The ARCH


Welcome to my home: first attempts at using Unity3D for architectural visualization

Cross posted from The ARCH Network main site!  http://www.archvirtual.com

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Chez Keystone! Come on in…(plugin required).

This isn’t multi-user (yet), and navigation might take some getting used to, but this is an Autodesk Revit ‘as-built’ model of my home, imported into the Unity game development platform I wrote about last week.  If I make a change in Revit and save it, the Unity build dynamically updates. With the exception of the trees, this is pretty much a raw output from Revit without any optimization (which is why it looks so crude). If I spent a few hours on it, I could add dynamic lighting and even import lightmaps to really enhance the model.   I can also export it to Nintendo Wii, iPhone or a variety of other platforms if I really wanted to, but at this point, I don’t have the necessity or resources to do so.

I should add a disclaimer that we didn’t design this house, but we are planning a green make-over in several stages in the months and years ahead, so we’ve been using this model to test master plan ideas.  I haven’t built or enabled access to the interior spaces, but I will soon.   This is just a starting point for design exploration, so even though I don’t have much to demo yet, I wanted to share some of my initial progress and publish updates with more thoughts on what I’ve learned about using Unity in professional practice.

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What I like most about Unity so far is the ability to quickly and easily embed the virtual model on a web browser, or to a stand-alone .exe application if need be.  This makes it much easier to share design ideas with long distance clients that might not have the time or patience to deal with a registration process, large client downloads and orientation of larger virtual worlds.  Once they get the hang of using their mouse and arrow keys, just about anyone, even on lower end machines, can be walking around inside of a design concept within a few seconds.

When the time comes to add additional details and entourage, I simply save most raw file-types in their native format to the Assets folder of the project.  Unity then automatically finds updates if I change the model in its native application (Maya, 3DS Max, Photoshop, etc.).   What I find doubly enticing about this work-flow is that I can transition my assets into any platform I choose without being locked into a proprietary format.  For example, if/when Second Life enables mesh imports, I should be able to take these same raw assets and use them in SL, or Blue Mars, or on whichever platform I wish – without having to rebuild everything from scratch.  I will then be able to choose which virtual platform is most appropriate for the project’s requirements.

I also like the fact that the indie version of Unity is free to download and use.  Plus, its relatively easy to learn – much easier than any other 3D app I’ve worked with.  Also, there is a rapidly growing community of Unity users and support forums to find answers to just about any question you have, and lots of in-depth tutorials to help you get started.

With several companies building MMO’s or virtual worlds on Unity, it probably won’t be long before I can drop this model into a virtual world for multi-user, and avatar-based experiences.  However, I don’t think we will see realtime, in-world building tools in Unity the way we have in Second Life, or OpenSim.  Unity wasn’t designed or intended to be used that way.  I also think that any Unity worlds that do surface will likely be smaller, niche communities.  For those reasons and more,  I really don’t see Unity as any threat or comparison to Second Life or OpenSim.  However, for online, realtime, virtual architectural visualization, Unity is definitely a platform worth exploring.

Be sure to check out this thread in the Unity forum about architectural visualization in Unity: http://forum.unity3d.com/viewtopic.php?t=33684&highlight=architectural

Also, check out a recent post by epredator on his Life at the Feeding Edge blog regarding the combined application of Unity, OpenSim, Evolver and Smartfox to create the next generation of virtual worlds.

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$900 million facility prototyped in Second Life now under construction

Cross posted from The ARCH Network main site!

These are the latest construction progress photos I could find of new Palomar West Medical Campus in San Diego, which is currently under construction – scheduled to open in 2011.  When the virtual architectural simulation was completed in early 2008, it attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Forbes, as the largest and most comprehensive architectural prototypes of a construction-bound project ever built in Second Life (aLoft and Dedato’s build were big too, but Palomar is much bigger- weighing in at 775,000 square feet).  The virtual prototype was used by Cisco to showcase the facility’s communications features through immersive simulations in Second Life, and was built by Millions of Us.

If you know of any more recent construction photos, please let me know!



Barack Obama’s ‘Kansas to Cairo’ vision being realized in Second Life

Cross-posted from the ARCH Network main site!

During President Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University in Egypt last June, he describe a vision to, “invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.”

If you’ve spent any time in a virtual world at all, you know that the ‘online network’ Obama described doesn’t need to be created, it already exists.  Students don’t merely use it to ‘communicate,’ as they would in a phone call or web conference, they are able to discover new cultures, make new friends, learn, and collaborate on a very deep level inside of an immersive environment where geography is completely irrelevant.

Visionaries like Dr. Amr Attia from Cairo’s Ain Shams University and California-based architect David Denton, have volunteered countless hours to organize this project, with modest support pledged from the United States Department of State to realize Obama’s ‘Kansas to Cairo’ vision – a project they first discussed at a panel hosted by the State Department last June (read more about this architectural panel held in Second Life on america.govor watch video coverage here).

Using Second Life, architecture students in Egypt and the U.S. are working together side by side, collaborating on design concepts inside the realtime, 3D, virtual world – even though they are physically located on opposite sides of the planet.  In the screenshot below, I am interviewing some of the students from Cairo, who proudly opened a variety of 3D models they had been working on, one after another, right before my eyes.  As we walked together through their design ideas, I realized that this moment was Saturday for me, Sunday for them, and we were 6,200 miles apart – yet sharing the same space, at the same time.  I felt sure that I was witnessing a phenomenon with world changing potential, and the students certainly agree.

One of the Egyptian architecture students, Mohammed Ahmed Alfiky, had this to say about it:

“This Second Life project is helping me make direct contact with other students of a different culture, a different architectural school and different way of thinking.  It will inspire me to make more effective designs, and critique my work from a different point of view.”

The U.S. Department of State has offered funding to bring several of the Egyptian students to the U.S. – a prospect that obviously has the students very excited.

During several visits to their space in Second Life, I have had the good fortune of talking with some incredibly bright and enthusiastic students from both Egypt and the U.S.   It is difficult to describe just how excited they are about this project – so I’ll borrow quotes directly from them so they can say it in their own words:

“Imagine all of this put together …. collaboration and group work on an international scale, dealing with a whole different culture , language and view of life.  Over and above getting to master the use of the virtual world as a tool to make your fantasies become a reality… I think this is what the Kansas to Cairo project offers us new ideas, new tools, and a better percetion of life and of future work in architecure and urban planning.” – Hebatullah Aly Ghali

“After working with 3DS Max for 5yrs , I found Second Life to be an easy new tool for architecture visualization, where I can represent myself, my work, my culture and my country.  In education, it helps anybody learn –  anytime, anywhere.  In general, Second Life is drawing a new future for exchanging, learning, collaborating, working and connecting people of all ages.”   – Sayed Abdul Mohsen

“I think Second Life is a great public participation tool as it is easy that anyone can use it .” -Amr Mohamed Abdelaal

“I think that Second Life is a platform for collaboration that breaks down cultural barriers and designing in it is a constructive path to narrow the division between eastern and western societies.” – Salma Muhammad.

Where other architectural educators await a safety net of case studies before they begin exploring virtual worlds in architectural education, here we can see pioneers at work in this space – demonstrating that there really is nothing to wait for.

As we witness a project that has achieved President Obama’s vision verbatim, it seems clear to me that this project deserves every bit of the same support and attention given to the multitude of other million-dollar programs described in similar speeches – yet the support has been relatively minimal thus far, amounting to travel stipends for a few students.  When I interviewed architect David Denton about the project, he expressed similar concerns.

“I’m enormously appreciative of the support that has been pledged, but I feel very strongly that this is a program that is of tremendous benefit, and that more resources should be made available to create an expanded ongoing program that would include many universities, in both the United States and in other countries around the world.”

I agree, and I can’t imagine why a project with so much potential wouldn’t be able to secure greater support.  David adds,

“I’m hoping to drum up support to get that funding increased.  Surely the Obama administration can find a way to be more supportive financially with the project that was announced in a major international speech in Cairo by the President.”

With no other visible projects on the table to carry Obama’s promise forward, I’m hopeful that they will be able to find the support they need to successfully complete this project, and send a message that this wasn’t an empty promise.  Even though this project has only just begun, it is easy to tell that it is already changing the lives and opening doors for many of the students involved with the project.  Virtual worlds offer a tremendous opportunity for cross-cultural, international collaboration between schools of architecture, and this program is definitely worth far greater support than it has achieved so far.

Obama concluded his famous Cairo speech with this thought that I think is particularly relevant here.

“I want to particularly say, to young people of every faith and every country: YOU of all people have the ability to re-imagine the world; to remake this world”.

Visit their virtual studio in Second Life sometime, and see a group of passionate students doing just that.

Cross-posted from the ARCH Network main site!