Get Hands On with Spatial Design Tool Arkio, Now Available On the Quest Platform

Oculus Blog
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March 31, 2022
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Whether you’re an architect or a video game level designer, Arkio may be just the tool you’re looking for. You can collaborate and design with up to 24 people in the same scene, across VR, PCs, tablets, and phones. Design interiors, buildings, virtual spaces or game environments, and even mix realities using Passthrough on Quest. You can start from scratch or import your own 3D models and scenes from Unity, Rhino, Sketchup, and Revit, sketch on top of them, and then export your work back. Experimental hand tracking means you can use your own hands instead of controllers as you work with a selection of eight easy-to-use volumetric modeling tools. Originally released via App Lab, Arkio is now available on the Quest Store.

We sat down with Arkio CEO Hilmar Gunnarsson, CTO Haraldur Darri Thorvaldsson, and Head of Product Johan Hanegraaf to learn more.

How did you get your start in the tech industry? Do you have a background in architecture / spatial design?

Hilmar Gunnarsson: I started my first company before I was 20, creating a multimedia kiosk system for real estate agencies. This was in the early ’90s, before the web and mobile phones, and I’ve been working in tech ever since. I’ve always been fascinated with technology and new ways to unleash creativity, and I’ve been dreaming of creating a design tool like Arkio for a long time.

Haraldur Darri Thorvaldsson: One of my earliest jobs was actually developing a multi-user VRML browser. I have a deep interest and training in distributed systems and have long obsessed over architectures for massively scalable virtual worlds, so it’s pretty exciting to bring Arkio to life.

Johan Hanegraaf: As an architect and engineer, I’ve been thinking hard about how to make the design process better. While working at an architecture firm called Mecanoo, I started experimenting with using VR for design, so I was eager to join the Arkio team when Hilmar reached out and asked me to join.

What was the original inspiration behind Arkio?

HG: In many ways, the traditional scale models used in architecture are the original inspiration. We asked ourselves, what if you could create virtual scale models with other people in minutes and then jump inside them to continue designing and experiencing them at human scale?

JH: There are just so many inefficiencies in the current design process. Most of the design tools used today were designed for work on flat screens and not for collaborative, rapid iteration of design ideas. The opportunity to make the design process simpler, faster, and more fun while reducing mistakes and misunderstandings is just enormous.

How has the application changed during the course of development?

JH: The original vision of an immersive design environment that feels like you’re working with physical objects is still the core concept of Arkio. We have, however, received a lot of feedback from designers over the past years on how to best integrate Arkio into their existing workflows, and that has guided the roadmap quite a bit.

HG: We also saw early on that multi-user is the magic ingredient. It’s great to work by yourself in Arkio, but the ability to share that experience with other people inside the virtual space is priceless. So we decided to put more emphasis on multi-user earlier than planned—something that was challenging but definitely the right decision.

HT: It’s not easy to create a real-time, distributed design tool that works at high framerates on mobile devices like Quest, but our custom modeling kernel was designed with this in mind from the start. We’re just starting to tap into the power of the kernel, and with this release, we’re showing some of what’s possible with the introduction of parametric components.

What sorts of use cases have you seen for Arkio thus far? Any future use cases you can imagine that would be particularly effective?

HG: Since going live on App Lab last year, it’s been awesome to see all the interest in Arkio from all kinds of users, not just professional architects. We’ve seen hobbyists design new kitchen layouts in Arkio, aspiring metaverse creators designing entire cities, and universities using Arkio to host collaborative workshops in spatial design.

JH: For professional designers, Arkio is like a collaborative overlay on top of existing design tools, helping design firms around the world to get more work done and collaborating more easily during the design process. They can import their existing 3D models into Arkio, review them with others, create new design options, and then export their work back to their original design tools when done. The fact that Arkio also runs on desktop, tablets, and phones means that anyone that’s part of a design project can participate—even if they don’t have a VR headset.

HT: With this new release, we support the Passthrough capabilities of Quest to mix realities and design on top of the real world. This enables many exciting use cases where anyone can add a new wall or whole extensions to their home. You can even create magic portals through physical walls! This opens up endless possibilities for people interested in architecture and design.

Tell us more about your bi-directional Unity integration. How does that work? Did you have to overcome any challenges during implementation?

JH: We’ve developed a Unity plugin that can export a Unity scene directly to Arkio via the cloud. This opens up all kinds of use cases for anyone working with Unity, be it game designers, metaverse designers, or architects. Arkio can also export back to Unity so if you move GameObjects around in Arkio the original GameObjects will be moved accordingly. Anything you add to the scene inside Arkio will also get added to your scene in Unity, naturally.

HT: The main challenge is to propagate changes from one side to the other while objects are being created, removed, and possibly duplicated on both sides. We ended up tagging objects with unique IDs to be able to robustly match them back and forth during imports. Our logic treats objects differently depending on whether they originate in a scene or not, ensuring we don't clobber original objects with duplicates during round-tripping. There were also a few challenges making this work with Unity’s geometry import pipeline.

JH: One interesting feature we added is the ability to create collision and trigger geometry inside Arkio using special materials. When you export the scene to Unity, these GameObjects get assigned a script that disables them at runtime while enabling triggers and colliders.

What motivated you to incorporate hand tracking in Arkio? What’s the response been like?

HG: We believe hand tracking is key to making tools like Arkio more accessible and easier to use. With the ongoing improvements in tracking and machine learning, there’s no reason hand tracking can’t become a robust input method for a design tool like Arkio. Controllers can get in the way for new users, especially people using Arkio in a more observational capacity, providing feedback on what others are doing.

What can you tell us about your future product roadmap? Anything that the community should be on the lookout for?

JH: Being able to mix realities and modify the real world with Passthrough is pure magic, and we’ll continue to expand those capabilities in the near future. Expect to see additional parametric components as well to design even faster and even the ability for users to create and share their own components. We’re also working on enabling users to create and import ever larger scenes and to export their Arkio scenes to other design tools and online platforms. In many ways, we see Arkio as the ideal spatial design tool—not only for physical architecture but for virtual architecture as well.

How do you think VR and AR will continue to change the world of architecture and design in the future?

HG: VR and AR are the ultimate medium for architecture and design as three-dimensional space is the best place for three-dimensional work. People shouldn’t have to imagine what a building will look and feel like once built or how a new sofa will fit in their living room. Being able to work naturally in real time with other people regardless of where they’re located completely changes the design process and opens up new opportunities for designers all over the world.

HT: It’s also exciting to see the reaction from students using Arkio. This next generation of designers will use VR and AR by default and no doubt come up with all sorts of creative uses for the medium, whether they’re designing real or virtual architecture.

What kind of response have you seen while demoing Arkio?

JH: It’s always fun to show someone Arkio for the first time, and we’ve literally seen people squeal with joy when trying it. Everybody is surprised that something like this is actually possible, and then they get excited discussing all the possibilities that Arkio and VR open up. The multi-user aspect is also surprising to people that haven’t tried social VR before and now, with Meta Avatars, you’ll feel even more present with others inside Arkio.

What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?

HG: Going live on the Quest Store is an amazing milestone for Arkio. This is a big release with a lot of exciting features like Passthrough modeling, Meta Avatars, Unity integration, parametric components, and more, but we’re just getting started on this journey to bring effortless and intuitive spatial design to everyone. We will continue to expand our modeling capabilities, multi-user features, and integrations with other design tools and platforms as we push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

HG: You can try Arkio yourself for free. Just download it from the Quest Store and give it a try. All the modeling tools are available in the free version, and you can try out Passthrough modeling and multi-user as well. Check out some of the sample projects and learn the basics using the tutorials inside Arkio. We’d love to hear what you think in our forums on arkio.is, on Discord, or if you drop us a line at hello@arkio.is—we’re always looking for feedback on what we can do better.