Realtime Cities by Arch Virtual: Welcome to Virtual Dubuque!

Introducing Virtual Dubuque, a premiere development of our new Realtime Cities initiative by Arch Virtual, built with ArchTech Engine.

Read the full post HERE.

This new community resource will provide free and easy to access windows into interactive, customizable 3D models of cities.  To learn more about how we can build a realtime model of your city or architectural project, send us a note here.  We’re currently seeking development partners to build new features, create custom content, and build out additional architecture and cities around the world, so please send us a note to learn more.

Over the past year,we have been partnering with local businesses and organizations in Dubuque, Iowa to develop features and sponsored content, including a project in the Historic Millwork District for a local real estate developer (coming soon!), as well as the Masonic Temple, where international members of Demolay will be working with industry pioneers in developing a world-class learning environment, using Virtual Cities as its core platform.

Read the full post HERE.

“We’re harnessing the same technology used to make the latest iPad apps and XBox 360 games, but we’re not making a game, we’re building dynamic and ever-changing models of cities that are designed to serve as true community resources that can be easily accessed directly from a website,” said Jon Brouchoud, Founder of Virtual Cities.

Using ArchTech Engine and the Unity3D platform, we’re now able to transforms buildings, geography and entire cities into realtime 3D environments that are easily accessible, and can be embedded on your website, or deployed to a tablet.  These interactive models can be geo-referenced to real-world coordinates, dynamically linked to databases, and layered with interactive content.

Virtual Cities by Arch Virtual - urban planning

As visitors explore virtual cities, links to websites and additional information about nearby buildings, parks, and businesses appear automatically.  For example, when you approach a restaurant, you can click through to read their menu.  If you’re near a historic building, you can learn more about its past.  Businesses and organizations can customize and enhance their space in the virtual model, layering it with more information or interactive features.

Read the full post HERE.

Proceeds from sponsorship and custom content are then re-invested in the ongoing development of the city model, enabling Realtime Cities to add more features, build new parts of the city, and refine models with more detail.

But a virtual replica is just the beginning.

Virtual Cities by Arch Virtual - Dubquque Iowa

“If you’ve ever experienced the Voices Gallery in the Millwork District of Dubuque Iowa, for example, you’ve seen how a building can be completely re-imagined into a destination that celebrates the unique architectural character of a place, yet transcends it to become something completely unique,” said Brouchoud.

“That’s really what Virtual Dubuque, and the Realtime Cities initiative is all about.  A replica of the city as it is now will certainly have interesting use cases, but I’m looking forward to seeing how cities can be re-imagined within an environment where anything is possible.”

Read the full post HERE.

Virtual Cities for architectural visualization and urban planning

Read the full post HERE.

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

Cross posted from The ARCH Network main site!

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.


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:

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.

Autodesk set to launch a real-time, immersive, game engine for architects
December 31, 2008, 6:00 am
Filed under: its about time! | Tags: , ,

I think I’ll file this under the ‘its about time!’ category:

“At Autodesk University, we billed Project Newport as a game engine for architects. Our Discovery Space was constantly buzzing with visitors who wanted to navigate Revit models using game controllers, Wimmotes, or the KOMME®Z table,”  writes Scott Sheppard from Autodesk Labs wrote in a recent post.

From the Project Newport teaser site: “…real-time 3D story building technology for architectural visualization and presentation. With breakthrough game-engine technology, Project Newport is easy to use and enables architects to show their designs in context.  They can explore design options, visualize changes instantly, and create vivid, immersive 3D presentations.”

I also found a quote suggesting you can “Watch virtual reality buildings come to life—no headgear required. ” found here.

I can’t wait!  I’m afraid it might have more to do with interface than true virtual immersion or avatars, but it really got me thinking…

We live in a world where it has become second nature for millions of people to cruise through zettabytes of 3D content using game controllers and 1st person avatars using game consoles and PC games.  Yet, visualizing architectural design is still the exclusive domain of prescriptive and expensive 3D animation – generally reserved only for high end commercial projects.  The 3D modeler of architectural design is a kind of magician that can transform even the most mundane design into an inspiring and choreographed escapade complete with techno music thumping in the background and cars zipping around the streets.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a kick out of those ‘gee-whiz’ architectural animations the same as anyone else.  I’ve even employed them in my own practice a time or two.  They certainly do have important value.  But is that really the way people experience architecture?  When will I ever be flying at 200 miles per hour 30 feet off the ground, circling around a building from above before bursting through the entrance and gliding effortlessly through walls – panning around the interior spaces before breaking through the roof and ascending into orbit?  That’s simply not how people experience buildings.  People don’t fly through buildings, and they don’t bounce and ricochet off of walls like predictable pin-balls – they meander and spiral around at their own pace, taking their time to explore it however they wish.

For over 10 years now, we have been able to explore relatively complex architectural structures inside of games like Everquest and Quake, where the user is given full control to navigate 3D space however they wish, alongside other players from all over the world.  Of course, these were simple, relatively low resolution models by today’s standards, but they were adequate for conveying a sense of place – and space.  If they weren’t effective in describing architectural intent, clear wayfinding and navigable spaces, those games would have gone clunk long ago.  Yet, hundreds of thousands of people continue to flow through those spaces every day (in fact, I learned recently that there are still people camping the newbie log outside of Neriak to this day! =)  We’re still talking about a world created over a decade ago…

If I can play hide and seek inside of a relatively complex building in Quake or Everquest, why couldn’t that building be a schematic of a new dental clinic my firm is designing?  What if the other people exploring the space weren’t trying to vaporize each other with photon cannons but were instead stakeholders in the project – the clients, the builders, the bankers?

The emphasis with game worlds is on immersion.   That means a big part of a game designer’s job is to make you feel like you are actually inside of that space.  Anyone who has spent a few hours tooling around inside of a 1st person game knows how immersed and ‘there’ you can really feel inside of a virtual space.  Given the enormous expense and risk of investing in architecture, why can’t clients be given the chance to feel truly immersed and given the chance to tool around inside of their new building before they spend millions of dollars on it?  If I could explore the the fortress of Neriak in Everquest 10 years ago, surely by now we have the technological prowess to enable the patrons of architecture to experience the buildings they’ll be forced to live with?

This gets even more interesting when programs like Second Life provide the general public an opportunity to build and experience 3D content without a massive up-front expense.  Surely the sheer quantity of content created and widespread interest generated during the few short years since Second Life’s genesis says something about the future potential of this technology.  It isn’t all about castles and beach cabanas either.  One day I asked a new renter on Architecture Island who had imported a floor plan and stretched prims over the walls if she was an architect.  She said, “no, but my company is working with an architect to design our new office space, and I want to visualize what it will feel like inside.”  Wow.  Here you have an architect’s client – unable to visualize a design concept – going so far as to create an avatar, rent some virtual land, learn how to import a floor plan, and how to build… just for the chance to visualize a design concept on her own terms.

Imagine what will happen when tools like Second Life enable clients to remove the veil of an architect’s design by modeling it themselves to see what it will *really* be like, and invite their colleagues inside to tour it together in real-time.  Or better still, what will happen when the general public decides to rally against a controversial design not by arm-wrestling ineffectively through a planning session but instead inviting citizens into a virtual mock-up in Second Life that better illustrates their case against it?

Is the lack of virtual visualization of real life architecture really about waiting for technology to make it possible?  Or, is the technology here, but architects just don’t want it?  Or could it have more to do with fear of losing control?  Obviously, the more an architect reveals about a design, the more there is for the client to evaluate, and the more likely it is the design will be criticized.  Its the same reason many architects try to limit the number of 3D drawings they show clients, and stick to 2D plans and elevation drawings.   Some architects might even tell you that the client shouldn’t really be concerned with understanding the building beyond what their illustrations convey (after all, you don’t tell a surgeon how you’d like your surgery performed… pfft).  It isn’t because they lack the ability or time to produce the 3D drawings,  its because they don’t want to risk the exposure and revision requests.  But as increasingly sophisticated (and free) 3D tools are made available to the public, a new dynamic could emerge.  Before long, clients will be able to simply model their new building on their own with free software (in fact, they already can, and do!).   How might that transform the design development and client review process?

Plenty of design review boards are now requiring full fledged BIM models for consideration, a technology that is still relatively inaccessible to the public at large. But what happens when someone figures out how to import a BIM into a publicly accessible virtual world?  There has certainly been no shortage of discussion and experimentation toward this end, with some promising ideas moving forward.  I don’t know much about the technical limitations, but I do know that I was already able to import a parametrically generated model created in professional architecture software into realXtend.  What will happen when someone distills a fluid working path between BIM and OpenSim (or Second Life?)?  I’m sure the patrons of architecture will be eager to be given a chance to tool around inside of their soon-to-be new buildings, better understanding the entire design from a more holistic perspective, before construction even starts.  I wonder how that might transform the design and approval process?  It seems inevitable, and will definitely be exciting to witness.

So what does this diatribe have to do with Autodesk’s Project Newport?  Well, under normal circumstances, I would imagine a product like this taking years to effectively reach the market – with a strong likelihood of never making it to the mainstream.  It might draw crowds to a demo booth at AU, but will it ever really be adopted?  The general vibe always seems to be that people are still struggling to get from AutoCAD to BIM, and aren’t ready to consider how virtual worlds or game engines might fit into their practice.   However, given the momentum, support, awareness and potential cost-effectiveness of bridging architectural software with virtual worlds on a grassroots level, it seems likely that Project Newport could evolve faster than anyone might have anticipated.    I certainly hope so!

I’ve always wondered which would come first, avatars inside BIM software or BIM software with avatars.  Its exciting to see that the race is on!

AutoCAD Import Demonstration: Transcript Posted

Let there be no doubt, the architecture and design community is pining for a fluid and automatic import process!!! I knew a meeting like this would bring lots of new faces. Even the slightest tremor of an import tool shakes out bunches of would-be SL resident architects and designers who are sitting on the fence around Second Life, waiting for the ability to import their CAD models into a virtual environment.

It is refreshing to see the kind of innovation coming from AI Design Studio. There is hope! Thanks very much to Impalah Shenzhou and Asha Eerie for demonstrating their new Henshin Autocad import tool. It is truly fascinating!

You’ll find the transcript HERE.

AutoCAD Import Tool Demonstration: Architecture Meeting Thursday, Sept. 13th, 11AM

This week’s Architecture Group meeting will be a demonstration of the new AutoCAD import tool (Henshin III), created by AI Studio. They will rez a full building, designed and modeled in AutoCAD, completely textured. They will also demonstrate the Layer functions and show how the system can change the visibility and position of imported objects.

Thursday, Sept. 13th, 11:00 AM

Discussion will be held on the new arcspace sim, attached directly north of Architecture Island: SLURL