Terrain Files for 3D Worlds

For some time I've experimented with creating terrain for use in 3D immersive spaces. Usually I am trying to alter DEM files to create simulations of project sites. But lately I've started to explore creating specific shapes or designs, and I think I've finally found a work flow that might make the whole process a little easier. Here is a file I created that can be used in a world like Second Life or OpenSim. If you have estate powers, you can go to the estate menu and upload the file as a RAW file to create this land. It is a square measuring 256 x 256 meters with 4 star-shaped hills rising out of star-shaped water features.

Star Terrain Overhead View  Star Terrain Ground View

If you click this file name, you can download the file for your own use. I am releasing it under a Creative Commons license that would allow you to basically use it for anything except selling it as is. Since this is my first time offering a file I created, please let me know if it does not work for you.

[wpdm_file id=2]




3D Visualization of an Alley Streetscape Project

Downtown alley looking westA while back I was working on a project to change an alley from a typical asphalt driveway to a pedestrian walkway. Because it is in a downtown area, this project allows for many design opportunities to enhance the downtown area and the pedestrian experience. During its planning stage, we had a lot of input from property owners, co-workers, and others in the community on what they wanted to see in that space. But as I put together the civil drawings, I thought it would be so much better to also have a 3D view of it so we could actually see what it would look like when we put in everyone's ideas. I decided the easiest and fastest way for me to build the best looking model for this was to use something like Opensim or Second Life software. Due to the size and purpose of this project, I ended up setting it up in Second Life since I could make it in a premium sandbox, take a photo of it when done, and then store it in my inventory. Below is the result of my work.

Downtown Alley in 3D

If you look close, you will probably notice it really is not a perfectly executed model. This was intentional on my part. For this particular project, my goal was to see how fast I could set up a model that while not perfect was good enough for visualizing a design.This is because when I have built things like this before, one of the main questions I get from co-workers and other engineers is "how long did it take you to do that?" And in the past, I never really paid attention because I was more focused on the building aspect and trying to make it look exactly like the actual site. But for professional design work, time is one of the most important considerations. So I wanted to focus on how fast this could be done yet still achieve the goal. In the end, for this project, which covered roughly 30 feet by 400 feet, I would say it took about eight hours to take the photos, create the textures, and build the model. I might have been able to finish it sooner, but it took me a while to shop for the string lights and buy them in a Second Life store.

Here are a few more photos with different lighting and different views. Obviously with more time, a lot more elements could have been added and more ideas tried. The good thing about having a model like this is once it is built, it is so easy to just add other objects or try different designs:


Alley 3D Visualization Looking East

Alley 3D Visualization Looking West at sunset


Business Sim Released by Public Works Group

Public Works Group Business Sim


Over the last year or so I've worked on creating a 3D environment as a representation of the ADA Toolkit for Local Government. Last December I submitted the build in the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge. The winners were just announced this week, and my entry was not one of the finalists so I began the process of taking down the build so I can work on something else. But before I secured my demolition permit and completely cleared the site, I removed the ADA-related materials so only the buildings and landscaping remained. Then I saved it as an OAR file. Those of you who work in the Opensimulator environment are probably familiar with this file format. I am offering the build as a download for anyone who might need a build to support a business or e-learning use or anything else you can think of. Here are the main highlights in the build:

  • Main Landing/Welcome area
  • Three forest/park areas
  • Roads through business area
  • Hedge Maze
  • Four commercial buildings, one with a parking lot

Most of the content and images were created by me. However, I have incorporated a few items from Linda KellieNebadon IzumiVanish Seriath and possibly a few other people. All of the items used that were created by others were released for use under an OpenSource or Creative Commons license that would allow me to release them for free under a similar license through this build (any original notecards regarding the licenses can be found in the objects created by others). So have fun, and I hope the build proves useful for others. 



This file is released under a Creative Commons, noncommercial, share-alike, attribution license (basically meaning that you just can't sell any of the build or repackage it under your own name or brand – you don't have to attribute to me or the Public Works Group if you use the build.)



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: http://blog.3dg.is/.) 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.






The ADA Toolkit for Local Government in 3D

Most of us working in local government are probably familiar with the ADA Best Practices Toolkit for State and Local Government published online by the U.S. Department of Justice at http://www.ada.gov/pcatoolkit/toolkitmain.htm. The document is well-written and helpful in providing guidance in understanding and complying with regulations related to accessibility. But like most government documents, it is offered in a traditional, conservative format. One of my goals over the years has been to transform a document like the ADA Toolkit into a three dimensional experience.  Not only does a 3D space offer a much more engaging "read," but it can also increase retention of the material. So over the last year or so, I worked on building a 3D version of this toolkit. You can see a quick tour of the result of this work in the video below.

If you are interested in checking out the toolkit, there are several options for doing so. For those of you familiar with virtual environments, you can visit http://www.publicworksgroup.com/ada to learn where I have set up the hosting of the toolkit. One additional grid not yet listed on that site is the MOSES grid which is owned and operated by the U.S. Army. If you are already a member of MOSES, you can find the toolkit there by searching on the map for munigov. Then when the map locates that area, you can teleport over. (I will eventually add the MOSES setup as an option on the website, but because the website and toolkit were entered in the FVWC before I could set the toolkit up on MOSES, I was not sure I could alter the website until after the contest.)

If you want to check out the toolkit, but have never yet entered a virtual environment where you are represented by an avatar, rest assured this will be one of the easiest and least threatening places to visit. And because many people entering a virtual space for the first time are worried about interacting with others, I have set it all up so that you can run and visit the toolkit on your own computer. Just download and unzip the following file and follow the directions on the Readme file (this is a very large download – about 560 MB zipped and just over 1 GB unzipped):


By visiting the toolkit with this method, there will be no else who can enter the toolkit other than you. You can also download and unzip the files onto a USB drive so that you can use them on any computer. 

For those of you interested in my choices of design, I realize I could have chosen many different themes and visualizations. But for this particular document, I decided to remain somewhat conservative and traditional in my 3D representation. This is because people in my field of engineering and public works and even local government are still not yet heavily involved in the use of virtual worlds or 3D technology. So most people in these fields who visit the 3D ADA Toolkit could be entering a virtual environment for the first time. And based on feedback I received over the years from colleagues who attempted to check out virtual environments, I believe that they will have the most positive and successful experience if the virtual space is at least somewhat familiar. This is also the reason that I have set up the environment in several different locations. Those interested in checking out the toolkit can do so not only by visiting it in existing virtual worlds like OSGrid and MOSES, but also on the privacy of their own computer where they can focus on the toolkit and not have to worry about interacting with others.

I'd like to continue to explore transforming government documents into 3D learning environments and sharing them with other government professionals. And over time, as people become more familiar with the learning techniques offered by virtual settings, I would expect to eventually expand the visualizations to become more interesting and non-traditional with even more tools for engagement. Eventually I would also like to try out this transformation using other software such as Unity3D. In the meantime, if you have a particular document you would be interested in seeing transformed into 3D, or are interested in collaborating on creating one, or have feedback or suggestions for improvement, just send me an email or share your information in the comments below.