The ARCH


Architecture For Humanity Enters the 3D Web

“This is an introduction by Lauren Stokes to Architecture For Humanity’s own interactive digital globe that will host models from their Open Architecture Network. Using X3D Earth and Open Street Map, web3D students sponsored by GeoSherpa are helping Architecture For Humanity in their migration to the open interactive 3D web. To help support green sustainable design, visit www.ArchitectureForHumanity.org

I’ve met some very passionate virtual world evangalists over the years, but I can’t think of any more enthusiastic and persistent than Damon Hernandez, Greg Howes, and the rest of the team that has been work hard at developing this unique feature for the Open Architecture Network.  I knew it wouldn’t be long before they pulled off something extraordinary.  The technology they demonstrate here is an innovative method for touring models that have been uploaded to the OAN network virtually.  Beyond just being able to tour the uploaded buildings, you can understand them in relation to their geographic context, as pinpointed through their integration with Open Street Map. Well done!

[update: While cruising through the rest of Damon’s YouTube uploads, I noticed this machinima showcasing some fo the augmented reality features they’re working on with X3D:


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The Future is Here: Full-Scale Architectural Model from Revit Imported into a Virtual World

For more information, visit the ARCH Network.

It happened exactly 1 year, to the day I first contacted Jani Pirkola former project manager of the Realxtend team. I heard rumors late in 2007 that they had goals to accelerate the development of the ‘opensim‘ platform, and one of their priorities was 3D model imports. The conversation continued until a few weeks ago, when I received an e-mail from Jules Vos, founder of Visibuild, a company he founded aimed at leveraging and improving the capabilities of Realxtend, specifically targeting his efforts at architecture and the built environment.

He asked for an exported file from one of my Revit models, and the next day he sent me a log-in and password to the Visibuild sim where the model was hosted.  Needless to say, after all these years of waiting, I was skeptical, yet hopeful. I logged in, and there I was – standing on the front porch of our client’s soon-to-be new home we had designed!  It was exactly as I had left it during my last Save As!  This was a dream come true, that had been 10 years in the making.  I was absolutely blown away.  My Revit model was virtual!  Here it is shortly after import:

Before long I had the model populated with tables, chairs, sofa, stove, a Jenn-Air appliances, Kohler fixtures and more – all imported from Google’s 3D Warehouse, most of which are exact or near-perfect matches to the ones specified.  Google’s 3d warehouse is very extensive, and carries one of the largest collection of free 3d models available.  Thanks to Peter Quirk for the Sketchup import tutorial!



I left parts of the design out of the imported mesh that we were still designing, and was able to enjoy the best of both worlds by building those pieces with primitive objects using the in-world building tools.  This way, I could make immediate use of the model as a collaboration tool with our clients by testing, for example, ceiling options in the living room, and trying out an alternate arrangement of the porch and entry area.  There is no limitation to the size of primitive objects here (the limit is 10 meters in Second Life), so it becomes much easier to model without always having to bandage the model to work around size limitations.

The client’s first reaction after seeing a teaser was “I want more!” so I think we can safely say the value of a virtual model was immediately evident.

Even a quick proof-of-concept study of imported buildings that surrounded a project site in Manhattan was fruitful.  When almost any model format can be imported, it feels like the whole world has opened up – and the possibilities are truly without limit.

The combined 3-part effect of being able to import contextual structures shared by others and import professionally built CAD or BIM-derived models and model bits and pieces using the familiar in-world building tools is a pretty astonishing new opportunity.  Of course there are still kinks to be ironed out, and some parts of the work-flow that would benefit from further optimization, but that’s where Visibuild’s value becomes most apparent.  They have the capability of streamlining that process for you, and serving as a one-stop service and hosting environment  for architects, urban planners, realtors, city governments and anyone else with a vested interest interest in architecture and the built environment.

 

Another key feature of this environment is the dynamic shade and shadows.  You need a decent graphics card to experience it, but its nice to know that the feature is available when you’re ready for it.  One common complaint for architects exploring the use of Second Life in professional practice was the plasticness of the builds, and the inability to convey the way light and shadow will effect the architecture.  The code for dynamic shadows has been available for some time now, but has yet to be implemented in any of the newest viewer releases. This is surely a key fundamental to an architect’s concern in design development, and experiencing a building without light and shade doesn’t as accurately reflect the experience you will get in real life.

Since most modern architectural software automatically generates 3D models anyway, the gap between your model and a virtual environment is no longer treacherous or time consuming – but relatively simple (or cost effective if you’d rather have someone else import it for you).  If you already model in SketchUp, for example – you’re only a few clicks away from enjoying the benefits of experiencing the model virtually and inviting others to experience it with you in realtime.  The bottom line is, most architects utilize 3D models at some point in the design development process anyway.  With Visibuild, you’re just one ‘save as’ away from leveraging the value of that model, and enjoying all of the many benefits a virtual environment affords.

These are some of the qualities of this environment I find most powerful:

  • The capacity to import 3D Models from just about any industry standard 3D package
  • Its accessible – there is very little mystery around how this works, and it isn’t terribly complicated or expensive.
  • It is built on an open source platform, and with a little experimentation you can roll up your sleeves and tinker with it.  You still have the option of hiring others to get everything set up for you.  The choice is yours.
  • User-generated content.  I can’t modify the imported mesh in-world, but I can leave off parts of the build that aren’t finalized and use the simple in-world building tools to test ideas on the fly.
  • Multi-user.  I can create an account for each of my clients and project stakeholders (builders, subs, etc.)  We can all occupy the building at the same time, from our own computers, wherever we happen to be in the world.  I can also customize their accounts ahead of time – so their avatars look good, and they appear right at the front door.
  • Realtime.  Unlike an prescriptive illustration or animation, you get to choose how, when and where your avatar moves.  This is much closer to the way people actually experience architecture.
  • Collaborative.  Multiple users can work together on a single group of objects to explore ideas – this capability is at the heart of what Studio Wikitecture is exploring.
  • Shade and Shadows, and the ability to cycle through any day/night setting and customize the sky to whatever settings you like
  • The incorporation of avatars.  I think this provides an enhanced sense of immersion and a feeling of actually being in the space.

This is truly a defining moment in the story of virtual worlds and architecture!

I’ll be working with Jules and the Visibuild team in the months ahead to help out with some exciting new projects, so if you’re interested in being an early adopter and want to be a part of the private beta, you can find contact information on the Visibuild website here: http://visibuild3d.com


Hanging up the old shoehorn: Stunning realtime multi-user architectural visualization in a web browser

Are browser-based virtual environments the way of the future for virtual design visualization?   Here is a brief overview of 4 of the many emerging platforms or related services to watch, and some thoughts about how they fit into the bigger picture of virtual worlds and architecture.

I’ll start with MellaniuM.  I’ve been following MellaniuM’s work with the Unreal platform for quite a while now, and continue to be impressed,  especially with some of their newest demos using Nortel’s web.alive platform.    In addition to architectural visualization, they offer many additional application areas including GIS, education, medicine, entertainment, archeology, film making and more.

MellaniuM can take CAD models, and import them into the Unreal game engine where they tweak and refine the build to satisfaction.  Unreal includes a built-in editor (I found a video of that editor here), but it isn’t anything like SL’s building tools and probably not very useful as a modeling environment.  After they’ve situated the build properly inside of Unreal, they turn it over to Nortel – who then enables browser-based realtime access to the model.  Here is a case study of an apartment building imported by MellaniuM:

I was very impressed with my first experience inside the web.alive platform after visiting one of their first builds.  It was eLounge for Lenovo (accessed here).  Before my visit, I had to install a plug-in, and download the environment (totaling over 80 mb – not exactly ‘thin’), but found the installation process to be relatively seamless.  It did freeze my browser twice before I got it to work, and I had to close my other apps so it would run faster, but it wasn’t a show stopper by any means.

Soon I was standing inside the eLounge, and a sales person walked over to me and asked if I needed any help – in crystal clear voice!  I had yet to go through any voice setup, so I doubted my own voice would be heard, but it came through very clearly – with no hassle whatsoever.  I probed around the build, asking the sales staff about the architecture of the space (which was quite interesting, actually!).  There were at least 6 others there with me, and more were dropping in every few minutes.  This was the day after they launched, so it may not be typical of daily traffic.  Here is a video showing a preview of the space – though I strongly recommend checking it out in person:

Here is another example from MellaniuM – this one showing the Theatre of Pompey and the Titanic:

There are some questions around whether or not the web.alive team can survive the rounds of Nortel layoffs, after they filed for bankruptcy protection last month.   But industry confidence in this platform is strong, so perhaps there is reason to believe it will remain a viable (although you never can tell).

The experience offered by web.alive is comparable to what 3Dxplorer offers, which uses Java (already installed on many computers) to enable a virtual experience inside a browser.  I had similar experiences in both platforms, with a few browser crashes and a plug-in to download (I didn’t have the most current version of Java installed)- but the experiences were equally impressive.  I have also been following the work of Dave Elchoness with great interest for the past few years – since meeting him in Second Life at his impressive VRWorkplace build, and subsequently on to his work with GoWeb3D using 3Dxplorer.  Here is a brief demo of 3Dxplorer:

Unity3D is another player in this arena, offering what might be the most stunning graphics and easiest loading.  It has yet to crash my browser, and only took a few minutes to load.  They do seem focused almost exclusively on games, and game-like environments – but some of the demos like the one seen HERE certainly makes it seem viable as a tool for architectural visualization.  This short video describes a few of the additional features built into the Unity3D platform.

Then there is ExitReality, that claims to bring “the entire web to 3D” by transforming any existing 2D website into 3D.    It appears as though they are focused primarily on offering this 3D website as their core service set, and those environments (to the best of my knowledge) can only be ‘edited’ by everyday users insofar as you can drag and drop content – essentially decorating the space with found or pre-established libraries of objects.  The other part of their offering appears to be customized, developer-driven spaces – like the now famous Carl’s Jr. 3D website.  Here is an example of ExitReality in action:

It doesn’t appear as though they are specifically interested in offering this platform for architectural visualization, but I understand the standards upon which it is built could certainly be applied toward that end.  For example, applications built using the X3D standard can certainly be custom generated, but I still don’t fully understand the workflow, costs or interface between my CAD file and an X3D-based environment.  The good news is that I’ve been told there is an exciting new project coming soon – specifically related to architectural visualization – built on open standards, which I hope to be writing about soon.

So what can we conclude from these examples?

First off, working with platforms like this requires a certain disconnect between the architect and the virtual model.  There are, in almost every case, at least 1 or 2 parties between you and your model, and they each charge some kind of fee for portability beyond hosting.  In many cases, there remains a kind of mystery around the cost and process involved and each project usually requires a new estimate, similar to the way an architectural illustrator works.

This is quite a bit different than the Second Life or openSim based use-cases for architects and designers.  Though it may be far clunkier and more time consuming, the SL environment functions in a way that architects are familiar with – such as sketches, or cardboard study models, where the designer works on it for a while -takes a step back – works on it some more – gets some feedback – modifies it again, rinse repeat.   You can’t ‘sketch’ with these platforms, and you can’t design as you build.

There also isn’t any strong, central, cross-disciplinary and diverse community to speak of.   Not the way we know it in Second Life and in some of the emerging OpenSim-based grids anyway.  Second Life isn’t just a tool – its a place.  In that place, there are hundreds of thousands of real people – from every conceivable profession.  Gathering quality feedback around design ideas, and being able to explore other people’s ideas and share your own has significant value.  Again, I’m not talking about a perfected and polished final model – but a schematic design, or a design concept.  On a moment’s notice, you can teleport in a dozen colleagues from around the world for an on-the-spot critique of an idea – and you can work out criticism and feedback using realtime modeling tools.  You still can’t easily do that anywhere else.

For similar reasons, these platforms aren’t suited as well for the many facets of architectural education either, other than to explore design precedents and existing architectural masterpieces (which I think has huge potential).  But as far as teaching design itself, the elegance of the simple in-world building tools you find in Second Life are ideal for architectural education – requiring a careful examination of the fundamentals of form, space and order.  Realtime modification and collaboration are key to education as well – which you understandably won’t find in these platforms (yet).

There is also something to be said for the browser crashes I experienced in almost every one of these platforms.  They were definitely insignificant, and I got past it quickly – but I tried almost all of them on 2 different computers, and had pretty much the same experience each time.  Please trust that I’ve grown accustomed to crashes and client challenges over the years – but its one thing to have a separate application crash, and another to have your browser crash.  After all these years of wishing SL could run inside a web browser, I’m starting to realize that – unless it can be razor thin and super stable, I don’t want anything tampering with my browser experience!  That’s where my e-mail and blogs are – and a few other tabs I’ve left open for later reading but haven’t bookmarked yet.  Its somehow a lot more disturbing when my browser crashes rather than another application.  Another nice thing is that when SL gets laggy or crashy I can flip back to my browser for a while and read e-mails, etc. while I wait for things to clear up.  When your browser crashes, you’re left with nothing.  Then you restart and realize the same 3D-world tab was auto-saved and trying to restart itself again – bogging down everything else while you wait even longer. This is a petty complaint, I know – but if I have to download 90 mb worth of content and a proprietary plug-in anyway – is it really necessary that it live inside my browser?

I still think there will be certain types of architectural visualization that will be perfectly suited to this kind of technology, but I think it will remain feasible only for more polished presentations of architectural designs – after the design has been finalized and ready for public consumption (for the time being anyway).  As such, this is not necessarily something an architecture firm would want to be continuously porting to as a design development tool.

I also don’t think we can expect to see mass adoption of this technology by the AEC industry, especially architects, given that they tend to be notoriously conservative.  In this tough economic climate that has left the profession gasping for air, with architects being laid off in droves, the profession doesn’t need better visualization tools – it needs to be re-invented.  Architects and designers who are privy to this generation’s new and increasingly open way of practicing are already sharing ideas and collaborating in new and unprecedented ways.   There is a community network within SL and spreading throughout the whole of web 2.0 that is re-molding and re-shaping the future of their profession – whether the profession knows it yet or not.  They aren’t just looking for ways to prototype the buildings they create, they are prototyping the profession itself.

That said, I see browser-based platforms like web.alive, 3Dxplorer, Unity3D and ExitReality as exciting and unprecedented opportunities for visualizing architectural designs from within an easy-to-access web browser application.  However, I don’t really see any of these as as an all-out replacement or competitor to the way architects and designers use Second Life, since it isn’t a valid comparison.   The offerings fit into entirely different phases in the design development timeline.  In its current state, this kind of technology lives at the very end of the design development cycle – at the point where architects must choose the most effective means of unveiling a design concept to their clients – and for clients to unveil a design to the public.  This is generally the province of illustration artists, who would otherwise offer prescriptive 3D illustrations or animations.

Second Life was never designed or intended to be useful as a professional visualization tool for architects, and attempts to shoehorn designs into that platform (one prim at a time) continue to come up short.  Its value becomes most apparent in other facets of professional practice – not just in final design visualization.   We can’t forget that, until now, there were no other options for multi-user, realtime virtual experience of a design concept.  That seems like more of a cause to be grateful than disappointed, imho.  Those who attempted it within SL, did so as a proof of concept when no other option existed – and enjoyed the many benefits it afforded.  Consider Virtual Palomar West as one example:

Like Caleb Booker pointed out in a recent post:

“the hospitals and hotels built in Second Life as proofs of concepts were great and worthwhile. Tangible return on investment in the form of fast prototyping, where designers could solicit large amounts of feedback from a wide range of users, definitely served to improve those projects.”

In sum, I think browser-based visualization platforms have opened 2 exciting new lanes of travel on the bridge between virtual worlds and architecture:  3D model import from CAD, and easy multi-user realtime access to those models within a browser.  However, they did so with a trade-off.  I think architects and designers would do best to leverage the full spectrum of opportunity afforded by virtual environments of all types, and avoid abandoning one set of limitations for another.



“Architecture” in Second Life Covered in AIArchitect

The AIArchitect online resource for members of the American Institute of Architects recently published an excellent story about architecture in Second Life (read it here).

In it, they talk about the work of Guillermo Vasquez de Velasco, Assoc. AIA, who is the dean of Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning.  They also mention the work of my good friend Terry Beaubois, AIA, professor at Montana State University’s Creative Research Lab – (aka Tab Scott in SL) covered previously on The Arch here.  

They also covered the work of another friend and colleague – Bonnie Staiger, Hon. AIA (Dakota Dreamscape in SL) who is the exectutive director of the AIA North Dakota chapter – which recently sponsored an architecture design competition (previously posted here).

Is there anything we can do to reach out to newbie architects and designers who want to start exploring SL?  I know there has been a lot of new activity on Architecture Islands, and IM’s from new architects/designers who want to learn more is at an all time high.  It *almost* feels like the good ‘ole days of 2007. 😉   Is this the resurgence, or re-affirmation we’ve been waiting for?

It certainly seems like quit a few architecture and design professionals have been able to look past the (temporary) inconvenient truth of 3D model ‘un’interoperability – but that bottleneck won’t last long, I hope!



3D Model Interoperability in Second Life

We really, really need your help on this one!  I am confident that if the readers of this blog collectively vote as a unified voice to push 3D Model Interoperability as a priority item for Linden Lab, we will be heard.  You all know that Importing and exporting models is currently the biggest bottleneck preventing architects and designers from using Second Life as a tool in professional practice, and Linden Lab’s public Jira system is the perfect way for us to make it clear that this is a must have feature.

So, please, please, please take a minute and log in to Jira and vote on the following issue: http://jira.secondlife.com/browse/SVC-2634

To vote, go to the left margin on that website and click on ‘Voting:’
You will have to Login first.  That’s it.

Spread the word!  Post this on your own blog, and link to this page!  Let’s do whatever it takes to raise the priority level on this!  If you have any other ideas about how we can move this forward, feel free to leave comments!

Thanks to Theory Shaw for continuing to promote this!



Casting Shadows

These past few months have brought about a rather exciting surge of announcements and renewed energy around the OpenSIM project, the open source virtual world platform. Though it is still alpha level code, the future potential is obvious, especially for those of us anxiously awaiting the ability to import 3D models created, textured and rendered in external applications like 3D studio, Blender, etc. This ability brings with it the promise of several game-changing opportunities, not the least of which is establishing a dynamic link between Building Information Models (BIM) and virtual environments.

Some of the most visible and promising new features cooperating with OpenSIM are coming from a Finnish group called realxtend. The actual look and feel of OpenSIM is very similar to the Second Life environment, but the realxtend client/server combo includes several enticing new items. For one thing, the File menu now contains an ‘Import 3D model’ option – and it works!  Also, under the prim-editing menu, you’ll find the ‘cast shadows’ option. Yeah, seriously… ‘cast shadows’… can you imagine?

What’s more, even a technical newbie such as myself can download their server code, and open your very own sim running on your own home computer. Better still, you can invite others into your sim to see what you’ve been up to. If you want to go beyond basic exploration, you can host the environment on a more powerful server for less lag and a smoother experience. Visitors to your personal sim can even teleport to and from the Second Life grid, and to other OpenSIM grids as well.

Within just a few hours, I had my own little world running on my computer. Shortly thereafter, I had imported my first 3D models created in 3DStudio. I suddenly had that same sense of urgency and excitement I experienced when I first started working in Second Life. My imagination ran wild!

You might think this experience would lead me away form Second Life itself, but I actually feel quite the opposite. I’ve never felt so confident and comfortable with the time and energy I’ve spent learning and promoting Second Life. It isn’t just OpenSIM either, but none of the new emerging platforms I’ve tried so far show anywhere near the same promise, in my humble opinion, as the combination of Second Life and OpenSIM.

Speaking purely in terms of professional/business applications, or as a platform for architectural practice and collaboration, I’m not convinced that Linden Lab shares the same vectors of interest as the more ‘platformist’ professionals who often think of it as a tool instead of a place, nor should they. The community, and the economy are vital, yet incredibly fragile components of Second Life – a combination that doesn’t lend itself well to liberal new-feature testing. Just like Philip Rosedale emphasized at SLCC last year, Linden Lab can only operate like a ‘lab’ for so long before they have to pull back a bit on experimentation and turn more attention to the ongoing challenges of performance and stability.

But when you combine the vital core elements of community and commerce with the features possible in OpenSIM-based grids, it seems a win-win combination. Despite the never-ending flow of criticism and complaints, I think Linden Lab is doing an outstanding job with Second Life, and I think they’ll be very hard to catch. But I’m excited and glad that the more specialized interests can now have their freedom, their privacy, their security, and any new feature they have the wherewithal to invent. I think Giff Constable said it best, “if something needs to be fixed, you can roll up your sleeves and fix it rather than crossing your fingers and waiting for someone else.”

Cory Ondrejka suggested in a great post today that “Attempts to strongly separate “play” and “work” virtual worlds will stunt the growth of both. Communities that play together work together better. And vice versa.” I think that statement reinforces the notion that the combined effort of SL and specialized OpenSIM places is a healthy mix. I might “work” in my Crescendo Design OpenSIM island, meeting with clients and bask in the greatness of prims that can ‘cast shadows,’ but it will surely get lonely in there. I’d be constantly checking my mini-map for green dots, and missing out on all the great stuff Second Life has to offer as a place, and not just a tool. When its time for a break, I can teleport back to SL, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The combination of features I think are requisite for a virtual world explosion in professional practice are a tricky, yet inseparable kit of parts. For this reason, I don’t have a lot of faith in the other platforms aimed at surpassing Second Life. Just importing 3D models, or better graphics alone are nothing without a rich and diverse community.

Even if you include model-imports and community, what about object permissions? For 3D collaboration to work, you need a fairly robust permissions strategy, and a lot of the new platforms currently overlook this feature completely. I think most of us completely underestimate the genius and power of the prim system and in-world building tools. In fact, by the time you carefully prepare a 3D model with enough detail to look passable up-close in a virtual environment, you end up spending a comparable amount of time on it as you would if you had built it with prims in the first place. Furthermore, once you import it – its essentially frozen, since you can’t modify any part of it without re-rendering it and re-importing it. It would be a disaster for virtual collaboration if we lost that ability.

The community is equally critical. Even if, for example, Autodesk were to introduce avatars into Revit, they couldn’t possibly deliver as diverse of a community of non-architects. If you aren’t convinced that a public, global and diverse community is important in the future of architectural practice, keep an eye on Studio Wikitecture. That’s just the beginning.

I could be wrong, but when I add it all up, I still haven’t seen another emerging platform that includes both in-world building tools (with permissions system) as well as 3D importing, alongside an incredibly robust community and economy. Even if there were a potential competitor, they are nowhere near as far along as Second Life at solving the plethora of challenges and nuances of successfully running a virtual world (which happens to be yet another area I think many of us totally misunderstand and underestimate). By the time a competitor catches up with where SL is now, SL will be that much farther ahead.

In conclusion, I’m confident that Second Life is still a very safe and smart investment of time and money. I’ll admit to knowing very little about the back-end underlying this technology, which is why this post could be all full of baloney. But from what I can tell, the combined trajectories of Second Life and OpenSIM are a winning combination, and hold the underpinnings of what I think will be the next major technological evolution in the design and creation of the real-life built-environment.

Keep an eye on Ugotrade for further reviews of OpenSIM (including this post), and be sure to check out realxtend’s site for a description of their upcoming event in Second Life where you can learn more about the current technology, and their plans for the future.