StartingBlock Madison uses state-of-the-art virtual reality modeling for new innovation hub

StartingBlock Madison and American Family Insurance used state-of-the-art virtual reality modeling to successfully present plans for the new innovation hub.

This new facility, called the Spark Building, will be located at 819 E. Washington Ave. Modeling for the new building was conducted at the Plan Commission meeting yesterday using an Oculus headset, which places users into a fully realized, virtual environment so they can see how the post-construction project will look.

“StartingBlock is an entrepreneurial hub, a private partnership between the City of Madison and American Family Insurance, as well as folks throughout the community,” said Scott Resnick, executive director of StartingBlock Madison. “We are focused on bringing an entrepreneurial hub to the city, so that entrepreneurs have one degree of separation between the Capitol, and mentors and resources that they need to be successful.”

The Spark Building, for which plans were approved at the meeting, will be an eight-story, 158,000 square foot center for the community and startup companies. It will use only 50 percent of the energy of a typical Midwest office building.

The demonstration conducted at the meeting could be the first time that VR technology has been used in a land use approval process, according to Jon Brouchoud, founder of Arch Virtual, a Dane County-based digital architecture firm that created the VR model.

“It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, and I think it’s the first time it’s been used for this in the country,” said Brouchoud.

Commissioners and citizens had the chance to interact with the computer-generated reality, viewing the planned building from a variety of angles.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that will be used a lot more in the future,” said Brouchoud. “It’s a game-changer for the industry.”

Visuals and auditory effects surround headset users, while light background noise such as cars and birds add a sense of true immersion to the experience. As part of the demonstration, the environment shifted between several different views of the building, including one mind-boggling view from what will be the ninth floor, where it’s possible to see representations of both lakes and the State Capitol Building.

According to Brouchoud, the experience of VR can sometimes cause slight disorientation, but most users of the technology eventually develop a virtual reality version of sea-legs, which he described as VR-legs, when the immersion into a new reality becomes more natural and comfortable.

Virtual reality is an emerging technology that is being used for a large variety of modeling and experiential purposes. Rebecca Overmeyer, a UW-Madison graduate student in the field of clinical psychology, has experience in using VR technology for an array of therapeutic purposes.

“You can use virtual reality for exposure therapy, for research on anxiety disorders, and even for PTSD patients from the Army,” said Overmeyer. “I think it’s a very good tool, and it’s actually really cool.”

StartingBlock’s use of this technology made a positive impact on Bradley Cantrell, acting vice chair of the Plan Commission, who called the Spark Building “a stellar project, and a wonderful addition to the East Washington corridor.”

–By Alex Moe