Architecture team builds visions in 3D

While many may think of 3D technology as limited to B-movies and amusement park attractions, at Carleton University in Ottawa the latest 3D imaging technology is being used to change the world of architecture, helping architects envision new building designs they just couldn’t see before.

Leading the team is Michael Jemtrud, an associate professor of architecture and the director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS). The students and professors of CIMS use the latest digital media technology to produce 3D digital models of urban architectural environments.

“What makes our work so exciting is that, by marrying the physical and the virtual, we can help architects, urban planners and artists reconsider, imagine and propose the environment in which we live,” said Jemtrud.

Jemtrud said he was lucky to be entering the architecture field at the same time that computing was beginning to make inroads.

He said famed architect Frank Gehry, whose designs include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, makes extensive use of laser scanners and has said some of his designs would not have been possible without 3D imaging technology. The complexity could not have been realized through traditional means.

“We’re going through a huge paradigm shift in the way we represent and see things (in architecture),” said Jemtrud. “When you can operate in three dimensions all the time it really changes the way you see the project.”

The technology is out there, it’s just not commonly used. When he joined Carleton’s School of Architecture, Jemtrud said the challenge put to him was to build-up the school’s computing facilities.

“Through the technology cluster that is Ottawa, with the National Research Council…all of a sudden I was exposed to all these amazing things, and just trying to figure out ways to twist it and do things with these technologies they weren’t intended for,” said Jemtrud.

Part of the challenge has been the tools themselves, which Jemtrud said aren’t very intuitive or easy to use. On the plus side, though, he said once you learn one 3D modeling program it’s not to hard learn the others, so his students have been able to master the skill sets fairly quickly.

Past CIMS projects have included a visual representation of the interior of the Rideau Street Chapel in Ottawa and a 3D replica of the Salk Institute, established by Dr. Jonas Salk, the creator of the polio vaccine.

The group recently received a $991,000 research grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage for its latest project, a digital recreation of a model of the historic “The Main” neighborhood of Montreal, which has seen better days and is currently targeted for an urban revitalization.

The CIMS team will be capturing high-resolution images of the neighborhood and using them to create an interactive 3D model, which will be used to assist in the revitalization process, giving people a 1:1 scale view.

“We’ll be using it for presentations to the city,” said Jemtrud. “There’s a really serious focus on redeveloping this area, and we can look at the proposals in an immersive, three-dimensional and interactive way that isn’t that common right now.”

CIMS is also working on animations that speak to the present and past of the site, as well as interactive Web tours that anyone will be able to access through a Web browser. Jemtrud said the results will begin to be available to the public in October.

The grant supporting the project came from Heritage Canada’s New Media Research Networks Fund. Ted Bairstow, director general, Canadian Culture Online with Heritage Canada, said the program’s purpose is to work with research institutes to create new tools (that can close) the boundary between art and technology.

Bairstow said Jemtrud’s project did well in the competitive process because it’s very cutting-edge technology, and because a lot of the organizations the department works with are taking a keen interest in 3D technology.

Given the increasing delicacy of many culturally significant and historic sites around the world, Bairstow said 3D technology is a way to give more people the opportunity to visit these sites without potentially damaging them.

“The fact this will allow them to navigate their way around a 3D space and see representations in 3D of the different parts of the space will give them a chance to get to know more about it than they would have through other expressive means,” said Bairstow.

“It’s our sense that these kinds of tools will allow more and more heritage sites and museums to find ways to give people access to their heritage resources without having to actually put them at risk.”

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