The ARCH


Worlds merging: A video response from X3D

A few weeks ago, I posted a video showing how my Revit model was imported into realxtend by Visibuild.  It generated lots of interest and traffic, suggesting to me that model interoperability is an important priority for lots of us.

Shortly after posting that my friend Damon Hernandez, always a spirited supporter of X3D, asked if I would send him that same Revit model so he could demonstrate the capabilities of X3D.  The closest I had ever come to seeing some of the more current X3D applications in action is while exploring Vivaty or ExitReality, and I was excited to see what he could do with it.  24 hours later, he sent me this video showing that same model in several X3D based environments.  What an impressive and entirely convincing demonstration!  I had no idea X3D had come so far.

This is by no means an exhaustive demonstration of everything X3D can do, and is only intended to serve as an introduction.  But what I find most compelling is the fact that this model can retain its metadata, and theoretically retain its BIM data.  If we were to develop a fully interactive model of a building, visitors could drill through this metadata, clicking any material or product in the home and discovering specific information about each building component.  I’m told it could even be useful as a CAM model, whereby manufacturers could interpret this data and use robots to assemble the home in real life.

So, here I have a seemingly limitless range of opportunities at my fingertips, yet this model – even if it were fully textured and polished – would not be useful to me in real-life practice.  The design is far from final, and we are still ironing out several key features such as the living room ceiling, the front entry, and the fireplace/hearth.  If I’m working with X3D, I have the option of either 1.) waiting until the model is final before sending it to be imported  2.)  send several batches of different design ideas and have them all imported  3.) become an X3D geek, and figure out how to import it myself, so I can do so on-the-fly as we develop new ideas.

No matter how I approach it, it isn’t useful to me as a schematic design tool – nor is it necessarily intended, or ready to be used that way (yet).  So, we really are comparing apples to oranges.  It isn’t that one platform is necessarily better than another, but that they each hold value in different phases of the design process.  As you could see in the realxtend demo included in my first post, I was able to simply exclude parts of the design weren’t finalized yet, then use the in-world modeling tools to mock up several options to share with our clients.  Those elements can be edited in realtime, while the client is present – and we can cycle through lots of different material and color options.

When my model was first imported into Visibuild, it looked exactly like it does on this video – raw and unedited.  But the difference is that with Visibuild, I was personally able to log in and continue designing and testing new ideas.  Using prims to build really does feel like sketching to me, only better, and within the context of my Revit model that contained room sizes and plan layout that had already been approved.  I can also build the entourage myself, exactly the way I want it.  I can import 3D Warehouse models if I want, or from any range of stock 3D entourage resources available.  The key is that I can easily do it myself, and the learning curve is nowhere as steep as it would be if I wanted to do the same in X3D.

That doesn’t take anything away from X3D as an incredibly powerful technology.  In fact, it could be that it’s far too powerful for what I primarily use virtual worlds for.  As an open standard  ‘simulation level’ technology, its actually reaching down to enable multi-user and simple representation of geometry.  Its power lies in the ability to eventually attain things like simulation-level physics, and retention of  metadata.  This is surely the new frontier for architecture and virtual environments.  Once we achieve seamless interoperability of geometry, our next major priority will be seamless data interoperability so our ‘smart’ BIM models don’t have to become ‘dumb’ each time they enter or leave a virtual environment.

Until then, it seems there might be an opportunity for collaboration here.  I know nothing about the core technology at work behind all of this, but I do know that one of these world is currently best for pre-design and design development, and the other is better for final design visualization and post-design.  Could they ever meet half way?  Will X3D eventually include in-world modeling and collaboration tools?  Will realxtend models someday become simulation level technology and retain metadata?  If geometry and data become fluidly interoperable, will it even matter?

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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


“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!



Importing Sketchup Models from Google 3D Warehouse into realXtend
December 23, 2008, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

This looks very promising! I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet, but I had already imported models into realXtend using the Ogre mesh import, and this looks a whole lot easier than it was the last time I tried!

Read the step by step tutorial on importing a model directly from Google 3D Warehouse into realXtend on Peter Quirk’s blog HERE. Screenshot by Peter Quirk.



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.