Exploring Architecture with Virtual Reality

Chartres Cathedral from 360Cities.net

Virtual reality offers a striking immersive experience that is particularly well-suited to viewing architectural works and historic sites. 

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment.

In VR, a wholly virtual environment that does not incorporate any real-world elements is viewed with a headset.

VR vs. AR vs. MR

Augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) are related to VR. In both AR and MR, virtual elements are imposed onto a real-world background. AR is less elaborate, often consisting of simple textual annotations, and can usually be viewed on a personal device without using a headset. In MR, virtual elements interact with real objects; a headset with pass-through cameras is required.

How does VR work?

VR creates a stereoscopic rendering of a panoramic image; the 3D effect is achieved in much the same way as antique stereographs or View Master slides. The viewer is able to track across the panoramic image in real time, creating the illusion of real space.

How are these images generated?

360° photographs and video are taken with either one camera with multiple lenses or with an array of linked cameras. The fields of view from each lens overlap such that the images they produce can be combined to create a wraparound view. 360° image capture is ideal for depicting real-world objects and locations.

Many VR environments are fully computer-generated. These spaces are built wholesale within a video game engine. This content is not photorealistic, but it can be useful for rendering environments that are impossible to photograph, such as historic structures that are no longer standing.


360Cities.net is a repository of 360° panoramic photographs created by independent photographers. The 360Cities database features many historically and artistically significant sites from around the world. These panoramas can be viewed in VR using the workflow in this document.

How can I access Sawyer’s VR project room?

The VR project room is located in the Sawyer Library’s Center for Educational Technology (CET) in room 264. Keys to the room and remotes can be checked out from the front desk. A system for booking the room in advance is currently being developed.

The room is equipped with a HTC Vive headset that runs through the Steam VR environment. VR programs can be loaded and controlled from the room’s PC. It is recommended that you use the VR room in pairs or small groups, as it is difficult to operate the PC and headset at the same time.

Viewing materials from 360Cities.net with the CET’s VR system:

1. Double-click “vrmonitor – Shortcut” to launch the Steam VR viewer. The headset will “wake up.” If you are using the VR room alone, put on the headset now.

2. Double-click any of the existing shortcuts in the 360Cities folder on the desktop to view a pre-loaded panorama directly. Alternatively, open a Google Canary browser and navigate to 360Cities.net to browse the catalog.

3. Once you have selected a panorama to view, click the headset icon at the top right of the frame. Once you have done this, click “Enter VR” at the top of the frame. The headset will briefly display a loading screen before transitioning to the image.

You may experience some lag while tracking across the image with the headset; movement should become smoother as time goes on and the image is cached.

4. To view a different image, close both the browser and the Steam program and restart this process from the beginning.

Please contact Joe if you would like to plan a VR project for your course or if you have any questions.

Joe Favini, Digital Projects & Imaging Specialist, [email protected]