The Profession

Jessica Revell was hired right out of school in 2001 by Pixar Design, a firm located in San Rafael, California. Pixar prides itself on the use of cutting edge technology in the buildings it designs and the techniques it uses to design them. The education she received at Stanford University allowed Jessica to rise quickly to the position of Associate Partner for Design. She has assumed responsibility for Design and Project Management of the Summer Festival Theater Arts complex in Dresden, Germany. Pixar won the commission recently in an International Design Competition.

On this Wednesday morning, Jessica enters the study of her home in Monterey, California, turns on her Jonathan mini-computer and calls up the requirements for the Performance Hall which have just been approved by the client.

For some time Pixar Design has used HumanScape 6.0, a building requirement translation program which converts the requisite numeric square footages into a two-dimensional graphic format automatically adjusting them to reflect the adjacencies outlined in the building’s written description. The current version also converts the two-dimensional shapes into 3-D blocks of appropriate height, inserts required furnishings, and places an appropriate number of human figures within each three-dimensional shape. Pixar designers refer to this process as void diagramming. Void Diagramming allows the designer to choreograph of the figures with each space and throughout the entire building. HumanScape’s effect is immediate as the design begins to emerge. It forces a shift in the designer’s thinking away from the abstractions of form in architectural design toward the quality of space available to the building’s users. HumanScape 6.0 is effective at insinuating the life that goes on in the building as opposed to static design drawings which emphasis, by their nature, the form of the building as object.

Using version 7.0 which Jessica is beta testing for Pixar, she attaches attributes, such as wall color, texture, and reflectivity, to each space and experiments with the quality of both artificial and natural light through inserting or removing light fixtures or windows. One of the best features of the application comes when the schematic design is nearly complete, with adjacencies and circulation thoroughly worked out. By setting the human figures within the diagrams in motion, circulation in each space can be examined. The effects of furniture placement or adding more people can be studied and revised. In addition, Jessica can set a wheelchair bound person in motion, give it a destination within the building and observe the figure’s progress and the obstructions it encounters. A variation of this feature allows Jessica to fill the performance hall to capacity. She can then use the voice activated feature of the program to induce evacuation of the audience by saying “Fire” while she designates origin of the flame with a match icon. The resulting animations are a powerful stimulus to concern for handicapped needs and safety.

To this point, Jessica has been using enhanced versions of the designer’s traditional drawing conventions which she has been viewing on her computer screen. She moves to a more spacious part of her studio and pauses to don a unique pair of glasses, a glove for her left hand and a small wireless controller which she carries in her right hand.

NASA's Virtual Reality Suite

She clicks the controller several times while moving her hand in a series of slow gestures. Suddenly she sees, in her glasses, the image of the performance hall, full size from the inside. Now using the glove on her left hand she can begin to modify the mesh box which represents the performance hall. Her movements begin to take on the quality of a tai-chi exercise as she slowly sculpts the air with her hands. Default rules maintain doorway connections to adjoining spaces and also limit the amount of surface deformation Jessica can induce a she dances. Within a short time the space begins to take on a finished appearance and Jessica moves her attention to another part of the building.

After an hour the glasses blink, indicating it is time to take a break from the intensity of the simulation. Jessica disconnects from the program and takes hours to go shopping.

Four months later Jessica is in the Pixar office in San Rafael, awaiting the arrival of the client team from Dresden. She made the 90 minute journey from Monterey by high speed rail earlier in the morning. When Mr. Van Carryon and his team arrives for the week long marathon design charette at Pixar’s offices in the Trump Office Park they are escorted into an unusual conference room, a white surfaced geodesic domed shaped space about 14 feet high and 28 feet in diameter. Jessica greets them warmly and introduces other members of the Pixar staff. They exchange pleasantries and then settle down to business sitting in comfortable chairs drawn up to a small wooden conference table in the center of the room. Mr. Carryon asks how the project is progressing and Jessica suggests they take a look. She flips open a small panel on the table and removes a small keyboard, several headphones, a laser pointer and several pair of funny looking gloves from the storage compartment. She pushes a button and the rest of the conference table lowers itself into the floor. The chamber is now empty except for the people in the room, their chairs and the small keyboard panel.

Jessica keys in several commands, there is a momentary pause before they are surrounded by a life-like view of the building site and the proposed theater as seen from the park across the street. Mr. Carryon gasps! Jessica says it will take a few seconds to become oriented. She goes on to explain that the surfaces of the room are actually high definition screens which allow for the computer display of the theater and its surroundings. The display is a composite of computer generated and video images.

Handing Mr. Carryon the pointer Jessica explains that by aiming it at any portion of the room the simulation will move in that direction. A button on top of the pointer controls the speed of motion. After a quick and slightly dizzying simulated tour around the building site during which Mr. Carryon’s assistant learns to control the pointer Jessica suggests they examine the interior of the theater complex. She allows her client to navigate his own way through the main entry, around the lobby, and into the main theater. Along the way the team looks into offices, rehearsal halls, behind unmarked doors, and even in the star’s dressing room. While the client is primarily interested in exploring the proposed building for the first time, Jessica is interested in observing reactions to the design. She and her associate observe closely to see how easily the client finds his way. They also look for reactions to the design in facial expressions and body posture. Occasionally Jessica speaks softly into a microphone on the control panel, recording observations, while on other occasions the client and design team openly discuss portions of the design.

It takes most of the first day of meeting for the client team to explore the preliminary building design to their satisfaction. After they have had the chance to collect their thoughts and ideas the teams settle down to serious design development.

When the clients express some concerns for the configuration of the small experimental theater, Jessica brings out several of the funny gloves and says “let’s change it”. She keys in several commands and the display reverts to a simplified simulation of the room shape. For the next several hours the teams experiment, argue, and ultimately refine the design, all at virtual full scale from both inside and out. When the Dresden team leaves at the end of the week the entire preliminary design has been approved.

Three weeks later a team of specialists enter the conference room to fine tune the acoustics of the various performance halls. They wear high definition ear phones while viewing the simulation of each hall. By controlling their virtual position within each hall they can hear the quality of sound at that location. By incrementally altering the acoustic attributes of some of the surfaces within the space they gradually fine tune it using keyboard commands or designer gloves.

Two years later, Jessica is in Dresden for an on-site inspection. Such a visit is not typical because construction progress is updated at least once a week with video phone conferences between Dresden and San Rafael. The building contractors and the construction manager provide videos of progress as part of those meetings. Today’s visit is necessitated because construction is about to begin on a complicated steel assembly at the top of the building and its completion will result in a ceremonial topping off of the theater complex and much picture taking.

Jessica meets the construction foreman and together they ride the construction elevator to the top of the building. Each of them is wearing a new form of hardhat with flip down protective goggles. They meet Jan Bessemer, the on-site representative of the steel fabricator, and await arrival of the first steel column which is being attached to the construction crane as they talk.

Before the column arrives at the top, Jan gathers several key works around him. They all flip down their protective goggles which act as a virtual computer screen and are used by construction workers to review construction procedures. Virtual images appear on the otherwise transparent glasses in response to verbal commands by the workers. These take the form of animated sequences, developed by the engineers, steel suppliers, and designers, and provide a visual illustration of key points in the column erection. In any point in the process after the column arrives workers can refer to this sequence without the need to consult traditional blueprints. The hardhat allows each of them to see construction procedures or construction details from their own point of view. Using their construction gloves, workers can “grab” the construction image and rotate, tilt or move it to match the actual view they have through their goggles. Jessica and the job supervisor can also review and construction sequence in the same way using their designer gloves. This is all made possible by an on-site mobile communications system which links all the hardhats to a master file server.

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