Are Gaming Engines the New CAD?


Rendering Behind the Scenes in Second Life

Over the past few years, I've spent considerable time online exploring many different virtual worlds or 3D immersive spaces. Some of these like World of Warcraft are designed to only offer a gaming experience while others like Second Life look like a game, but do not offer gaming as a primary function. My main reason for first visiting these environments was to explore their potential for supporting my work as a civil engineer. Even my decision to try out World of Warcraft was based on this – I only joined and started playing so I could attend a science conference held there in Spring of 2008. Of course, in my journey into 3D, I found there was so much more than what I could have imagined. While my focus had been on the use of these spaces to create or learn, I eventually realized these are actual places where people hang out and spend time with each other. Through the years, I've come to enjoy and appreciate the "metaverse" as a place to meet incredible people, attend classes or other events, or just spend some time having fun. But I've also continued to explore the possibility of using these spaces for my work. And even though I don't yet have any conclusions, I wanted to post some thoughts on how the technology is evolving to better fit into the delivery of AEC services. 


After my first few visits to Second Life, I began learning to build and create 3D content using their software. Coming from a primarily 2D CAD background with only some experience in 3D, I didn't at first pick up on the 3D modeling foundation built into the Second Life tools. However, for building and creating in Second Life, this really wasn't a problem – the creators of the software made the tool so user-friendly that you really didn't need to know anything at all about 3D modeling or CAD to create something. But one frustrating issue for people who do use CAD was the inability to easily import into Second Life something that was drawn in a CAD program. We also could not export something we built in Second Life to CAD. And this seemed to be the main reason most people I showed Second Life to didn't think it would be useful in our work. 

Although Second Life still does not allow import/export of CAD drawings, the software was eventually changed to allow the use of 3D models. This development of alternative methods for creating objects in Second Life led me to work more diligently on developing my 3D modeling skills. As I started using programs like Blender, I was better able to see the similarities between the foundation of building in Second Life and 3D modeling. And my building experience in Second Life helped me to better understand and pick up 3D modeling skills.

Current State

Over the last few years, software has been developed by other companies to allow people to create virtual spaces. Most are not exactly like Second Life, but they are similar. Many offer the ability to import 3D models, but most don't offer the same flexibility found in Second Life to easily create objects entirely within the software. The only other software I have found with the same ease of use for building objects entirely within the software is Open Simulator (OpenSim) – a spin-off of Second Life. Other programs, like Unity3D, rely heavily on the import of 3D models. Based on my use of these programs, I've listed below a few of my observations in using these packages to create a representation of an AEC project:

  • Many AEC projects require the ground to be shown. If a contour file for the project is available, this information can be used by changing it into the proper format. The user can then apply these contours to the ground in both Second Life/OpenSim and Unity3D.  (You can learn the most about doing this in Second Life/OpenSim by visiting Darb Dabney's blog: In Second Life/OpenSim there is also an option to create ground from an object rather than the default ground or terrain.
  • Landscaping is also an important part of most AEC projects. In Second Life/OpenSim landscaping is created the same way everything other than the ground is created – by using objects. In Unity3D, generating landscaping is very easy because there are specific tools for creating trees and plants.
  • Design components present more of a challenge than the ground and landscaping. While tools like Second Life/OpenSim and Unity3D allow for the import of 3D models, neither work seamlessly with standard AEC CAD tools. So to create a road project, I could make a 3D model of it in a modeling program and import it. But I have not yet found a way to make sure the import retains the proper dimensions – in Second Life and in Unity3D, I've had to mess with the scale and then worry if the object is the correct size. I could try to work within the programs and create objects directly in the environment. This works well in Second Life/OpenSim but only for linear alignments – horizontal and vertical. And if I create only within the software, I am limited to the use of basic shapes. More complex shapes can only be accurately created using a 3D modeling program and imported in.
  • And this brings me to the issue of texturing or applying the "pictures" or graphics to the objects. Texturing an object finalizes its appearance and helps make objects appear more real so it is very important. In Second Life/OpenSim each object created has a plywood texture or look as a default. In Unity3D, the object is white by default. What I've found is there's a lot of flexibility in texturing objects within Second Life/OpenSim, but not so much in Unity3D. For example, if I wanted to create a cube with six different textures on each face, this is easily done in Second Life/OpenSim by creating a basic cube object, clicking each face, and choosing the corresponding image to apply. But to do this in Unity3D, I have to create additional objects on which to apply the texture then attach each object to the corresponding face of my cube. Another method of doing this in Unity3D is to create an image file that when applied to the 3D object will wrap the correct texture around the object so that the proper image ends up on each face. While the wrapped image sounds fairly easy, the problem is that each time I want to change the image on one face, I have to create a new image to wrap around the cube. Unity3D is applying one image to the cube as a standard 3D modeling program would while Second Life/OpenSim offers the ability to apply different images to different parts of a model.
  • If you want others to visit your virtual project site, it's probably easiest to do so using Unity3D because it's easily accessed through a browser. Second Life/OpenSim require the download and installation of a viewer software program and registration to allow the user to log in. Both formats allow for both single user access and multiple user access. (Unity3D can be accessed by multiple users through an application like Jibe.)
  • Both programs allow for the ability to program objects, but the programming language and interface within Unity3D is more common and flexible.
  • Neither program seems to have an easy export out to CAD. 

So based on the above points, a designer would choose between Second Life/OpenSim and Unity3D based on the project needs. If the final product would need to retain the flexibility to be changed, it's best to probably stick with something like Second Life/OpenSim. But if once completed, the project will probably not be changed, it's best to keep it in Unity3D. Fortunately at least two companies (Arch Virtual/Tipodean Technologies and Rezzable) are offering methods to either convert a project built in OpenSim to Unity3D or the ability to view a project built in OpenSim through a Unity3D viewer. So if a user wanted the flexibility of creation offered by OpenSim but the ease of access of Unity3D and didn't anitipate needing to change much after it was completed, they could build the project in OpenSim and convert to Unity3D or view through a Unity3D "window." The need for programming flexibility might also play a part in the decision, particularly if someone wanted to model traffic through a project site.

The Future

One of the big complaints about Second Life is that they don't understand their users. I sometimes wonder if it's because they set out to create a type of modeling or CAD tool and ended up unintentionally creating a place. And because they still view themselves as a software company creating tools, they have a diffcult time understanding how to manage and deal with this other aspect of their creation including the fact that most users want to use it as a place. (On a side note, I also work for a city so understand well the community management side of this and have been fascinated to watch how the company handles the same exact issues we face every day in our cities.) I am also not sure they are planning on shifting focus away from this "software first" attitude. They have made acquisitions and statements that lead me to believe they are further developing features and tools that could possibly enhance their existing offering. And because right now their creation tools offer the most flexibility, I am hoping they are moving in this direction even though I do also wish they would embrace the social side of their creation.

As for Unity3D, I think we will see the users develop the path through which this software can be implemented for AEC users. Perhaps with plug-ins and other developments with 3D modeling, this software might one day be better suited for renderings of AEC projects. Right now, one of the best examples of this type of use has been created by Jon Brouchoud working with his wife, Kandy, and Chris Collins. They have created a virtual representation of the downtown area of Dubuque, Iowa. Their project is also promoted on Kickstarter where people can donate to development of additional features. You can learn more about this project by clicking the widget below:

Most of you working in the AEC industry might wonder where our traditional CAD companies are in all of this. Unfortunately, the real innovation in 3D visualizations for the average user is not coming from Autodesk or Bentley. While Autodesk has amazing products that cover many of the aspects of the discussion above, they have not created a seamless path between them. And their programs seem to have a much steeper learning curve than those discussed above – not one person I have talked to who uses Civil3D has said it was a quick or easy program to learn. And there's just not been a strong showing by Bentley in the 3D arena.

The other side of all this is the cost. Anyone can use the Second Life/OpenSim/Unity3D tools for free while CAD programs from Autodesk and Bentley cost way too much for the average person to purchase and maintain a subscription. Perhaps if Autodesk one day better integrates all their tools, designs the tools with an easier user interface or improves the learning curve, and the price becomes more reasonable for the average user, they would most likely have an edge – particularly because many firms already have their CAD software. But based on the movement by these other companies, I wonder if one day in the future we'll be developing plans primarily using 3D modeling tools like Blender/Hexagon/ZBrush and gaming engines or tools like Unity3D and Second Life/OpenSim.






Free 3D Software – Limited Time Offer!

3D Environment Created in DAZ


Even though this offer has been Tweeted and posted all over the Internet, I thought I would add a quick post here to make sure our readers know about it. For the month of February Digital Art Zone (DAZ) is offering the following software free of charge – you can pick it up at

DAZ Studio 4 Pro 3D Software (Winner of 3D World's 2011 Software Innovation of the Year Award): Retail $429.95
Bryce 7 Pro 3D Landscape Software: Retail $249.95
Hexagon 2.5 3D Modeling Software: Retail $149.95
3D Photoshop Bridge: Retail $199.00

The company also said any downloads of these packages would be eligible for future updates at no charge. "We're excited to make this offer early in the year," said James Thornton, CEO for DAZ. "We wanted to give any digital artist the opportunity to experience DAZ free 3D software for the first time, and a full suite of 3D models and 3D animation software products is available on"

Even though 3D is still in its infancy in our industry with it only being used in large, high-profile projects, there will come a day when 3D renderings will be an expected deliverable on all projects. The challenge for those of us working now is similar to the one we faced in transitioning from the drafting table to CAD: how to train and ramp up on a new skill that is not immediately necessary so we are ready when it does become a necessity? One of the roadblocks we face is that few companies or agencies will invest the time or money to develop this skill until there is a paying customer or an expectation by citizens. Which is why this opportunity is so valuable. The software is free; all you have to do is invest your time to learn it. And even if DAZ is not the final product your company/agency ends up using, I've found the 3D skills learned using one product do transfer to the next as well as the familiarity with the general framework.

As for learning the software, there are numerous tutorials available. All you have to do is search through Google or YouTube to find them.


3D Environment Created in DAZ


Checking out West Coast Tech Talk

Part of the fun of blogging is the opportunity to connect with others who love what you do. In my case, that's anything public works related! One of the people I recently talked to online was @lahtnesorm. He's a civil engineering technology student on Vancouver Island who blogs about CAD. His site has helpful information about CAD in general, and lately he has been blogging about his experiences in learning Autodesk's Civil 3D. You can check it out here:

I like reading his posts about Civil 3D because although I am proficient with Map 3D, I have yet to jump into Civil 3D. So his posts are helping me better understand the commitment and effort required to learn that software. And the articles share the benefits he is finding from using the software. 


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 5

Day 5

The main items grabbing my attention today involved the following:


Today the stripers were in town placing the thermoplastic paint on a few of our newly paved roads. Normally I don't get too involved in the operation because we have a project engineer and technician inspecting and managing the project. But today, we had a resident call because she was concerned that we had planned to stripe a crosswalk at a T-intersection. There had been one leg of a sidewalk connection with a depressed ramp on her side, but no connecting sidewalk on the other side of the road. We've been trying to clean these up and either remove the lone leg or add the other side. In this case we added the receiving ramp. Because the roadway is busy, the engineer had planned on placing a crosswalk at this point. However the resident was worried children would be harmed because the crosswalk might encourage them to cross there rather than further down at the 4-way stop.

Thermoplastic Pavement Markings

I met the resident and her husband at the site along with one of our policemen. Over the years I've found it to be a very valuable experience to work together with the police on traffic-related issues. They bring great insight and ideas. And in the end, they are the ones that have to regulate the traffic. The policeman who met me there is an awesome public safety professional who was able to offer his thoughts from a public safety perspective. He shared that we have crosswalks striped all over town at T-intersections, and the police have had no incidents reported. And I indicated there would be no engineering reason that requires us to stripe or not stripe. After reviewing the situation, we decided that based on the four-way stop being close by, we could skip striping the crosswalk. 

Storm Sewer Project

We regularly receive calls related to stormwater issues throughout the community. Most of the time, they do not meet the criteria required for the city to install additional infrastructure. But occasionally the water nuisance is extensive enough that we decide to construct an improvement. This year, we have plans to install a short segment of storm sewer to alleviate flooding that occurs over multiple properties after even a small amount of rainfall. Our crews will do the work so normally we would not prepare a normal set of plans required for bidding. But because we have some interns who are interested in learning CAD, I decided to set up a drawing for them so they could work on developing the plan for this project. Unfortunately we have a CAD product that based on my experience requires us to spend an enormous amount of time that could be cut significantly if we just changed software. But even though over time the new software would pay for itself in savings from subscription fees, it's that initial purchase price that in this economy is preventing me from changing over. So instead every time we draw something, we spend a lot of time generating the plans. To say it's been frustrating is a total understatement. Anyway, I finally today managed to get the plan set up for them to start. Although I never could get the linestyles to display right. And because I just cannot afford to spend more time with it, I am hoping the interns can figure out what is messed up with that.

Reviewing a Driveway Permit

Normally this would be handled by our building department since they issue driveway replacement permits. But last year we had a company come in–well it was more like a guy with a skidsteer who didn't have a clue what he was doing–and in the process of trying to cut curb completely messed up a newly paved road. Why he waited until we completed the road to cut curb and replace drives is still not evident, but the result was damaged pavement because he didn't properly perform this work. So now we are more cautious about letting anyone cut curb. In this case, the contractor seems to be using a reputable company so I expect they will pick up their permit on Monday after dropping off the necessary certificates of insurance and bond we require to work in the right of way.

School Zones

One of our engineers had noticed that some school zone signs remained in areas where schools had moved out of their buildings. He wondered if we should remove the signs so I had our interns looking into this. Today we checked the city code to determine where the city council had established school zones and discovered there seemed to be some school zones still in existance even though schools are no longer located in those areas. And because we have had so much development in the past several years, there are areas with signed school zones that have not been established through ordinance. So the interns are preparing a report of these areas that can be submitted to administration and perhaps onto the council for consideration.

Some of the miscellaneous tasks that filled the rest of the day included:

  • Meeting with an intern who will start working part time with us later this month. This is an unpaid internship arranged through the high school.
  • Reviewed in the field the site of a proposed development
  • Gave our sign shop the sign design our interns prepared for the school zone area 



Geospatial Resources & Outreach

Geospatial Revolution LogoThe rise of mobile devices has allowed everyone to discover what those of us in public works have always known – geospatial technology is cool! Now everyone wants to know where people and things are and how to find them. Games and other applications are being developed based on location-based information. And to meet this increasing interest, Penn State Public Broadcasting has created a media-based outreach initiative. Their mission is "to expand public knowledge about the history, applications, related privacy and legal issues, and the potential future of location-based technologies."

Below is the trailer for the series of episodes produced by Penn State. You can view all the episodes on their site as they are released at:



Using Unity3D to Simulate a City

Most of my exploration of virtual worlds for engineering has been in Second Life and OpenSim. However, this year I have been looking more at Unity3D. Engineers are conservative and seem to dismiss virtual worlds like Second Life and OpenSim. Even though these programs are 3D modeling tools, they don't resemble nor do they use the typical CAD tools engineers are used to working with. Because Unity3D works well with these CAD tools and better resembles modeling programs, I suspect it will find greater acceptance by AEC groups.

As an example of what can be done with Unity3D, I show below a crude example of importing DEM files into Unity3D. While the process is fairly easy, I still have some issues with the elevations looking too exaggerated, and there is an area that does not have contours. I also need to figure out how to apply the aerial images to the ground. So I still have a lot of work to do to refine this, but I thought it was pretty cool to be able to import contours and see the flat land transform immediately to reflect the topology of my city. I put some water in the model to indicate the river which helps to highlight the dam and islands. But I have yet to add any buildings, trees, or other features.

 Fox River Valley in Geneva, Ill.


Screenshot from Unity3D of Fox Valley River Valley through Geneva, Ill.


















Another cool aspect of Unity3D is it can be embedded in a browser. Below is the static representation of what I created showing a view looking north through the river valley. Eventually I can add the capability for someone to travel through this model of my city with an avatar.

[WP_UnityObject src="" /]