space that you could not do without the hardware, without the software, and without the knowledge.”
“Being able to be on the road with a VR headset and connecting to it and getting feedback there and then, in terms of where a window will be. If the sun comes around at that point what reflection am I going to get off that building at that one point? That’s the detail you can see,” offered Burton. “[Whether] we need to move that window a couple of feet to the left so you’re not going to get that mid-morning reflection where, as you walk in, you’re blinded. Those are the types of interaction we’re starting to see from an architectural space.”
“One of the things that clients always demand, even if they don’t know they’re demanding it, is to get a real feel for the project,” Jacob added. “That’s what clients want and being able to work across all those different ways of showing what a project is going to be like is increasing the dialogue, increasing the time you spend together, increasing the way in which you can interrogate the designer. The more we can provide them with experiences and ways of seeing and ways of understanding, the better the end products are.”
“We’re focused on VR and our customers are focused on VR. It’s completely game-changing [because] you get this immersive visualisation experience,” Young summarised.
Another tool, another planet?
It’s important for architects to be able to offer these simulative environments for clients, many of whom walk into a blank room and see a blank room. Displaying it in a 3D realm where you can walk around freely, move furniture from one side of the room to the other without the back ache, or knock a wall down only to put it back up without the planning permission and subsequent hassle, is huge for architects.
“It’s about this idea of seeing it visibly, the way buildings are designed and products are designed, the way in which we shape the tools that we use, that then goes on to shape the world,” Jacob articulated. “In architecture, that means the way in which we draw things and how we visualise things changes what it is that we design. This is changing really rapidly now, but it is something which is embedded in the history of architecture.”
A natural progression, the industry is always wanting to advance what’s capable, not hit the limits of the tools it uses. Architects want to experience things like never before, from the interior design of a hotel room, to a multi-storey office complex, to… a fully functioning eco-system on the next-nearest planet? While transitioning the latter from virtual concept into reality is fanciful to say the least, for the former two examples it is becoming increasingly more feasible, and increasingly more recurrent.
It’s technological developments, and then the successful applications, like this that enable, perhaps even justify, the thoughts of having humans live on Mars. But transforming the architectural design process in this world is one thing, making Mars a home planet is an entirely different story.
Whatever happens with regards the infrastructure on this planet or that, it looks bound to be visualised through the scope of a VR headset, and fuelled by the processing power of a VR-ready workstation.