It’s a 3D Model, what’s the difference?

Fiesta Island Running Trail, generated in Visual Nature Studioimage: David Leonard
Fiesta Island Running Trail, generated in Visual Nature Studio
image: David Leonard

Land planning and design are highly driven by the need for schematic designs, but understanding the best methods and tools to reflect these schemes can be daunting. Technology continues to advance at an accelerated rate and we must stay up to speed on these changes in order to most appropriately accomplish the task at hand. 3D technologies have emerged over the past two decades increasing our ability to create stunning images of our visions, but are we using the tools correctly?

Iterative products should represent the current stage of development. Photorealistic illustratives or animations are often misused to convey a concept, and are a detriment to the planning and design process. As the vision of the stakeholders becomes clearer, so should the level of detail observed in the model. Depicting specific materials early in development will detract from establishing the overall spatial character. Conversely, lack of detail in final products often allows clients, usually the public, to fill in the void with their mind’s eye of the “worst case” version.

Implementing the appropriate level of detail requires knowledge of software capabilities. There are four categories of software that encompass 3D modeling in our profession: GIS systems and their extensions, object builders, viewers and renderers, and photorealist modeling. Products of these software include illustratives, animations, and realtime navigation environments.

GIS Systems

GIS systems such as Esri’s ArcGIS 3D Analyst/ArcScene provide analysis, surface generation, data reformatting, and limited visualization capabilities. Examples include line-of-sight analysis, volumetric earth calculations, and geospatial rectification of vectors. Plugins for ArcGIS include Placeways Community Viz 4.1/Scenario 3D. This software is directly linked to ArcGIS and allows for dynamic analysis in a 3D environment. Various scenarios can be tested and visualized all at once. Graphics capabilities are limited, much like GIS, however charrette facilitation is greatly enhanced when modeling a community’s density and conveying the impacts.

Object Builders

When thinking of object builders, the first program that comes to mind is Trimble SketchUp. It has become the leading object building software used in our industry, and used by the general public, labeled “3D Modeling for Everyone.” They also have the largest library of free components shared by developers. With the purchase by Trimble, we can expect great things for our profession in the future.

A new software, AutoDesk Infrastructure Modeler, combines object creation with the power of GIS and CAD. Buildings with 3D faces can be automatically generated from vector footprints based on architectural styles. Road centerlines can be imported or drawn and can autopopulate a streetscape per the associated style. This includes the drive lanes, bike lanes, curbs, planting strips, sidewalks, people, cars, benches, lamp posts, etc. and all intersections will be interpolated. This product is ideally designed for charrette facilitation given the speed and accuracy of execution.

Non-Uniform, Rational, B-spline (NURB) aka smooth surface modeling programs are more robust, construct high quality objects, but are more daunting to use. This category includes the long established Form Z and the quickly emerging Rhinoceros.

Viewers and Renderers

The most utilized viewer is Google Earth. It allows us to visualize our objects geospatially aligned within the context populated by other users. The power of this product lies with the ability to share it with anyone for free simply by sending a link, allowing users to self-navigate through the scene.

While SketchUp offers simple creation ability, it also provides simple graphics. This works well in the early stages of development, but as the product is refined, higher quality graphics are often required. Rendering plugins fill this void by increasing surface textures, reflectivity, and lighting quality. There are many products available such as LumenRT, IDX Renditioner, SU Podium, and Shaderlight. LumenRT stands apart in that it offers live navigation of this rendered environment, no additional interface, and distributes to clients through a self-executable file. The latest version now allows proxy elements to be represented as photorealistic objects upon export with moving characters and windblown vegetation. Another more expense software with powerful animation capabilities is Lumion. It has a vast library of components and allows for fast generation of high quality visualizations without extensive animation skill sets.

Oceanside Transit Center, generated with 3DS Max Design with Vue Pluginimage: Matt Wilkens
Oceanside Transit Center, generated with 3DS Max Design with Vue Plugin
image: Matt Wilkens

Photorealistic Modeling

When photorealistic rendering is needed there are several industry standards available to visualize the built environment, and a couple lesser known to visualize the natural world. AutoDesk’s 3DS Max Design and Bentleys Microstation are the two most commonly used modeling softwares to create realistic built environments. Both are becoming increasingly more utilized as Building Information Modeling (BIM) becomes a part of the everyday workflow. 3DS Max Design has expanded much beyond infrastructure into the entertainment world gaining notoriety, which in turn facilitates software enhancements. This program is most often used when quality is paramount or character rigging is necessary. To their detriment, the ability to create a realistic natural context within these programs is notably lacking.

Fortunately e-on-software, the producer of LumenRT has developed Vue that can act as a plugin for 3DS Max Design, to create vividly realistic digital nature. Parameters within the software allow for manipulation of water, atmosphere, land, and vegetation. The most powerful feature of Vue is its SolidGrowth™ technology, which randomly generates infinite vegetative cover ensuring no two plants of the same species are identical. Designers and planners sometimes shy away from this program since it has limited vector based precision and capability to quickly update a concept.

Visual Nature Studio (VNS) provides some of the strongest capabilities for landscape designers and planners to depict the natural environment with limited built environment. This program is GIS based facilitating accuracy, and as your concepts are refined updates can be reflected automatically in your model. Key features include: incorporation and rendering of SketchUp objects; photos of project-site plants can be used to generate realistic ecosystems rather than crude object models; rules of nature can be applied to further refine land covers; water, atmospheres, and ecological succession can be animated; and all components generated can be saved for use in other models. Stored components that may have taken considerable time to perfect can be reapplied to the next project data set instantly. Although the quality is not as true to life as Vue (which also stores ecosystem components) or 3DS Max, the speed in which planners and landscape designers may convey their vision with high quality illustratives and animations is impressive.

The Future

As 3D technologies advance, what are the converging trends? Each program has specialties, but as the market becomes more competitive each company producing these softwares incorporates additional capabilities. They include: GIS compatibility, easy to use and automated object creation, SolidGrowth™ technology, multiple render styles from simple to photorealistic, realtime navigation, scalable viewer distribution (individual vs. mass), integrated BIM workflow, cloud computing, and other technologies merging into 3D software such as Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR)/ laser scanning and photogrammetry, and augmented reality. As these capabilities converge, a more efficient workflow will result improving our focus on quality planning and design.

More on this topic will be presented in the first webinar hosted by the Digital Technologies PPN during the PPN Online Learning: Spring Series in March.

by David Leonard, chair of the Digital Technology PPN

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