AGOCG logo
Graphics Multimedia VR Visualisation Contents
Training Reports Workshops Briefings Index
Also available as an Acrobat File Back Next




Geometric models
  Solid & Geometric
   Web based VR
   Virtual Worlds
   Virtual Design Arenas

Photorealistic media

Visual Communication

Future Developments


WWW Resources

Virtual Environments

Case Studies Index

Visual Communication in Urban Planning and Urban Design

2.5 Virtual Design Arenas

At CASA we intend to run our own Virtual World server, on which we can host small three-dimensional design scenarios. This will be used for experimental teaching and modelling of urban design and planning in what we term a Virtual Design Arena (ViDA). The ViDA initiative will be a collaborative venture between VENUE, Online Planning, and the VR Centre for the Built Environment. An exploration of the ViDA initiative provides an insight into the use of Virtual Worlds for the visualisation of urban planning and urban design for both educational and practical requirements.

Within the proposed ViDA initiative participants will include;

  • Urban design & planning students
  • Interested academics
  • Professional planners and urban designers
  • Ordinary people in public participation experiments
  • Planners & urban designers
  • The Internet "general public"

By hosting and developing our own Virtual Worlds we will be able to run design scenarios in which many people can participate as avatars in various scenarios. We intend to create worlds for two distinct categories of design scenarios "Virtual Real Places" and "Real Virtual Spaces". The first type, "Virtual Real Places", will be scenarios using 3D models of real world places, for example real development sites in London. "Real Virtual Spaces" will be completely fictional models, not related to any particular real place. We believe that the 3D worlds do not necessarily have to be based on real places to be useful in the design and planning process. In many respects it may be easier to represent the ideas of good and bad design in truly virtual spaces. Before we go into detail about the ViDA Initiative it is useful to explore current examples of Virtual Worlds for both collaborative design and education on the WWW.

2.5.1 The Virtual Campus

The University of Colorado has developed a collection of integrated technologies designed to create a Virtual Campus. The Virtual Campus, although not specifically designed to visualise the urban environment, provides an insight into how Virtual Worlds can be used for collaborative education and therefore ultimately visualisation and design. The centerpiece of the Virtual Campus is the Active Worlds Browser, Figure 15.

Figure 15. The Virtual Campus

Active Worlds allows the Virtual Campus students and instructors to use real-time communication and the exploration of content via streaming multimedia web pages in three dimensions. Users can choose one of over twenty-five Avatars to represent themselves as they travel throughout the Campus communicating with fellow students or instructors. The Active Worlds browser also connects directly to the World Wide Web, allowing instructors to incorporate their existing web pages, or enhance them with streaming audio, video, or interactive multimedia.

The Virtual Campus is divided into three specific areas;

  • Academics - The main area where students enter the Virtual Campus. From this section, students are able to select various course options;
  • Course Area - Each course is assigned its own `course area'. Details are provided of assignments and virtual lectures.
  • Concepts - Students able to interact in a 3D environment, the environment modelled various according to course content.

The Virtual Campus has developed Virtual Worlds for collaborative education, where as the Royanji Project provides and insight into the use of Virtual Worlds for collaborative design.

2.5.2 The Ryoanji Project

The Virtual Ryoanji Project is a joint development project between the Department of Urban Engineering at the University of Tokyo, Sony Corporation and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London. The Ryoanji Project's ultimate objective is to create a full-featured urban planning support system, allowing a number of people, who may have different concepts, tastes and standpoints, to gather and induce them to cooperate in creating a single space (Shiode et al., 1998). The project is based around the design of a virtual stone garden. Participants are able place various stones in the virtual space, thus introducing the concept of virtual design. Figure 16 illustrates two participants discussing the placement of the stones within the virtual space.

Figure 16. The Virtual Ryoanji Project

Although in early stages of development, the project provides a useful insight into the design stages and collaborative working environment which can be developed using virtual worlds. Further details can be found at

2.5.3 Collaborative Design - Developing ViDA's

Figure 17 illustrates the basic design process of the ViDA developed by CASA. Initially ViDA users will be asked to explore the potential of the computer-mediated virtual world, e.g. becoming used to moving through the 3D model world or using the "chat" tool to communicate. The initial layout of the world will draw strongly on the work of the Virtual Campus with specific sections within the Virtual World. Users will be presented with a series of virtual worlds to evaluate according to a set criteria. Eventually they will be presented with virtual worlds where they can modify the 3D models.

As the users interact with the Virtual World various powers of "modification" can be permitted such as changing building colours or textures, altering size and plot position, or removing buildings and objects (like street furniture), to creating completely new structures and layouts. Permissions can also be set in order to determine who has the power to make certain changes to the model (Development Control). All user activities in the multi-user worlds (avatar movement, action and "chat" communications) will be discretely logged on the server, thus creating extensive metadata. Analysis of this activity log plus conventional oral and written feedback, will provide interesting insights into group evaluations, design and working in virtual environments.

Figure 17. The basic virtual design process of ViDA The Interface

In creating the visual interface of ViDA two specific routes have been developed:

  1. Using VRML 2.0 Virtual Worlds have been developed using the Blaxxun browser. Figure 18 illustrates the Virtual Lecture Theatre developed for the ViDA initiative. The Virtual Lecture Theatre will be used as a base for the users initially to meet in the virtual world and be introduced to the design concepts by a virtual lecturer, in a similar vein to the `Course' section of the Virtual Campus. While the lecture theatre has been developed for ViDA, it should be noted that it has a wider use in the general context of distributed education. The lecture theatre will be made available for use by other academics during the period of the initiative.
  2. Active Worlds - The use of the Activeworlds server/browser has allowed the development of the potentially powerful design interface shown in Figure 19. Alphaworld allows the user to import both VRML 2.0 and traditional CAD models into a virtual environment. The ability to import CAD based formats coupled with VRML 2.0 provides a degree of flexibility in the design of the environment and the ability to construct a realistic looking environment.

Figure 18. Prototype Client Interface - ViDA Virtual Lecture Theatre

Figure 19. Alphaworld ViDA Interface.

2.5.4 Limitations

There are some limitations with using Virtual Worlds to construct ViDA's. The realism required in the 3D models to be effective for our purposes needs to be tested. In particular, the 3D modelling formats used by the multi-user world systems (section 3.4.3), do not support shadows. Clearly, this will hamper the realism which can be achieved in visualising the built environment where lighting and shadows are an important element in design.

Although the clients for the Virtual World system's are generally free, they are only available for the Windows 95/ NT platform. This is a limitation as many use systems with older versions of Windows or use Mac's. Furthermore, server software has to be bought, costing from a few hundred to a couple of thousand pounds sterling. There is also the danger of becoming locked into proprietary software systems, over which authors have little development control, which can leave them at the mercy of the vendor. This can be particularly problematic with regard to the smaller vendors of Internet software which tend to have unpredictable life-spans. The communication between participants (particularly ones at geographically separate locations) is also dependent on typing text messages in a "chat" window. This can be problematic for carrying on in-depth, lengthy "conversations", especially for people not adept at typing.

2.5.5 Possibilities

The ViDA initiative is an experiment in using available multi-user world technologies in visual communication for planning and urban design. However, we have been considering some of the exciting possibilities that it may open up if the initial experiment proves the notion of virtual design and planning are viable. An example is the potential to construct more elaborate scenarios, with "role play" where different participants assume the "roles" of the planner, the developer, and the local resident. We would also like to explore the possibilities of embedding rules into the virtual world of what can be built where. In this way, electronic planning constraints can be implemented and enforced on the designers. In some sense, we would be adding a measure of intelligence to our 3D world. We would also like to be able to link attribute data to buildings and objects in our worlds. For example, it would be good if users could "touch" a building and get detailed information on its construction, use, age, ownership, and value. Communication between participants, particularly `over the net', could well be improved beyond "chat" text messages using desktop video-conferencing and "whiteboard" technologies.

Graphics     Multimedia      Virtual Environments      Visualisation      Contents