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XR Voices

VR Visualization Tips from John Santangelo

John Santangelo, a 20-year events industry veteran, shares his experiences creating VR Visualizations. These immersive experiences are not just for client approvals, but can improve the entire design process and keep margins on track.

John also offers solutions for the sometimes painful exchange between a 3D modeling software and your real-time render engine of choice. He saves time by building his 3D models with VR in mind, then drops them into a pre-made VR project template. In his opinion, VR will become “a familiar and well-used tool in the environmental design development toolbox”.

Introducing John Santangelo


I’m a 3D environmental/experiential designer and creative director. Over the last 20 years I have worked on a wide array of projects ranging from stage sets to tradeshow exhibits to permanent installation designs.


Most recently I was part of a small team whose efforts focused on design process and technology as well as digital and virtual applications for the live event space. I am currently in the midst of forming a new company, Taurion Media, which focuses on providing 360° virtual tours for the real estate industry.

Why should we design in VR?

Virtual reality is a super effective tool for both design development and communicating the design intent to clients. Using VR allows designers to make smarter decisions in their designs. Below are some of the variables that can be integrated into a virtual environment allowing for the WHOLE experience to be assessed during design development:

  • Scale & proportion,
  • Texture and color,
  • Space planning and traffic analysis,
  • Sightlines,
  • Lighting and visual effects,
  • And even sound. 

As for design reviews and approvals, clients can really see their event or exhibit as it will be constructed. They are able to make critical changes during the design phase. There really is no substitute for having a visualization where you can step into a design at scale from a human perspective. It’s powerful to be able to move around and experience it from every possible angle, all in real time.

I formerly worked for a very large event design and fabrication company and there was a saying we referred to often:“It costs $1 to change something during the design phase, $10 to change it in the fabrication shop and $100 to change it at the show.”

And so that philosophy really justifies the little extra time and effort it takes to preview designs in VR. In the end, using VR in the design process can prevent lots of headaches downstream and keep margins looking happy.

The below video shows a VR walk-through I made. Technically I didn’t capture this video from VR, but from a first person game point of view as that’s easier. Courtesy of Freeman and Scott Williams, designer.

What frustrates you the most?

The biggest pain point with VR visualization workflows comes during the exchange between the 3D modeling software and the real-time game engines which make VR experiences possible. That process can be both time and cost-prohibitive. And to be frank, game engines are generally complicated and can have pretty steep learning curves.

But there have been some really great strides by the two major players in the game engine realm (Unreal and Unity) to streamline that process. They have made it more accessible to the designer who doesn’t have loads of free time to learn an entirely new software platform.


VR visualizations that used to take days and even weeks to create just a few years ago have been shaved down to mere hours.


There are now some very easy to use add-ons for popular 3d modeling software. I use Unreal’s Twinmotion plugin for my 3DS Max exports, but Autodesk is also in collaboration with Unity to create a painless workflow for 3DS Max users. I’ve also had great success with Enscape to take my Sketchup designs into VR.

How do you save time?

TEMPLATES. Creating templates in your game engine that have a pre-set rendering environment and that are also pre-populated with the vast majority of material (shader) profiles that you’ll likely need is the greatest time-saver. For amazing materials/shaders creation I love using the Substance by Adobe line of products.

Also, I would say that if you are serious about using VR for design visualizations, learning how to properly model and texture designs in your 3D modeling software of choice is a worthy endeavor.


The key is to keep your poly counts low (minimize model complexity) and apply UVW texture-mapping correctly. Both are essential for delivering a good experience in VR. It really is a science and an art!

What do you predict moving forward?

I think it is only a matter of time before VR proliferates further and becomes a familiar and well-used tool in the environmental design development toolbox. I really believe it will become commonplace as technology and methodologies continue to advance and evolve.

The global pandemic may even hasten the cause as virtual experiences become a more attractive substitute to physically being there. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep banging our VR drums until those around us begin to see the (virtual) light.

XR Voices is an ongoing Interview Series featuring events industry professionals who are using innovative visualization tech.  We aim to share knowledge and entertain any opportunity to evolve the design process.
Do you know someone who might like to be featured in a future XR Voices interview? Contact me here.