Lost in the Virtual Fog – Seeing Really is Believing

digcity1So, this past week has been a flurry for me, as I’ve had to schedule and then reschedule my PhD dissertation proposal defense. But, finally it seems that we are set for next Tuesday morning, so now I have some time to catch up on my diary entry. I was contemplating what to write this week, when I was reminded this morning of something we’ve noticed since we started demonstrating our work in virtual worlds and especially the gaming technology: seeing really is believing.

We’ve been giving demos of our virtual world work in our VR CAVE this week, both the older ArcScene projects and the new XNA application, and I’ve been really happy with the response we’ve been getting from people in lots of different fields. One common theme with the visitors that I’ve talked to is that many of them have kind of heard about gaming technology, serious games, or virtual worlds, but they didn’t really get what people were talking about until they were able to see it actually working. Once they got over the initial WOW factor, it was fun to watch GIS professionals, city planners, and educators start brainstorming with ideas about these applications could be used for all kinds of projects. After all the frustrating hours spent hunched over a keyboard staring at a stupid 3D model and wondering why the roof isn’t square, or screaming at the computer because clearly it is incapable of understanding my perfectly written code, it is really nice to see that we are creating something that people appreciate and can see the value of.

I was most interested in seeing what people thought of a project done by the graduate students in the new Geovisualization class that I co-taught this semester with Jesse and Dr. Trevor Harris. It was the first time we had offered an actual advanced class on the concepts, implementation, and issues related to geovisualization. We especially focused on virtual worlds and landscape reconstruction, immersive environments and the broader concepts of immersion and interaction, and how platforms like the VR CAVE are utilized to present virtual world applications. As the main project for the class, the grad students put together (in ArcScene) a really great example of a small 3D digital city test application, demonstrating how you can utilize visualization to show zoning, urban planning, infrastructure like sewers, and use the digital city to monitor infrastructure and generate long-range plans. As their final presentation, we set the project up in the CAVE, and it turned out so well, it’s now becoming one of our main demos.

The digital cities concept is one we’ve been giving a lot of thought to since we had a chance to attend Autodesk University back in December and talk to Doug Eberhard, who is spearheading Autodesk’s Digital Cities Initiative. So far, digital cities projects seem to be coming from larger, forward-looking cities who have the resources and people with vision to see the potential. What I’m really intrigued by, though, is the enormous potential of a digital city concept for small cities and even rural areas, where citizen government is often hampered by limited resources and policymakers and stakeholders who want to do what’s best, but are often overwhelmed by the amount of expertise required to make really informed decisions. I think that working 3D digital city models could allow large amounts of complex information to be visualized in a much easier to understand visual format that could be more readily understood by policymakers, experts and interested citizens alike, who would feel more comfortable participating in decision-making and planning discussions.

While we’ve been talking about this idea for a few months and we’ve spoken to a number of people who agreed that the notion of 3D infrastructure modeling for small cities sounds great, we’ve now got a working project to actually SHOW people what we are talking about and we’re already getting some good ideas and feedback. And, as the planning folks interacted with the digital city model prototype in the CAVE this morning, they almost immediately began to come up with questions and ideas about how such a model could really be used. Nothing may come of it in the short term, but I really think that the ability to see these technologies working goes a long way toward helping the right people see how they really can be used.

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