Virtual reality (VR) isn’t just for fun and (video) games anymore. It’s helping solve real-world problems in healthcare design and construction.

Sanford Fargo Medical Center in Fargo, N.D., turned to VR to experience its $500 million facility before it was built. The project team relied on VR to aid decision-making and design review for critical spaces and architectural elements, using approaches tailored to the participants and goals of each situation.

Using the Virtual Reality Design Lab at the University of Minnesota, HKS Architects joined a team of Sanford Fargo Medical Center project leaders that included the directors of facilities management and nursing at a simulation event led by contractor Mortenson Construction. In this immersive environment, the group “walked” through the building’s planned three-story lobby to assess everything from architectural features to spatial relationships.

Another use involved Sanford Health management donning a VR headset, typically used for 3-D gaming, to experience the hospital’s lobby.

Mortenson also took a lower-tech but equally effective approach using augmented reality to review the design of a patient room. It projected a 3-D visualization of the planned headwall behind an actual patient bed, enabling nurses to check out equipment placement and other room features. The tool also allowed Mortenson to make adjustments to the projected headwall in real-time so nurses could try out their suggested modifications until they agreed on the optimal arrangement. The approach facilitated an accelerated review process and better understanding of critical device placements.

By making design and visualization interactive for the project, now about halfway through construction, VR has yielded very real benefits for the project team, including:

  • A more informed and confident customer
  • Accelerated decision-making
  • Lower project costs through minimization of change
  • Higher productivity for design review and implementation
  • Less rework through informed design
  • Improved customer satisfaction.

With successes like these, VR as a business tool is clearly reaching an important threshold. At the same time, wearable VR technology is advancing rapidly and just as rapidly dropping in price. Since Facebook acquired Oculus, a manufacturer of VR technology, Samsung and other electronics heavyweights have begun rolling out their own wearable products, setting the stage for them to become 2015’s hottest gadgets.

Just because VR is increasingly available and affordable, though, doesn’t make it the go-to solution for every design and construction project. Some “rules” for VR engagement to consider:

  • Begin with the end in mind—what is the VR engagement trying to accomplish?
  • Evaluate your options—is VR the best way to reach that goal? Are there lower-tech options that will work just as well?
  • Determine the right VR equipment and experience for each engagement.
  • Be aware of and address VR’s limitations. It doesn’t eliminate the need for physical mock-ups, for example.
  • Ensure the right people are involved in the process.
  • Measure the return on investment.

As these guidelines indicate, it will be some time before VR is a routine part of healthcare design and construction. But companies in healthcare and other industries are already realizing considerable value from VR when used selectively to solve specific problems or aid decision-making, and that role is only likely to grow.

Taylor Cupp is senior integrated construction coordinator at Mortenson Construction. He can be reached at