Virtual worlds and the built environment

Virtual worlds and the built environment (PDF) is a white paper just published by Birmingham, UK-based Daden Ltd, about whom I’ve written before (post). Having explored Second Life very superficially a couple of years ago when Be2camp was in its infancy, I have watched with interest as Dave Burden and Soulla Stylianou have developed strong arguments for using immersive virtual environments for architecture, engineering and construction projects, and on through to occupation, facilities management, re-purposing, and eventual dismantling. This white paper collates a considerable amount of learning and lots of practical ideas about virtual worlds into a succinct 20 pages.

Foremost, to me, is the very obvious point that conventional 3D environments tend to be almost anti-social – certainly ‘unsocial’. While 3D design walk-throughs and fly-throughs often display the presence of occupants or pedestrians, and they might portray a building or a streetscape as seen from the eyes of someone walking (or flying!) through the building or along the street, there is rarely any opportunity to interact with the building, or to pause the ‘guided tour’ and go off and explore alone (or in groups). Similarly, there is usually no way to share thoughts or ideas about the building in real time with the designer or with other users. As Daden argue, virtual reality is not a replacement for existing technologies, but it can do things that these tools can’t currently achieve: to explore the human and social dimensions of a build:

“Virtual worlds can do this because they are all about putting one or more human-controlled avatars into a shared, real-time environment – something none of these existing tools do.” (p.5)

The list of advantages of virtual worlds for AEC activity (p.7) is impressive. Daden lists various abilities including:

  • support for multiple users in the same space – not just twos or threes, but typically 50-100
  • to make things interactive – even linking computers to real computer applications, and signs to real signage systems (Daden has shown street scenes in Second Life where Birmingham bus-stops display real-time information about the next bus service to, say, Edgbaston)
  • integrating building environmental and performance data, and visualising more effectively
  • allow users to peel-back layers of a building to see structural and service components
  • let users annotate the space, feeding back comments which can be automatically collated
  • track users through the building, and their interactions with its systems
  • let users choose between configurations and vote on them
  • support ‘live use’ of the building, eg: for entertainment or training
  • clone the building to create multiple copies to explore what-ifs
  • use the same platform to support virtual meetings, conferences, training, collaboration etc
  • dynamic rendering which enables instant changes and multi-user deployment

The main drawbacks, interestingly, are more to do with the hardware and telecommunications technology, not the approach; Daden lists the need for a reasonably powerful PC (though “a £40 graphics card suffices”), a dedicated downloadable client application and reasonable bandwidth, plus user interfaces that are attuned to AEC use, and avatars that are easier to manage.

Daden lists several ways in which virtual worlds could be used to model different aspects of a built environment project (pp.11-16): in planning, in consultation, for project collaboration, for building user feedback, to model use by wheelchair users, to model services for future maintenance needs, to show different environmental conditions, to test security strategies, to identify building navigation issues, for simulation and training purposes, etc. And many of these scenarios are not just hypothetical; Daden has tested many of these approaches out on real projects – last year’s Be2camp Brum, for example, heard how Second Life was being used to support design activities relating to the new Library of Birmingham, and Soulla has also presented on Daden’s PIVOTE learning environment.

Daden acknowledge the rise of building information modelling (BIM) and other technologies, but suggest that, alongside these tools, we can add considerably to our understanding of the effectiveness of a building or urban design by testing ideas out on users and allowing them to interact as avatars, both singly and with others, within that built environment. This white paper should be required reading for anyone looking for design tools that could help them identify potential end-users’ issues early enough so that they can then optimise user experience in their design of the finished built asset.

Update (08 March 2011): Coincidentally, I have just been emailed about two special issues of the Journal of Information Technology in Construction (ITcon), including one on Use of virtual world technology in architecture, engineering and construction, edited by Pathmeswaran Raju and Vian Ahmed of University of Salford, plus Chimay Anumba of Penn State University (formerly at Loughborough University). The special issue includes eight peer-reviewed academic papers on virtual technologies.


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