Article: Real time simulation puts you virtually in LA


`Real-time’ simulation virtually puts you in L.A.

PAM DIXON 04-Jul-1999 Sunday

It’s 3 a.m. and the streets of downtown Los Angeles have never been more deserted. You’re driving, pantherlike, cloaked by the hush of sleeping city. Traffic signals click through their rituals, unaware that only one pair of human eyes watches.

As you cruise out of the downtown area, the streets end abruptly. Just inches in front of you, everything becomes a hazy blur of roads without texture and a mass of half-formed buildings.

No, you’re not hallucinating, and you’re not in a science-fiction movie. You’ve just been driving through an incredibly accurate “real-time” simulation of Los Angeles, and you have reached the outer perimeter.

Virtual models of cities, called urban simulations or 3-D visualizations, used to be the sole domain of the military and the government. Using high-end computers and software that cost upward of six figures, such organizations as the CIA map out interactive models of operations in the United States and abroad.

But with advances in technology, 3-D visualization software has come down in price — now ranging from a few hundred dollars to the low five figures — and can be run on standard PCs with a graphic accelerator card that costs less than a hundred dollars. And, as the trend seems to be with much of technology, when the price drops innovators come along to create new uses for tools originally created by the military.

Bill Jepson is one of those innovators.

“We’re building a completely virtual Los Angeles,” says Jepson, director of the UCLA Urban Simulation Lab and the Virtual L.A. project. “In the next 10 years, we plan to build a virtual model that extends all the way from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas to San Diego.”

The lab is nestled into a modest suite of sunlight-filled offices on the UCLA campus, where Jepson and a team of interns and a few staff members work on the virtual model. What separates Jepson’s Virtual L.A. project from other simulations is that it is extremely detailed, and it is “real time.”

Using Silicon Graphics computers to view the completed portions of the simulation, you can read the graffiti on the walls and walk through buildings as if you were within the rooms. The “real time” aspect of the simulation means that as soon as you make a move or choose to go in another direction, you don’t notice any lag time. It’s as if you were there.

But more astonishing is that Jepson has connected the visual simulation to the Web. Click on a building, for instance, and you get to its Web site. Another click nets you the building’s architectural plans.

“It’s a whole new way of organizing and looking at urban data,” Jepson says.

The Los Angeles Police Department is working with the lab on “several projects,” says Jepson, including officer training using the virtual model. As one can easily imagine, having a virtual model of a city that connects to such data as locations of water pumps, electric conduits and so on could come in very handy.

Currently, several other cities — including Berlin, Philadelphia, and Orlando, Fla., — have created at least partial virtual 3-D models of their cities. And Washington, D.C., has the good fortune of having a complete 3-D virtual model of its downtown area.

“The Institute for Defense Analysis created a thorough virtual 3-D model of downtown and shared it with us,” says Mike Sherman, urban design CAD manager for the National Capital Planning Commission. “Our agency develops long-range plans for the way the nation’s capital is developed. My job is to make the proposed projects as real as possible — 3-D is the way to go.”

Naturally, any expensive or high-profile project benefits from a virtual model, and the newest trend is to invest in a virtual model to enable every stakeholder to contribute changes before the building process begins. Recently, Sherman used 3-D visualization software to create a real-time model of the proposed World War II monument that will break ground on Veterans Day next year.

“We used the virtual model in the review process,” says Sherman. “We presented the model to our commission and to the public. Everyone present at the approval meetings could use the computer and joystick to walk through the columns and archways of the monument, and to look at the view angles from the capital and the rest of the Mall area.”

Washington has the Legacy Document, its blueprint for growth in the next 100 years. At least 60 new monuments, museums and federal buildings are set to be squeezed into the already crowded space.

“We have the plan, but we want to know what it will really look like,” says Sherman, who is creating the virtual model of a future Washington inch by inch.

The creators of the new Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas also used 3-D visualization software extensively, for similar design-review purposes.

“We created the first virtual model of the Bellagio Hotel in 1995, and refined it all the way until early ’98,” says Sean Feely, Senior Systems 3-D Modeler for Atlandia Design, part of Mirage Resorts, Inc.

“The designers and executives would come in and walk through the virtual rooms, changing the size, the furniture, the wallpaper, the carpet and the molding as they went along,” says Feely.

He says the changes made to the Bellagio model before it broke ground were “too numerous to count.”

“The World War II memorial and the Bellagio are good examples of how you can use urban simulation software in a practical way,” says Jon Zucker, Urban Simulation Marketing Manager for MultiGen-Paradigm, a San Jose-based company that creates a popular urban simulator software program. “Very few people can actually read two-dimensional architectural drawings,” he says, citing the example of Silicon Valley’s Sunnyvale, which is going through a downtown revitalization project.

“Sunnyvale wanted to use a model to show their vision to the community and take the model into public meetings,” says Zucker. “With the 3-D virtual model, if someone is concerned about a view corridor being blocked or a new development, they can look at it and walk through it, and get the issue taken care of.” With the model, there aren’t any questions of how something may look; you can see it right away.

In addition to his Virtual L.A. duties, Jepson is working on a few other projects. He is creating a visualization of the LAX beautification plan, and he is creating a model of a destroyed historic building in Israel.

Jepson looks forward to completing the San Diego portion of his virtual model. Meanwhile, San Diegans can console themselves with a little digital reality that already exists.

“We created a real-time 3-D model of Qualcomm Stadium for NBC to use during the Super Bowl broadcast,” says Zucker. “They used it for instant replay and as eye candy.”

It’s not exactly the whole city, but it’s a start.

Pam Dixon’s column on arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.