Vancouver embarks on Digital City project

The cities of Salzburg in Austria, Incheon in Korea and Vancouver could not be more different from each other.

The three municipalities, however, share a common thread in a project called Digital Cities.

The initiative aims to develop accurate 3D digital models of the city landscape to help guide future and ongoing private and government construction, civil engineering, utility services delivery and other municipal operations. The program is being carried out in cooperation with 3D modeling software maker Autodesk Inc. which is providing the cities with the company’s design and modeling applications.

The Salzburg and Incheon Digital Cities projects have been well underway since last year, but it was only late last month that Vancouver announced its involvement in the project.

In Incheon, the plan is to build high-tech Songdo City from scratch on a reclaimed field. Songdo City will fully integrate digital lifestyle with an integrated sensor network, high-speed Internet communications, TV and cable services as well as computer scheduled transportation. In Salzburg, the focus is on redevelopment rather than new development. The goal is to preserve the flavour of the past with each new construction.

Vancouver aims to improve its already existing 3D infrastructure.

“We’re still in the very early stages of development. But our vision is to go beyond the so-called dumb two dimensional city maps and plans and develop an interactive digital model,” says Dan Campbell, graphics planner for the City of Vancouver.

The city, which will host the 2010 Olympics Games , is already has a reputation for its sustainable planning practices and use of GIS and Web mapping software using Oracle spatial technology and Autodesk tools.

Vancouver has been using 3D models for nearly 20 years, but while these models serve their purpose they’re generally still a bunch of blocks.

“At the moment our maps and models are much like display panels. Many are still in 2D format and those in 3D are not very interactive or accessible to the public,” Campbell said.

“If we can consolidate these design drawings into an interactive digital model, we can ease the communication of design intent and municipal regulations and improve transparency at the same time,” he said.

Campbell said 3D models need very little translation and explanation for the public to understand, there will be less chance of confusion and difference in interpretation.

Furthermore an attractive 3D model can better communicate planned changes and capture emotional aspects of a project, he added. Digital 3D models will also be accessible via computers to various city departments, Campbell said, eliminating current practice of requiring 16 paper copies of each plan.

“Current 3D models are far removed from the static 3D drawings engineers and architects used decades ago,” said Geoff Zeiss, director of technology for Autodesk.

He said today’s 3D models incorporate elements of GIS, computer aided design, building information modeling (BIM) and gaming software tools. “The resulting models contain more data, are easier to manipulate and share and far sleeker.”

For instance he said, Autodesk’s use of spatial data technology allows users to create 3D models that visually represent the shadow cast by a building during different times of the day or as the season changes.

“This is vital for construction in many municipalities such as London where the city has a so-called ‘right to light” law that ensures new construct does not unduly obstruct sunlight for other buildings.”

New BIM technology incorporated in Autodesk tools also provide planners easy access to construction information, according to Ian Hooper, interaction designer in the media and entertainment division of Autodesk in Toronto.

“Rather than leafing through a separate sheet containing specs, builders viewing a model on their computer screen can simply click on an item in the drawing and find the relevant data,” he said.

Gaming software also enable users to “glide” through 3D models are various perspectives (for instance, birds eye view or street view) with the use of a mouse, keyboard or even a game control pad, Hooper said.

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