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Case Studies Index

Visual Communication in Urban Planning and Urban Design

2.3 Proprietary Web Based VR Modelling Software

In addition to the use of VRML for urban modelling on the WWW, a number of commercial vendors have developed their own proprietary modelling software. One of the most widely used of these packages has been produced by Superscape ( Superscape's VRT software has been employed extensively in the development of the company's Virtual World Wide Web ( Figure 6 illustrates an example an easily identifiable "out of town" shopping centre, developed through Superscape software, with the results presented in a standard WWW browser but with need for a proprietary plug-in.

Figure 6. An "Out of Town" Shopping Centre, developed using Superscape VRT software.

The use of proprietary software often allows the development of innovative, highly realistic urban models on the WWW. However, the production and browsing of these models is often dependent on the purchasing of expensive proprietary pieces of software, as opposed to VRML which is an open standard.

2.4 Virtual Worlds

Having discussed ways in which the built environment can be visualised on the WWW, it is useful to explore the concept of Virtual Worlds and their ability to introduce aspects of interaction and social behaviour into the types of models already discussed. By allowing movement within the models we create, users can be presented with the chance to become involved with planning problems - for planners this facilitates consultation and also allows the planning community to interact in a common digital space in the pursuit of a design or planning solution.

Within virtual worlds participants are generally represented in the model by an avatar or digital alter ego, such as that shown in Figure 7. A user's avatar may take any form, although they are usually based on human form. The user is able to control their avatar, which will dynamically update their view of the world and the other participants avatars. The user sees the 3D world through the eyes of their avatar. This allows the user the ability to turn around and look at a fellow avatar, whilst holding a conversation, thus introducing a meaningful level of social interaction. The more advanced avatar systems available on the WWW also allow the use of physical, personal gestures. A prime example is the use of avatar gestures within Alphaworld (, which is further explored later in the paper. Alphaworld avatars are capable of basic gestures such as `wave' and 'jump' and gestures to indicate basic emotions such as smiling when `happy' or raising a tantrum when `angry'.

The most advanced virtual worlds on the WWW have the following features (Rockwell 1997):

  • Insert/ Delete objects (e.g. avatars) in scenes at run-time
  • Merge multiple sound streams from distributed sources into the shared scene's current ambient sound (e.g. voices over music)
  • Track and communicate the state/ behaviour of objects in real time
  • Allow (sets of) objects to be "driven" by users in real time
  • Let imported objects become persistent
  • Protect the scene from damage by imported objects
  • Assign objects to a series of different "owners"
  • Support persistent roles (for people) and rules (for scenes)
  • Link objects dynamically to external data/ functions
  • Support the free exchange of information among objects

Within the realm of planning and decision making in the urban environment,or even the rural environment, these virtual worlds offer the opportunity to practice, simulate and visualise a design or planning issue in real time in a `dry' environment. All that is required is a model (a replication of a `real-world' space) and the ability to serve it to interested clients. A schema of how a virtual world may be organised is described in Figure 8.
Virtual environments are generally organised in a so called "client-server" model, as shown in Figure 8. They have a central "server" which contains the data for the 3D world, a range of avatar models and also acts as the communications hub for online discussions or "chat" forums. The individual participants have a "client" on their local computer which provides the tools to view and move through the 3D world and also to "chat" or communicate via a dialogue box. "Client" software is often in the form of a plug-in to Web browser applications like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Multiple "clients" connect, over the Internet, to the server, downloading the 3D world and avatar model which are then held on the local computer. The server and clients communicate with each when an avatar is moved or some dialogue is typed.

2.4.1 Virtual Worlds - The 5 Stages of Development to Full Interactivity

The creation of Virtual Worlds on the WWW and their ability to be used for collaborative modelling and design of the built environment may be viewed in five distinct stages, ranging from a basic HTML Web site to a fully developed 3D collaborative simulated urban environment. Table 1 and Figure 9, adapted from Rockwell 1997, illustrate these stages to full interactivity in Virtual Worlds.
Current technology lies between stage three and stage four, with the development of open based standards for the development of multi-user virtual environments. There are more than ten different software vendors developing multi-user virtual worlds, but there is considerable variation in their quality and functionality.

Figure 9. Development Time Line of the Five Stages Towards Full Interactivity in a Virtual World.

2.4.2 Virtual World Systems

Following a preliminary survey of the systems on offer, we are carrying out a detailed evaluation of four of the best, these are, Blaxxun Community, Sony's Comumunity Place, ActiveWorlds and Online. These systems offer powerful world servers and good client end applications.

Stage of EvolutionDescriptionLevel of Use for Collaborative Education/ Design
HTML Web SiteNo Community DevelopmentWeak - Only Information Available.
HTML Site with `Chat' Ability i.e. Internet Relay Chat or Java based Chat Simple Anonymous Text Chat Medium - Interaction, ability to communicate in real-time
Avatar based Graphical Interface Personal, organised and structured interactions Strong - Development of Design/Education Arenas based on property software
Avatar based 3D using open standards and interactions Seamless interconnection of communities and sharing of knowledge across communities Very Strong - Development of World Wide Design/Education Arenas
Avatar based 3D/Open Standards/Real Time Audio Synchronisation Seamless interconnection of communities with natural communication Very Strong - Design/Education Arenas further enhanced with real time audio
Table 1. The Five Stages Towards Full Interactivity in Virtual Worlds Blaxxun Community

The illustration above, Figure 10 shows the Blaxxun "virtual environment" client, called CCPRO, connected to one of Blaxxun's example worlds. The client is a free web browser plug-in which can be downloaded from the Blaxxun web site. The client comprises three elements, the 3D view, a chat window and a control panel (more details on the Blaxxun "multi-user world" system can be found at The 3D aspect of the system uses VRML 1.0 and 2.0. The use of VRML 2.0 allows the ability to interact with objects within a multi-user three dimensional world. The Blaxxun CCPRO client also supports environments created using Superscape's proprietary modelling language.

System Requirements

Operating System
Windows 95 (requires Microsoft DirectX 3 or later) or
Windows NT 4.0 (requires Service Pack 3)
Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.x or later OR Netscape Navigator 3.x or later
Intel RSX for sound support

Figure 10. The Blaxxun Community Client Sony Community Place

The Sony "community place" browser is shown in Figure 11. This "multi-user world" client can be used as a stand-alone application or a browser plug-in. The client comprises two windows - the 3D view and the "chat" window. Further details and software downloaded from the Sony Community Place web site at (Note - Sony's Community Place Conductor 2.0 Preview Release 1 has recently been made available. This tool will allows the creation of VRML97/Java (supporting JDK 1.1.3 or later) worlds, in real-time, using simple drag-and-drop metaphors).

System Requirements

Operating System
Windows PC running Windows 95 or Windows NT
Pentium 90MHz, 32MB RAM
Netscape Navigator for Windows (ver2.0 or later)
Note: Netscape Communicator will not work with the plugin CP browser. A standalone version is also available.
Requires Direct X 5.0

Figure 11. Sony Community Place

Activeworlds is a stand-alone client application, again only available for Windows 95 / NT platform. The client has a large 3D view window, plus a control panel and the "chat" window. The ActiveWorlds web site is at and contains further details on their multi-user worlds. The largest of the ActiveWorlds Virtual Worlds is called Alphaworld. Alphaworld currently has over 200,000 "residents" who are able to build using a simple `copy and paste' system of object placement. Such activities allow the production of "landuse" maps of alphaworld, illustrating the `virtual' urban sprawl in the digital environment shown in Figure 13.
Over a period of 15 months over 10 million building objects were placed on the digital plain (Damer, 1997). The map provides "teleport" access to any area of Alphaworld simply by clicking on the desired location. Activeworlds is the most powerful of the Virtual Worlds clients providing a flexible environment for the visualisation of multi-user urban environments on the WWW.

Figure 12. The Activeworlds "browser"

Figure 13 : AlphaWorld Teleport map (

System Requirements

Operating System
PC running Windows 95 or Windows NT
Pentium 90MHz, 16 megs Ram (24 megs or more will give improved performance)
14.4kbps modems will work, but 28.8kbps is strongly recommended Onlive

Onlive Technologies ( has developed a Virtual World which moves away from the limitations of text based communications. Onlive features full voice support, allowing real time voice based communication in VRML based Virtual Worlds.
Figure 14, illustrates the Onlive "Browser". Note that the Virtual World occupies the full browser windows as there is no need for a text based communication window. Communication is achieved by using a set of speakers and a microphone connected to each users PC. To `chat' the user presses the control key on the keyboard and talks into the microphone. The users voice is then encoded and transmitted into the virtual world using automatic voice synthesis and 3D audio. The effect is real time conversation with lip synchronised avatars. Due to current bandwidth restrictions Onlive Virtual Worlds can only be seen as experimental, as conversations are often lost due to time lag and distortion.

System Requirements

Operating System
PC running Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0
Pentium 90MHz, 16 megs Ram (24 megs or more will give improved performance)
Creative Labs SoundBlaster 16 and/or SoundBlaster AWE32 recommended

Figure 14. Onlive "Browser".

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