Virtual Reality Lab College of Design

VRDL Trailer from Aaron Westre on Vimeo.

The Virtual Reality Design Lab (VRDL), located in the public courtyard of Rapson Hall, launched in March 2012. The VRDL is run by faculty and staff in the College of Design and is a continuation of the Digital Design Consortium, a 6 year partnership between the College of Design and Computer Science and Engineering made possible by a gift from Ted and Linda Johnson.

Our Space


The courtyard is the center of life at Rapson Hall, home to the School of Architecture and the Department of Landscape Architecture. At over 5000 square feet (520 square meters), the courtyard can accommodate a variety of class activities, social gatherings and now, the VRDL. While many virtual reality (VR) installations are constrained by the space they occupy, the courtyard has enabled the VRDL to offer one of the largest virtual environments found anywhere. Key to this achievement has been the suspension of a truss system in the center of the space. This truss serves as an armature for mounting tracking cameras and has allowed an expansion of the lab without adding obstacles to movement on the floor below.

We use a state-of-the-art motion capture system, along with custom software and hardware to give people visually rich and immersive virtual experiences. We work with faculty and students from across the College of Design as well as industry partners to develop new ways to visualize design. Our current focus is on the building industry in general and architectural design in particular. Immersive virtual reality offers architects, builders and designers of all kinds a way to evaluate design decisions, construction details and other factors before a design is realized. Stakeholders such as future building occupants can find out how spaces will feel in a more intuitive way than simply viewing a 3D model on a 2D screen.

Social VR

Our current research is focused on making virtual reality a social experience. Historically, virtual reality has been a solitary activity – a single person wearing a single head-mounted display. Design, however, is a collaborative endeavor in which multiple people focus their attention on the same object, structure or environment. The spaciousness of our courtyard, along with our advances in head-mounted display technology, allow us to support simultaneous users all immersed in the same virtual environment. When multiple people all share a virtual experience they can more effectively communicate, leading to better design.

Two students in the Virtual Reality Design Lab

Perception Head-Mounted Display

The Perception headset was developed in order to achieve our ultimate vision of Social VR. While typical, trackable VR head-mounted displays are expensive, bulky and require either a heavy laptop computer or other equipment to be carried on the user's back, The Perception is a cost-effective design that allows for a fully trackable, unique and immersive 3D experience. Perception devices combine off-the-shelf tablet hardware and a custom enclosure with specialized software, and are easily replicated for the multi-user, Social VR environment.

A student wearing the Perception HMD prototype

More information about our technology


The VRDL is made possible by support from Ted and Linda Johnson and grants from the National Science Foundation. Ted and Linda Johnson also helped fund the Digital Design Center.

We would like to thank the USC MxR Lab for the prototypes that inspired some of our work, Adam Billyard for his collaboration with us, PhaseSpace for providing technology support and Ross Neumann and Zach Fadness for their product design work on the Perception.

UMN School of Architecture
Rapson Hall
89 Church Street SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455