Modeling a City

Pegasus Global Holdings is planning to build a full-scale city somewhere in New Mexico "to test and evaluate technologies in conditions that most closely simulate real-world applications." According to the project's website, CITE-CITY, the company proposed building the model to overcome challenges related to access, long waits, and costs that they faced in carrying out testing of technologies in actual cities. Last August, Pegasus Global signed a  Memorandum of Understanding with the New Mexico Economic Development Department in which they indicated the model will be built with private funds and create 350 new jobs. The company and State of New Mexico hope to draw vendors, investors, partners, and users from six specific areas of interest: Energy, transmission systems, transport, economic development, resource development, and security.

The company planned to break ground by this summer, but based on a recent article in, the project has been placed on hold due to land acquisition issues. However, it appears development plans for the model community will continue while the company searches for a new location. 

The Frontier Project in Second Life

The use of full-scale models for training and simulation is not a new idea. Many police and fire departments use existing structures for training. And the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) provides emergency response training at Disaster City – a 52-acre full scale "mock community." But not everyone chooses to model cities in the physical world. Increased computing capabilities offer a more efficient and low cost method to run simulations and training. A couple years ago, IBM launched CityOne – an online game people can play to explore how technology can impact cities. And over the last several years, Crista Lopes has been involved in some amazing work involving simulations in a virtual setting. One of her blog posts, Simulating a City, describes a traffic simulation/visualization project she has been working on. There are also many other examples of virtual simulations throughout Second Life and other 3D immersive worlds. The image in this post is a photo of a simulation of a stormwater collection and groundwater recharge facility that was built in Second Life.

Because of the tremendous cost of building physical models (in the case of the Pegasus Global project costs have been reported anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion) it would be interesting to see a study comparing the benefits, costs, and effectiveness of both physical and virtual simulations. And based on that type of study, a guideline could be developed to assist people in choosing the best, most economical, and efficient model for their purpose.


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="" /]


Civic Forum Launch

Starting today at 4pm SLT (PST), I will host a Civic Forum on Public Works island. This forum is intended to be an informal and open discussion about city government. So bring along your ideas, questions, concerns and teleport over to Public Works. Below is a little more background information on why I feel hosting and participating in a discussion like this is important:

Working for city government, it doesn’t take you long to realize that a significant portion of your day is spent helping people understand how city government actually works. Not that I mind doing this – it helps me meet the people in my community, and I do enjoy helping people. But sometimes I think that I could help them more if I could use the time instead to finish the projects that we are working on to make our community a great place in which to live. Particularly when their questions are general ones that could be answered by just about anyone with any background in government. Not something complicated or specific to our town. If only there were some better way to engage the public and inform them.

Not too long after starting my job as city engineer, I began to try to think of some way to push out knowledge about city government to the general public to help minimize the amount of time I spend each day educating people about city government. At the time, I thought perhaps having high schools incorporate this into their classes would help, but standardizing that and making sure it is taught uniformly across all schools is difficult, and I know schools already struggle to fit in all the required and mandated educational goals. So I pushed the idea back to simmer with all the others I seem to come up with.

But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about all those people out there who have questions about how their city works, and maybe don’t have the time to visit or contact their city hall or maybe are a little intimidated about doing so. Also, I realize there are a lot of people in certain professions like realtors, contractors, developers, etc., who also have questions but maybe cannot get them answered from their own city due to many reasons like lack of staff, or perhaps not knowing the right questions to ask. They also have some ideas about how we can better serve up government. Other people might need to address some issue with city hall but just don’t know the best way to approach their city officials.

Now along comes Second Life, and I see a platform that can be used to educate, inform, interact, collaborate, and communicate with people regardless of geographic boundaries or distances. In Second Life we can meet and either help each other find the answers to questions – with the added benefit of being able to do so on our own schedule and anonymously if we so desire. People also have the chance to take advantage of a collective knowledge held by the large number of residents. There is a large group of government professionals and experts already in Second Life. And everyone in Second Life lives in a real life community somewhere. So the Civic Forum has been launched to try to see if Second Life can be used to help facilitate engagement between government workers/officials/experts and the general public.

Although my experience is U.S. based, this type of forum offers the opportunity to involve other government professionals from other countries. This not only would help serve people from across the globe, but would help those of us working in government share ideas and concerns because even though we may be in different countries, in the end, at the local level, we share many of the same issues and concerns. Can you imagine if someday we could have a central location in a virtual world to which anyone could go to get their government-related questions answered? Anytime from anyplace? Now that is serving the public!