We speak to surfer, programmer, and climbing gym designer Maciej Fijalkowski about the current state of the VR industry and the story behind the VR Sketch extension. Maciej's company has introduced a new concept into the SketchUp world with VR Sketch, enabling the creation, manipulation, and presentation of models in a fully immersive virtual reality environment.
The VR Sketch team
What is the inspiration behind starting VR Sketch?
During the process of designing and building a new rock climbing gym, I acquired a VR headset to help visualize projects. Although most consider SketchUp easy to learn, for some beginners it can be difficult to understand the mapping of 2D screens to 3D space. This got us thinking: how useful would it be if you could draw directly in space, without a monitor and mouse? When we couldn’t find existing tools already out there, we developed our own.
We build software to help solve our problems, so we decided to help others by releasing a product that anybody could use.
The original gym design in SketchUp
The climbing gym, made into reality
We started the company in April 2018 so it’s fairly new and pretty small with only 3 people. Right now, we are in the same city but that doesn’t happen very often. I live in Cape Town along with co-founder, Duncan Fraser, an architect who travels often. The other co-founder, Armin Rigo, lives in Switzerland, so we all live in the same time zone but at best we only meet a couple of times each year. We’re separated physically and have worked as part of distributed teams for years, so we understand the importance of collaboration tools. We all have backgrounds in open source development and so are able to introduce collaboration features into our own applications.
What are the typical types of projects you and the team take on?
We’ve done a bunch of things together in the past, our main focus for the last decade has been a project called PyPy, an open source software for a faster way to run Python code. The team comes from a very academic and deep open source background. VR Sketch is our first venture into architecture and design; it has introduced us to awesome events like 3D Basecamp with greater diversity in those attending versus the Python conferences we are used to. I really enjoy that we are able to work with a range of designers across construction and architecture, through to those doing completely crazy graphic design and concept art.
VR Sketch gives anyone the ability to create, edit and view models in VR and SketchUp. The idea is simple; you should be able to use all of SketchUp’s tools in VR. We’ve taken a leap into spatial design to make it more accessible to the masses.
Having a more intuitive tool such as VR Sketch requires less of the skills that say, a trained architect might have. I personally design a few things each month in 3D, small pieces of furniture or art for the wall. Now, I can focus more on the design and less on how I might actually draw it.
VR Sketch's Move feature
The Push/Pull feature in VR Sketch
Being a small team, have you had to focus your efforts on one platform?
VR Sketch works with all the high-end hardware such as HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, those with touch controllers, and some mixed reality headsets. A lot of new major headsets are still in beta and next year when Oculus Quest comes out, our functionality will be even better. We have focused on doing things well first for the ‘higher-end’ devices. There are companies out there creating low-end VR equipment, which can have a negative impact on the whole industry. If people try something that doesn’t work they might write off the whole VR experience for years to come.
We consider the affordability of any design tool to be a key consideration. Many design professionals are already using VR, a big growth market but there’s also a completely untapped market for non-professionals. These people might struggle to afford VR headsets right now but we know they would benefit enormously from a tool like VR Sketch. As the hardware becomes more accessible, our software will provide anyone with the opportunity to create with models right there in front of them.
Teleporting within the VR Sketch extension
VR Sketch's Paint feature
Are there any industry trends you’re considering for future app development?
We believe that much of 3D design will move into the VR space and we’ll see rapid iterations in hardware design. Headsets will get lighter and more affordable, and controllers will become less clunky. There will also be major advancements on the software side. When we play with virtual reality today, we’re breaking new ground. User interfaces still need work and research will take years. The rapid evolution and interconnection between hardware and software in the VR industry will open up a lot of opportunity for us. Right now, we’re working on a cloud-enabled collaboration. This means users can work on a model with distant team members simultaneously and keep a full version control.
Selecting an object in VR Sketch
VR Sketch allows you to draw within your model
You come across as a very creative person, if resource and money were no object, what would your dream project be?
I am really interested in urban design and that the biggest issues are often related to human opposition. With an unlimited budget, I would love to be involved in developing a ‘Chartered City’ as theorized by Paul Romer. In this type of city, it is possible to play with new ideas, a kind of volunteer-driven experiment as experienced during the development of Hong Kong.
It would be good to implement a similar system here in Africa, where urbanization is not as good as it could be. We have many problems with congestion and inequality, with many haphazard or overly conservative projects. Can we design cities better through experimentation or recreate the type of urbanization seen in Copenhagen, over the last 1,000 years in a much shorter period of time? Urbanization is a subject that’s critical for most people on the planet but requires more experimentation to solve many common problems that appear in geographically disparate cities.