Foodservice design: the new reality

New 3D and VR technologies bringing foodservice design to life have opened up a world of possibility for consultants. Amelia Levin finds out how they improve the design process for all project players

Remember years ago, when people were talking about how Revit would be the next big thing, and there was some pushback, but now we’re here and Revit is becoming more and more ubiquitous and even expected by some clients? That might be where we’re headed with 3D imaging and, eventually, virtual reality (VR).

“We’re just getting to a place where we can overlay some new technologies in this space for the betterment of the client and better coordination with architects and other project players,” says FCSI Associate Alec Bauer, principal and creative director of Kitchen, Restaurant & Bar Specialists.

There are many benefits of using even just basic 3D animation, says Bauer: “3D animations are phenomenally communicative from a visualization perspective, especially for chefs and food and beverage directors, who tend to struggle with reading a traditional set of blueprints. With 3D animation, they can immediately get a sense of the space.”

Beyond that, 3D animation saves time and money because of the reduction of change orders and mistakes. “It definitely gives you a competitive edge,” says Joseph Schumaker FCSI, founder and CEO of FoodSpace. “Each step of the way the client is seeing a more detailed version of what we’re building for them.” With 3D and VR, Schumaker can make changes to the design right then and there during meetings with clients.

What it all means 

Some people use the terms ‘3D animation’ and ‘VR’ interchangeably, but in reality they’re different. According to Bauer, 3D animation is essentially an animated walk-through of a rendering, which could be as simple as a grayscale rendering giving you a rough idea of where the equipment will go. VR, on the other hand, is an immersive experience that requires the use of VR goggles or headsets (perhaps the best-known brand being Oculus).

To create a 3D walk-through, Bauer will first draw out rough sketches based on initial meetings with the client either in person or over Zoom. Once the client is on board with the initial layout, he might do one more 2D hard-line sketch before creating a more detailed rendering in Revit. He then will use Enscape, which is a Revit plugin, to add more details such as wall paint colors, flooring and lighting. At this point, it’s possible to turn on the animation so that clients can ‘walk through’ the space directly from their computer.

“If Revit is the black and white drawing, then Enscape is the coloring book,” Bauer says. “You can use the program to apply color and textures to make the space look more real.”

Getting to photoreal

The level of how detailed and technical you can get varies, says Schumaker. At the most basic level, you can place key pieces of equipment in a 3D walk-through of the space, which users move through by clicking on arrows, like in Google Street View.

At more advanced levels, you can plug in actual equipment brands and specs so the client can see how these pieces will actually play out in the space – this is called ‘photorealism.’ This is also where those VR goggles start coming into play.

“We’re just starting to get to a place where you can load your drawings in Oculus goggles or another VR-type headset, the chef or client can put them on and literally look around the kitchen.

When you turn your head you can see the kitchen; you look up, you see the ceiling; you turn around, you see shelving,” Bauer says. “The industry is in the infancy of that; what I call the tech stack is not quite there on the consulting side, but I could see this being beneficial at the beginning of a project where I could ship [a VR headset] loaded with my designs to the client and then tell them, ‘Hey chef, call me just before you put these on and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.’ We could both be standing in this virtual kitchen and see each other’s avatars and I could say: ‘Chef, you’re 6ft 2 – is this shelf a good height for you?’ This is a fascinating place to get to.”

Architects and general contractors are already getting close to this level, if not at it already. “I recently had a project – a new hotel being built in Nashville – where I was able to put on my goggles and use my VR controls to literally fly up to the fourth floor where the kitchen was going to be,” says Bauer. “It hadn’t been done in Revit yet so it was just a shell, but I could see where the bar was and some basic elements were in there.”

Schumaker had similar experiences recently, so he’s taking things a step further and began experimenting with working in architectural renderings to build out the kitchen on his end. He uses a combination of the architect’s Revit materials, if available, and/or others he can find in his own library search.

“One of the reasons photorealism is costly and time-consuming is because you have to have all the materials loaded into Revit—all the flooring, walls, carpet, tile have to be fully rendered in Revit already,” Schumaker says. “Sometimes the architect or interior designer will have these materials already and can share them with you, but, if not, you’ll have to ‘fake’ it by looking through material libraries and picking out assets to make it look like hardwood floors, even if it’s not exactly the spec they’re using.”

Schumaker has had the opportunity to work with architects willing to share their central material library in a collaboration platform so he can borrow those materials to build out his 3D kitchen designs for 3D animation or VR.

“When I drop a salad bar or cold well into an island, usually there’s no food in it, no tongs, no sneeze guards,” he says. “If I’m doing a photorealistic VR session, then I need to find lettuce and other toppings for the salad bar. Once you build out your asset library the first time, you can use those over and over again, but the initial buildout is the biggest investment of time and money right now.”

It’s not necessary for consultants to get to this level of detail with their designs, but “we’re seeing more and more architects doing photoreal so it’s definitely coming,” he says.

Desktop immersion

There is one tool that’s a step above basic 3D animation but not quite full-on VR with headsets. Visual Conquest is a 3D design visualization platform where you, as a foodservice consultant, can ‘meet up’ with clients on your own computers and walk through a space with avatars and all.

Using this platform, “every station of the foodservice operation can be analyzed to determine flow from one station to the next, or the number of steps it will take for employees to accomplish their task,” says Brenden Wright, creator of the platform, which uses game engine technology to bring kitchen designs to life. “Designers can create and visualize their designs in a virtual environment, allowing them to make changes and adjustments before MEPs and equipment schedules are created. This enables designers to spot errors and potential issues early in the process, which can save significant amounts of time and money by avoiding mistakes that would otherwise require extensive revisions or even complete redesigns.

“Additionally, this allows designers to provide clients with a more realistic representation of their designs, reducing the need for costly and time-consuming design iterations,” Wright says.

Using Visual Conquest’s platform, it’s possible to make notes right in the design, take measurements, add pop-up information for different pieces of equipment, and even switch between two or more possible design scenarios. “You can also drop in or replace equipment in real time,” adds Wright.

In general, Wright reckons, both desktop immersive experiences and VR headset experiences have their own advantages and disadvantages. “While VR is and has been a useful tool for years, it poses several challenges, such as graphic limitations, experience of the user, motion sickness if not built properly and, more importantly, the ability to deploy it – most consumers haven’t experienced, used or own VR goggles just yet,” he says.

With the desktop version, everything is based on remote cloud servers, making it accessible through a basic web browser. “Links can be sent to the client for them to review on their own or can be reviewed together and collaboratively, making annotations and analyzing the operation in real time,” says Wright. “We’re using higher-end graphics cards to build out the scenes, so we don’t have to compromise quality over frame rates. We can produce higher quality detail plus enjoy a great streaming user experience.”

Both Bauer and Schumaker are excited to see the development of 3D immersion and VR in foodservice. For those new to the technologies, it’s not too late to make a start.

“As foodservice consultants, we have a little more time to figure out the technology,” says Bauer. “But just as Revit became more ubiquitous, so will these newer technologies one day. The good news is our design knowledge and skills are still most important. Knowing how to use these technologies is not a precursor to good design.”

Amelia Levin