Virtual Reality in Planning

Watch a video on CRP's experimentation with Virtual Reality Technology

“Planning Meets Virtual Reality: Student Research Team Uses VR to Improve the Design Process”

By Amy Uthenpong (she/they)

At the start of 2021, City and Regional Planning professor Dr. Amir Hajrasouliha gathered a group of students to conduct research on how virtual reality could be implemented in the design and planning process. Virtual reality utilizes computer simulations to generate experiences that are alike or different to the real world, mostly used in video games and educational training. The students were eager to pioneer this experimental research, as third-year student Kristie Woo explains she had always been interested in VR gaming but did not consider VR in the planning world. Each student tested different VR applications then evaluated how the software could be integrated in the planning process. The team also explored the opportunities and limitations of the programs and its digital literacy range.  The final outcome was a new design process that integrated virtual reality into three stages of urban design: organization, ideation, and presentation. This workflow was applied to Cal Poly’s urban design studio in a project for the City of Gilroy, California. 

First stage: Interact in VR with partners to organize information 

Software programs Spatial and vSpatial were used to explore the communication potential in virtual reality meetings. The applications are immersive workspaces that simulate in-person meetings. Spatial utilizes avatars that sync mouth movements with user audio and features collaboration boards where people can share drawings and 3D objects. Up to thirty people can be within the same Spatial room with only one person needing a VR headset, whereas vSpatial requires everyone to have a headset. Both of the applications allow 3D models like libraries or park benches to be imported, so participants can see the object in different perspectives. Third-year student Trevor Winnard describes how interacting with others using Spatial allowed him to “take a step back from using zoom, which dominated our academic experience, and look at a different option.” These two work applications have potential to be used in desk critiques and stakeholder engagements without being in the same physical space.

Second stage: View and Edit conceptual models in VR 

VR SketchUp and Sketchup Viewer allow multiple people in the same Sketchup file to view, create, and edit 3D models. With VR SketchUp, multiple people can have human scale interactions in proposed buildings and spaces. In fact, undergraduate student James Schireman was able to import a SketchUp file of Downtown San Luis Obispo and walk through its streets using a virtual reality headset. The biggest advantages are getting an immersive experience at the early stages of design and having multiple people work in the same file at once. With VR SketchUp, planners can edit models in real time and share site plans through the cloud. This has potential to make the design process more collaborative and immersive.

Third stage: Presenting multiple design scenarios in VR 

The team used GIS (geographic information system) files with different 3D modeling programs to create a virtual reality experience. Students Eric Wang, Alex Lopez, and Trevor Winnard explored City Engine with ArcGIS Urban and Unreal Engine. City Engine utilizes coding procedures to generate interactive 3D models on a large scale and make them VR compatible. Winnard used coding procedures in City Engine to generate 3D buildings on a city scale in rapid time instead of designing buildings one by one. Another program, ArcGIS Urban, uses 3D modeling to display different zoning and land use codes more effectively. ArcGIS Urban and City Engine, both ESRI products, can be synced together in the modeling process. Finally, Unreal Engine transfers the model into a virtual reality format. 

Communicating ideas to those unfamiliar with planning can be done in a more unified and expressive way. As Eric explains, these programs can “communicate physically while virtually” by creating instantaneous scenario switching across the same project. For example, with a proposed development, it is possible to generate and display various VR options (scenarios) for comparison. A person with a headset could compare one development scenario with landscaping, interact with it, then switch to another scenario with no landscaping. Kristie explains that community outreach in the planning field could be improved with virtual reality because “it’s hard to look at a master plan or map to see what a [proposed building] will look like but with VR you can walk through it and see exactly how the proposed building will look like.”

After experimenting with various virtual reality software, the team produced tutorials for other students to use and implemented the new process in a Cal Poly urban design studio. In CRP 341, Urban Design Studio III, the class partnered with the City of Gilroy to develop four different design scenarios in a commercial space. Students created an immersive experience for all four scenarios that could be used in the public engagement process and the final presentation.  

Virtual Reality has the potential to change the status quo of planning, influencing the design and community engagement process. From the ideation, design, and community outreach phases, a new generation of planners are exploring how technology could offer a new way of collaboration and design in planning.


A special appreciation to Dr. Amir Hajrasouliha (he/him), The City of Gilroy, CRP 341 (Urban Design Studio III) Spring 2021, and CAED Dean’s Leadership for funding the project.

Students Involved: Alex Lopez (he/him), James Schireman (he/him), Eric Wang (he/him), Trevor Winnard (he/him), Kristie Woo (she/her)

More Resources:

Youtube “Incorporating Virtual Reality in Urban Design Process”

Youtube Video Link 2: “City and Regional Planning Presentation”

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