Jacobs embraces interactive visualization for infrastructure projects

Image courtesy of Essex County Council
By Ken Pimentel |
January 5, 2021
Jacobs is a global technology-driven solutions company, with over 55,000 employees around the globe working on everything from infrastructure to space exploration. The company harnesses the power of 3D visualization across diverse projects, recently delivering its first commercial project using Unreal Engine for a large-scale infrastructure scheme in the UK.

Stakeholders on the project have been excited by the results. “The time we saved on rendering and slower, less flexible workflows has given us time to really improve the visual depth, and I think that’s what people are noticing,” says Alex Styles, Senior Visualizer at Jacobs. 

Visualizing infrastructure proposals in 3D

Chelmsford is one of the UK’s newest cities at the heart of the county of Essex. As a driver of the regional economy, it needs a transport network to facilitate future development and economic growth.

Essex County Council teamed up with partners including Network Rail to deliver a new 8 km highway bypass and train station that will alleviate pressure on the existing 1980s infrastructure servicing the area. The bypass will divert traffic past residential areas and aims to relieve high levels of congestion in Chelmsford, as well as linking the city with neighboring town Braintree. 
 

Jacobs was commissioned by the local council to put together a video containing real-life footage, infographics, and 3D visualization. Its purpose is to help explain the development and its advantages and impact, and show how each part of the program would support the others. 

“The choice of local pictures, use of computer-generated visuals, and the birds-eye flythrough of the scheme gave a really informative, easy to understand, and yet technical representation of the proposed bypass and station. Being a local resident, I am excited about the project and look forward to delivering it,” explains Paul Crick, Director for Capital Investment and Delivery, Essex County Council.

Fast rendering that slashes review times

As one of a number of senior visualizers across global teams, it’s Styles’ job to put visualizations together, organize the team, and act as the main client liaison. “In the end, my goal is to make sure the project achieves the desired outcomes, comes in on time, on budget, and to the highest possible quality,” he says.
 

The Chelmsford project was split into two deliverables—3D flythrough footage representing the engineering and geography in detail, and 2D infographics used to explain the context and function of the project. “For the 3D scenes, we created a landscape terrain using height maps and aligned the design data to this terrain. The terrain was painted with masking images and the appropriate ground texture and foliage were applied,” explains Styles. “We then applied our own custom road system to the scene and used it to control a simple traffic simulation for vehicles, to avoid any need for imported data or hand animation.”
Image courtesy of Essex County Council
For the 2D infographics, Jacobs built a normal 3D scene in layers so they sit on top of each other correctly, then recorded it with an orthographic camera. “Once everything is set up and working, it’s a simple task to render out the clips in Sequencer, and the saving in time is incredible—especially on a project like this with many iterations and client requests,” says Styles.
Image courtesy of Essex County Council

Real-time versus offline rendering 

The team uses Unreal Engine for selective visualization projects. A key feature is that it offers the ability to see a result in real time, enabling the team to iterate quickly and ultimately save on resources used on farm rendering.

“Unreal Engine offers ease of access with node-based scripting combined with a high quality for rendering,” says Styles. 
 

Real-time technology has also taken the guesswork out of visualization, explains Adam Dotlacil, Graduate Visual Media Specialist at Jacobs. “When it comes to real-time versus offline rendering, the most commonly known benefit is ‘you get what you see’. With offline rendering, you do a quick preview of the scene and the more experienced artists will be able to imagine what the result will look like even with small changes,” he says. “The advantage of real-time technology demonstrates itself when a more impactful change is made such as adjusting the lighting setup.”

Dotlacil’s focus on the project was the 3D visualization, which was created using many of Unreal Engine’s Open World tools. “We had to cover about 48 square kilometers, so procedural workflows were absolutely essential,” he explains. “Our heightmap was created by combining CAD data with real-world height data to fill contextual space.”

A major challenge the team faced was ensuring visual fidelity from aerial distance as well as at eye level. To achieve this, the team blended Quixel Megascans textures together with aerial footage for the landscape material. It also used Unreal Engine’s realistic Sun and Sky Actor to get accurate lighting representation and the Procedural Foliage tool to quickly populate the area with contextual foliage.
Image courtesy of Essex County Council

Building custom tools with Blueprint

The ability for the team to custom-build its own tools was paramount on this project, particularly for achieving a high degree of accuracy in replicating the bypass infrastructure. “When it comes to the roads, precision was high on the priority list,” says Dotlacil. “Where engineering data is not exactly compatible with digital 3D environments, time is spent cleaning up geometry in 3ds Max as a team.”

To speed this process up, he used Blueprint visual scripting and editor widgets to create a spline-based tool that would procedurally populate a manually created or predefined curve. When it came to simulating traffic for the visualization, Dotlacil created a Blueprint Actor with built-in logic that would follow a spline and consider other vehicles. “The road and traffic systems added a level of control and visual quality that actually improves on what we can do in other programs,” says Styles. 
Image courtesy of Essex County Council
The time invested in building tools like these has been well spent, as the team now has useful resources they can reuse for projects going forwards. “We can now iterate, improve, and expand what we have made before,” says Dotlacil. “For example, I’ve put together a demo project that includes a complex, yet optimized, landscape material and a collection of various vegetation assets that are ready to be dropped into any future project.”

Impressively, Dotlacil created these tools despite not considering himself a coder. “I have little coding experience and if I had to put together the same tools using some scripting language, I don’t believe I would be as anywhere near successful,” he says. 

For Styles, facilitating faster and more frequent iteration cycles is where real-time rendering comes into its own. “Sequencer is faster and more agile than the old CPU render farm,” he says. “This means we can do reviews more often, and can respond to feedback within 24 hours. You can't remove the need for iteration, so having tools that make you agile is a huge bonus.”

Fast, flexible real-time technology

The flexibility and speed real-time technology affords means the team can not only create something faster, it can also easily move things sideways during development—producing 2D, 3D, stills, video, and interactive content as required. 

What’s more, because it is all with one main program, time can be saved on retraining teams on different software. “CAD, a 3D modeling package, image editing software, Unreal Engine, and simple video editing software were all that was required,” says Styles.

Beyond its infrastructure visualization projects, real-time technology is driving innovation at Jacobs in intriguing new ways. With the recent restrictions curbing in-person client and stakeholder interaction, Jacobs has leveraged Unreal Engine to develop a compelling way to interact with projects. 

The company’s Virtual Event Space was used as part of the wider communication programme for the Chelmsford project to provide their stakeholders with an interactive, virtual experience that they can easily access straight from any computer or mobile device, when traditional face-to-face engagement was no longer possible as a result of Covid-19. 

The success of projects like the Chelmsford bypass and the potential of innovations such as the Virtual Event Space mean Jacobs is set to harness the power of real-time technology for a long time to come. 

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