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Design in the Virtual World

A visit with So-Yeon Yoon, Assistant Professor, Department of Architectural Studies

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: virtual environment education online learning simulation games watercolors

So-Yeon Yoon admits that while she has always liked computer games, even as a young child, she has also always enjoyed painting and drawing. Yoon describes her watercolor paintings and how for her the creative process is “very addictive”: “I like colors and creating something beautiful, and creating things on the computer actually gives the same kind of fulfillment.” She is attracted to three-dimensional (3-D) images and experimenting with different textures and colors. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that Yoon found herself drawn to the field of architecture and interior design—“a perfect match” in which her creative desires and her interest in computers could merge.

Today, the assistant professor of Architectural Studies focuses her research and teaching on the areas of Human Environmental Psychology and Interior and Architectural Design. Her current research combines information technology with interior design and architecture, a composite field in which she applies technology, particularly virtual reality (VR), to interior design problems.

Current technology in virtual reality (3-D interactive graphics) has become quite affordable and accessible to the average person, says Yoon, who would like to see everybody benefit from this new technology. “Some people can visualize better than others,” she explains about the “old” technology—blue prints or small-scale models—and its limited ability to visualize the spaces being designed. However, she adds enthusiastically, “that’s not even close to what we can offer using virtual reality.”

Yoon is committed to working with commercial desktop VR systems because they are more affordable, “so that more people can take advantage of the system and the technology.” In fact, it bothers her when people develop VR tools just for profit. “I don’t think that is right,” she says, believing instead that educators and researchers should work to make contributions to society rather than for their own self-interest.

Indeed, Yoon reports that even the commercial desktop systems are impressive. She has collaborated on experiments with consumer behavior and preferences by creating virtual environments of restaurants, houses, and healthcare facilities for the purpose of experimenting with consumer behavior and preferences. “I think virtual reality can be the best method to get reliable, evidence-based data, without building an actual physical facility,” she explains.

Consider a 3-D space that Yoon recently created for a client who was designing a house and wanted a realistic representation of how the imagined house would look. Yoon’s 3-D rendering of the house enabled the client to stroll through different rooms—not by foot, but with a mouse. The client could then alter aspects of the design – for example, by making something appear or disappear, or by replacing materials and colors with a single click – and thus get a realistic feel for the space in actual scale so that “things actually seemed to jump out of the screen.”

Because of her knowledge of consumer behavior and marketing, Yoon has collaborated with MU’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program. To study people’s seating preferences in restaurants, traditional research has relied upon two-dimensional (2-D) floor plans. However, as Yoon observes, “you cannot tell the researcher what kind of seat you like, because it is an unconscious decision. You don’t normally know [where you want to sit] until you get into this environment.” To help solve this problem, she created a 3-D VR restaurant environment: “This tool gives a very realistic experience of visiting this restaurant in the real world, in real time,” allowing the consumer to “walk” into the restaurant, look around, and point to a table. In this way consumer-seating behavior may be more realistically assessed.

“Teaching is an essential part of my research,” explains Yoon, and education is another area in which VR technology holds great potential. Even when people lack access to the real world building, she explains, they can take advantage of the 3-D virtual environment: “In virtual reality, you can do whatever you want to understand the building. So, actually, virtual reality is a lot more effective tool than the traditional, linear presentation.” That means, for example, that students can meet a group of people in Paris’s Louvre Museum, walk around the building and view the art—so that even people who have never been to this actual site can experience it through a realistic animation. Because the program uses a multi-user-based system, it also means the students can interact with people in that virtual world. In a similar project, Yoon re-created the Apollo Theater using Quake, a first-person gaming engine. If you take away the automatic assault rifles, programs such as Quake can become practical as teaching and learning aides. “You can view the same house in the virtual world using this software,” she says.

Yoon uses gaming software in the classroom to re-create buildings designed by famous architects, allowing her students to study them in a VR environment without actually visiting the site. She also utilizes 3-D modeling software and animation software in her classes. As soon as her students learn to create 3-D objects and places, she gives them a list of famous architects; the students then pick the buildings and represent them digitally in three dimensions.

Another initiative involves the new Design With Digital Media graduate program. Using the latest computer technology for architectural and interior design, this curriculum is “a perfect match” for people interested in using digital tools in architectural design. “We have a great program,” exclaims Yoon. “We have a good group of teachers and students coming from all over the world to study the intersection between technology and architectural and interior design.”

Some of Yoon’s insights about VR were recently published in a book, Impact of Desktop Virtual Reality on System Usability: A Case Study of Online Consumer Survey Using a VR Integrated Decision Support System (2004), which addresses the dimension of human/computer interaction, including the utility of VR software, how VR users actually interact with the tools, and what kind of advantages can be expected when adopting this technology. Yoon acknowledges that the technical advances of VR are certainly impressive, but says she is more interested in the human/computer interaction aspect of the technology than the computer programming involved in 3-D graphic software applications.

What initially evolved as a childhood hobby has transcended into a professional love for Yoon. Pausing to think about the work of her technologically savvy students, she exudes confidence in their abilities: “The quality of our students’ work is just outstanding. I am very proud of what our students are doing and anxious to see what the future will give us.”