Cornell University partners with industry on a new approach to urban design and planning
Real-time technology is changing how designers view and interact with concepts. The new ability to test-drive a structure at the earliest stages of design—and influence its evolution as a result of that experience—leads to rapid iteration and exploration of the design envelope. It has the potential to foster greater creativity, to expose new possibilities.
To make sure all this power is harnessed in the most beneficial way, established industry leaders, and technology providers need to come together with a united vision. A great example of this is a joint initiative called Virtual Places, which was the brainchild of leading educator Cornell University and industry powerhouses KPF (Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates) and FXCollaborative, all based in New York. The core objective of the Virtual Places project, which also receives support from HP, is to develop an Unreal Engine-based toolset that will enable architects and designers to quickly design virtual urban spaces that users can experience collaboratively in real time.
“Cities are getting denser and denser as we are going away from a planning paradigm that was made for cars, to a kind of much more human experience with walkable cities, bikeable cities,” says Timur Dogan, Asst. Prof., Dept. of Architecture, Dir. Env. & Systems Lab at Cornell University. “I think these public spaces are really becoming much more important.”
The project required a way to generate cities procedurally. Instead of trying to create an entirely new tool for this, the team turned to Esri CityEngine, an existing parametric building creator already used for city-scale projects. The company was happy to lend its support, offering technical assistance, licenses of CityEngine, and sample projects.
To oversee the technical aspects of the project, and to ensure it met the stakeholders’ requirements, the team relied on the expertise of locally based VR and AR platform company The Glimpse Group. Working with Esri and Epic, Glimpse created a plugin to bridge CityEngine and Unreal Engine. Glimpse also enhanced Unreal Engine’s Collaborative Viewer template to enable multiple people to simultaneously experience and edit parametric buildings in both desktop and VR.
The ability to see fully rendered, photorealistic results in VR enables users to really experience their environment as they make changes. Henry Richardson, Professor at Cornell University, understands the importance of this.
“The buildings we can make, we can develop them parametrically, we can change them and so on,” he says. “But it's the atmosphere, the ambience, the feel of the place, the meaning-making symbolisms, and so on, that really are the key to this process.”
For the industry stakeholders, the project offers insights into how various sources of design information and environmental constraints could be used to explore urban projects in entirely new ways.
“The first iteration of this tool is that you can collaboratively adjust and, in real time, understand what those changes in the urban environment will feel like,” says Alexandra Pollock, Principal and Director of Design Technology at FXCollaborative. “It also allows you to get into the space as an occupant to be able to look around, to walk around, to understand how that space may function.”
Luc Wilson, Senior Associate Principal and Director at Kohn Pedersen Fox, agrees. “I'm hoping we're able to link this to the simulation and quantification we're doing in a one-to-one manner,” he says. “We can say a place is going to be well daylit, but it's better if someone actually goes there and says, ‘Oh no, this is actually not well daylit, the space over here is.’ ”
Cornell has wholeheartedly embraced the project, spinning up an associated class in record time—in parallel with the continuing research and development efforts—and even going as far as to establish a new VR Lab in the School of Architecture. These efforts have been met with unbridled enthusiasm.
“The response is pretty much always positive from students,” says Martin Miller, another of the faculty’s professors. “They're always excited to see new things, and they see the potential in these new tools and new techniques.”
“They're really thinking critically and creatively about how that technology can actually be a catalyst to transform how we use it in the industry,” agrees Pollock.
The project is garnering attention in the wider industry, with luminaries like Zaha Hadid, HOK, Shop Architects, Jacobs, CRTKL, and Woods Bagot all showing keen interest.
“Design thinking is going through a paradigm shift,” Richardson says. “The firms that embrace this are going to be ahead. This research we are doing actually will help to mitigate risk. These technologies are going to really help architects to revamp the way they work, and we are very happy to be part of developing the know-how and the tools for making it happen.”
The team is keen to ensure that schools and other firms have free access to the research work resulting from this project, and Esri and Epic are collaborating to maintain the plugin and template as both CityEngine and Unreal Engine continue to evolve. Interested parties will be able to access the plugin code base on the community site Esri has setup for the project, which they’ve dubbed Vitruvio. Use of the CityEngine run-time DLL is free for non-commercial use; for details, refer to the Esri SDK license. The Collaborative Viewer template is included with Unreal Engine.
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