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How Immersive Virtual Reality Can Be a Boon to City Planners

With a new offering, city planners will be able to shift their point of view as they move through the virtual space, and a series of toggle options will add a range of virtual data overlays to the main visual.

The American Society of Landscape Architects calls virtual reality (VR) a “powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners and developers — really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments.”

The immersive nature of VR, which allows viewers to encounter a simulated 3-D landscape from multiple points of view, can be a boon to city planners. They can use it to redraw streets and neighborhoods, offering real and imagined views of existing and proposed developments.

A recent release from geospatial data and services provider Esri could help to bring VR into play in the civic space. The company recently introduced ArcGIS 360 VR, a virtual reality application for its CityEngine 3-D modeling software.

Some 3,600 organizations already use CityEngine, most of them local governments. The new offering will allow them to generate VR visualizations of CityEngine data, which in turn can be downloaded to smartphones and viewed using a Samsung Gear VR headset.

“We wanted to make the virtual reality experience consumable on a lightweight, mobile device,” said Eric Wittner, CityEngine product manager. “One of the challenges with VR adoption is the heavy hardware requirement. These things are still somewhat of a boutique item, with a high cost, so we wanted a virtual reality environment that works off the devices people already have.”

Users will see a series of spherical photos grafted together and bookmarked. Tapping through scenes, they will be able to shift their point of view as they move through the virtual space. In addition, a series of toggle options will add a range of virtual data overlays to the main visual.

“It may toggle between an-all glass façade versus a mixed material, or there may be views of different ways in which the building sweeps back away from the street to prevent urban canyon effect,” Wittner said. “You could get three or four different designs from multiple architectural firms, and this gives you a way to switch between those easily.”

Esri is not alone in pursuing the possible implementation of VR as a tool in urban planning. Various efforts on the commercial side and in academia suggest this may be a growing area of interest for city technologists.

Real estate technology Vroom shows how VR could be used to deliver aerial views for urban planning purposes. Likewise, VR developer EON Reality describes how builders of the Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, used VR to visualize future developments.

Academia also is weighing in. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Data Visualization Lab have published a guide to help steer urban planners through the implementation of virtual reality solutions. UCLA planners meanwhile have used VR to explore campus design ideas. “It gives us extra breadth as a design and visualization tool,” said one campus architect.

Use cases

Esri envisions a range of possible uses for a GIS-driven VR offering. In the most obvious scenario, planners could create VR mockups to help people understand the potential look and feel of a proposed development effort.

VR might be boon to public safety as well, for example by overlaying hazardous-material data onto floor plans. “Now if I have a fire on the third floor I can look and say: Yes, I see hazard material here, here and here,” Wittner said.

City managers also could create VR experiences with property value and tax data laid over street views. “It could almost be a virtual Zillow, where you could drop yourself into a 360-degree view of any block and get a visual indicator of the value of every property along that street,” he said.

VR could support infrastructure efforts. “If you have good subsurface information for your utilities, you can make the ground transparent in VR and start publishing 360-VRs that show you not just your buildings but where the water and electric and gas line are and where they interface with the surface," Wittner said. "It’s a way of being anywhere without having to be there."

Some cities already are experimenting with VR as a form of civic outreach. Los Angeles for instance offers LA River, a virtual reality smartphone app that lets users explore the river’s history and its ecosystem, while also gaining a view of the potential impact of revitalization efforts.

Esri doesn’t have any U.S. users of its newly launched product, but the company said officials in Zurich, Switzerland, have already used it to demonstrate planning schemes in public meetings.

For 3-D VR technology to succeed in the civic space, Wittner cautioned, city planners will need to think not just about the kinds of views they want to see, but also about the information that will generate those virtual scenes.

“It all comes down to the quality of your data in driving the creation of these scenes. Some cities have really well developed data sets and 3-D models, and that is what you need to really make this work,” he said. “It is only going to look as good as the data that you have.”

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.