The homeowner was concerned that the pool being excavated was smaller than expected, but the builder assured him it met the exact specifications in the design.

This happened to Barry Justus recently, and it’s one of the reasons why he’s eager to get his hands on a technology with the potential to push pesky exchanges like this into the past.

With it, pool builders can invite clients to tour the backyards of their dreams long before breaking ground on a project. They’ll hear the gurgling of waterfeatures, see firefeatures blazing, and examine tile lines while waist deep in the pristine, pixelated waters of their custom pools. These will be the moments when clients, experiencing outdoor living spaces stunningly rendered in a digital simulation, can suggest that the designer go ahead and make the pool a little bit bigger.

“If they have the opportunity to essentially swim in that pool in virtual reality, then there will be no question about the size of it,” says Justus, president and founder of Toronto-based Poolscape, Inc., and who serves as a design instructor for the industry organization, Genesis.

Indeed, virtual reality (often shorthanded to VR) promises an evolutionary leap forward in the way builders design. It not only could spell the end of “but-I-thought-this-was-supposed-to-be-that” mishaps, but also increase close rates.

Long gone are the days when builders had to sell a $250,000 project based on something they sketched on paper. Today, sales presentations are typically conducted with a bit more flair: Richly detailed 3-D drawings are displayed on large, high-definition monitors or projection screens. Animated fly-throughs are set to dramatic music, upping the emotional impact.

As effective as that is, software maker Structure Studios, a pioneer in cinematic pool design presentation, is kicking the wow-factor up another notch by virtually plunking homeowners into their own personal paradises. The Henderson, Nev.-based firm’s suite of advanced design programs, including Pool Studio and Vip3D, underwent a much-anticipated VR upgrade. There’s also IrisVR, in New York City, which converts designs made in SketchUp into virtual reality for a variety of design and architectural trades.

Such programs allow designers to create projects on their laptops or desktops and then, using a mouse or video game controller, guide customers through their creations, brought to scale in vivid, lifelike detail, through the lenses of a VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

In the case of Structure Studios’ software, the new VR platform enables builders to design pools, patios and outdoor kitchens with an unprecedented level of realism, and a graphical quality comparable to those of the latest Xbox and PlayStation gaming systems, says the firm’s founder, Noah Nehlich.

“It’s ultra-compelling,” he says. “To build that kind of emotional relationship with something that hasn’t been built yet, that’s something special.”

Raising the design bar

Christopher Anderson, a high-end builder in Houston, was granted an opportunity to experiment with a prototype. The beauty of the current version of Pool Studio, he says, is that he can design with as much, or as little, detail as a project warrants. But with VR now a factor, he has to consider what things will look like inside his drawings, which is forcing him to step up his game.

Adding layer upon layer of meticulous detail can be time consuming. Anderson, owner of Custom Design Pools & Landscaping, says it’s not uncommon to spend 30- to 40 hours on a design so it’s nearly indistinguishable from the finished product. But when your average project falls in the neighborhood of $250,000, you don’t take shortcuts. He wants to give clients as accurate a representation of the future environment as possible — especially when they’re going to be artificially immersed in their surroundings.

“Because someone is going to put these 3-D glasses on, it pushes me to be more realistic, because now I’m putting them in an environment where I want butterflies and birds chirping, and I want the plaster to be the right color,” Anderson says. “I want them to be able to go inside [their home] and see the pool from their windows, so I want the windows to be in the right location.

“Now they’re living in it.”

The value of VR

This technology stands to be game-changing in how clients and designers interact.

“You’re not just relying on drawings in the way you’re communicating,” says George Valdes, vice president of product at New York-based IrisVR.

Though designers understand scale and space in the context of 2-D and 3-D, many times this is lost on the client. That’s not a problem when homeowners feel as though they’re physically exploring a designer’s vision. “Once they’re in virtual reality, they get it — they understand what you’re trying to tell them,” Valdes says. “I think, for the first time ever, we’re speaking the same language.”

Used to its fullest, VR gives designers the ability to replicate real-world conditions in a simulation. This informs more functional, aesthetically pleasing pool-scapes, Nehlich says. For instance, when a client wants to know if their backyard will have adequate shade for their Fourth of July party, the designer can position the sun precisely where it will be at, say, 3 p.m. Donning the headset, the homeowner is able to see, in a very real sense, whether or not the project calls for more shade structures.

Also, the practice of soundscaping, whereby designers strategically place waterfeatures to drown out unwanted noise, could be brought to perfection in this new digital frontier. The client is able to accurately hear if a stacked-stone waterfall will help mute the sounds of traffic.

Given its robust design applications, developers contend that this technology is more than a powerful sales tool; it has the potential to change the way pool builders do business in at least one significant way. Because it may require more intense attention to detail — and, therefore, more time at the desk — perhaps they’ll be less inclined to give their designs away in the hopes of clinching a sale, Anderson says.

He makes a strong argument that time spent building virtual environments should be billable. “If you ask an architect to design you a free house, he’d tell you to [get out],” Anderson says. “If we’re offering virtual reality, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and start charging for our time on these projects.”

Just scratching the surface

Structure Studios doesn’t anticipate that its VR software, released on Sept. 22, will be an instant blockbuster.

One of the biggest hurdles is hardware. VR requires massive amounts of processing power, which will force many pool firms to upgrade their computers. VR-ready desktops, such as the SkyTech GTX, are selling for $1,300 to $1,900. Plus, the headsets themselves aren’t exactly cheap. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift will set you back $599 and $799, respectively. That’s why Nehlich estimates it will be five years or more before the majority of builders utilize the technology.

While he expects a slow conversion rate, he’s already forging ahead with Phase II. A future upgrade will enable users to move, add, and rearrange things in the virtual world, wearing haptic gloves.

There’s also this to consider: IrisVR’s Valdes believes that, when VR goes mainstream, clients won’t need to come to your showroom to see their backyard mock-ups. Instead, they’ll check out their simulated oases remotely through their own headsets.

They could even walk around their digital poolscapes using their own two feet. There are motion platforms that allow gamers to physically navigate virtual environments, usually while dodging bullets or slaying demons. However, Nehlich isn’t certain that this particular accessory will have a place in the pool industry: “We’re not sure how far we’re going to go with that.”

One thing’s certain: No matter how advanced software becomes, good design will always hinge on the designer.

In that way, VR is no different from the most archaic of drawing tools.

“It’s like a pencil,” Nehlich says. “You still need an eye for design.”