Mortenson used Unity to create a virtual reality (VR) walkthrough of Climate Pledge Arena, the new home of the Seattle Kraken. The immersive and collaborative virtual environment enables project, sales and marketing, and ownership teams to review designs and give tours before the arena is built.
U.S.-based Mortenson is a top-20 builder, developer, and provider of energy and engineering services. Its Seattle office has been building complex projects in the Northwest for over 36 years. In 2018, Mortenson was named the new general contractor on a KeyArena redevelopment project for the Seattle Kraken, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) 32nd franchise, set to play its inaugural season in 2021.
Recently renamed Climate Pledge Arena, this extensive $1 billion project will reposition the venue as the premier sports and entertainment destination in the Pacific Northwest. The arena is aiming to be the first International Living Future Institute net Zero Carbon certified professional sports venue in the world. The institute’s net Zero Carbon Certification requires that 100% of the energy used to operate the building be offset by new renewable energy. In addition, all of the embodied carbon emissions associated with the construction and materials of the project must be disclosed and offset.
Mortenson’s experience as one of the nation's largest sports and entertainment builders—recently completing the Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium and the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center—taught them the importance of ensuring ownership groups develop clear conceptual knowledge of the physical realities of the design direction. When Oak View Group, the majority owner of the Climate Pledge Arena, asked Mortenson to provide a walkthrough of premium spaces as they neared the end of conceptual design for the Climate Pledge Arena, they turned to Unity to create an immersive VR experience.
A new era of VR in AEC
Mortenson saw the value of VR early and created a Virtual Insights team to integrate visualization technologies into its design and customer experience. It made them experts in using Unity to deliver interactive VR and 360 video experiences for a wide variety of use cases, such as design reviews and sales/marketing initiatives for construction and healthcare clients.
“The AEC industry has been experimenting with the use of VR for well over 20 years. It has successfully provided value and ROI. However, for many projects, the form factor, technical requirements, and user friction for delivering walkthroughs prevented it from realizing its potential as an accessible and broadly-used communication and collaboration tool,” says Will Adams, VR Developer at Mortenson. “Now, the new generation of real-time 3D development platforms and standalone, six degrees of freedom (6DOF) headsets are ushering in a new era of VR utility in the AEC industry.”
This new era signals a paradigm shift for the AEC industry’s use of immersive VR. It’s no longer a technical tool that companies are curious about from an individual standpoint. It’s an invaluable tool that empowers customers and development teams to collaborate in real-time 3D and speed up design reviews through interactive and at-scale VR experiences.
“Various hardware and software improvements are reducing friction for users and facilitating comfort for longer periods of use,” says Adams. “These improvements have resulted in groups of people remaining immersed together for longer than previously possible. Users are experiencing environments intuitively, as if they were walking together, discussing issues and features naturally. It played a pivotal role in creating Climate Pledge Arena.”
Bringing the arena into Unity
The renovation has been likened to "building a ship in a bottle” as crews lifted and suspended a 44-million-pound roof over the project site as the arena’s footprint is expanded underground and the walls are rebuilt. The complexity of the project meant Mortenson had to rely on intense team collaboration, top-down construction, and digital tools to simulate the built environment.
When bringing the Climate Pledge Arena model into VR, Mortenson focused on the club level, suites, press bridge, arena bowl, structure, and atrium. Mortenson needed to port different design models from partners and building information modeling (BIM) data to build the arena in Unity.
The structural, precast stadia, walls, and other data were ported from Autodesk Revit. The renowned architectural firm Rockwell Group provided Mortenson with assets from Rhino and Autodesk 3ds Max for the high-design spaces, including the club level and suites.
After creating the model in Unity and assessing project needs, Mortenson decided to develop the environment for the Oculus Quest headset. “We chose the Oculus Quest for greater usability and flexibility. Because it’s easy to set up and maintain each headset, we can smoothly support 10 or more people in the environment simultaneously,” says Adams.
Immersive and collaborative goals
Mortenson’s research has shown that the key to a successful VR environment is to reduce friction. An overly complicated, hard to learn environment breaks immersion and the willingness of the user to engage. It’s important to create an inviting and accessible experience for all users. Mortenson implemented a wide variety of features to create the best virtual environment possible.
“We found that the use of ‘teleportation’ for primary navigation creates a psychological disconnect between users and the environment. It can reduce their ability to interact with other users socially and cause vertigo or motion sickness,” says Adams.
To combat this, Mortenson pushed the device's limits for positional tracking by leveraging a large 40-foot by 100-foot open space at its project office. This created a virtual environment where walking and moving naturally in the space was the primary mode of navigation.
Mortenson took it a step further by aligning the virtual environment with the physical walkthrough space. By using code development, networking, and a simple process of alignment, Mortenson could ensure that users' avatars are in the same place as their physical bodies. “It’s extremely important for users to interact normally in conversation, as it allows them to feel each other's presence through an accurate virtual representation of their position in respect to their voice,” says Adams.
Creating a winning environment
The Unity VR walkthrough has been a valuable tool for both the project team and the ownership group. Given the customers’ focus on creating live world-class sports and entertainment experiences, it was critical for Mortenson to deliver a smooth and successful arena operation. Utilizing an immersive VR environment enabled the arena’s operation personnel to be prepared and familiar with the space before it’s even open, ensuring a spectacular experience for fans.
“We facilitated VR walkthroughs for more than 100 people with an average time-in-environment of well over one hour per person,” says Adams. “Ken Johnson, Project Executive at Oak View Group, has spent well over 10 hours in the environment. He’s become our best arena tour guide and has led tours for more than 30 people.”
After experiencing the power and realism of the virtual environment, Oak View Group wanted a version of the environment for the sales team. Additional modeling was done in 3ds Max and Unity to create a high-fidelity version the Seattle Kraken sales center could use to show customers and fans. Mortenson provided the virtual environment and six Oculus Quest headsets and trained the team on how to do VR walkthroughs. It has been highly effective and the highlight of their sales pitch.