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thumb vanmarenThe use of 3D in urban planning, digital cities and 3D city model development is growing rapidly. Planners are interested to connect databases with city information to these 3D visualizations. Esri has been developing the CityEngine software that provides a 3D visualization connection to these databases. 3D Visualization World editor Jeff Thurston recently interviewed Gert van Maren, 3D Product Manager at Esri R&D Center in Zürich, Switzerland to learn more about these developments and how procedural modeling is being used for 3D city planning and simulation.

3D VW: What brings you to the imagina 2012 conference in Monaco?

GVM: We are interested to learn more about the 3D Simulation industry, and how our GIS and procedural technologies could be beneficial for users in this space. One of the key target areas for CityEngine is simulation and 3D and for that reason we thought we would explore Imagina. This also provides us with the opportunity to learn more about where our procedural modeling software fits into the larger 3D visualization picture.

3D VW: Can you explain how this event might fit into the current and future work related to 3D by your company?

GVM: A key area where our procedurals software can be used is in the area of Urban Planning and especially Master Planning. Most city designs and urban planning activity begin with conceptual modeling and procedural software is suitable for that purpose. It also relates to our work with GeoDesign.

3D VW: How does simulation, particularly with emphasis on training and education, apply to your current activities?

GVM: Procedural Inc, which Esri acquired in 2011 was already involved in the simulation market. A number of Procedural clients were and still is using CityEngine in their simulation workflows. We want to explore how tighter integration of ArcGIS and CityEngine can help these users.

3D VW: During your presentation you spoke about the entertainment sector and how your software can be used in that space. Could you elaborate upon this?

GVM: Our procedural modeling software is already used by large movie and entertainment production houses. We think it will also be beneficial to maintain those relationships. As it turns out, some of these companies are also large users of GIS software currently.

There are two sides to the entertainment sector that we see. First, the movie sector typically has large custom-built rendering pipelines. Integration of procedural 3D content generation directly into those rendering pipelines, can speed up the production process significantly. The other side we see is more related to traditional GIS applications for managing the assets within the entertainment industry.

3D VW: How does procedural modeling apply to urban planning?

GVM: Urban planners can use procedural modeling to do early stage conceptual modeling within the overall planning process. Zoning bylaws are an example of this. Using procedural modeling, several alternatives with respect to planning bylaws can be evaluated. As these conceptual designs move further along toward independent buildings, then architects and more dedicated building design software is needed.

3D VW: What other benefits are there for procedural modeling?

GVW: There are many cost-benefit advantages to procedural modeling. This applies to buildings, roads, as well as utilities, where different design scenarios can be assessed quickly. One-off building designs are not likely candidates for procedural modeling, although one could write scripts for architectural design if they wanted to.

3D VW: You mentioned GeoDesign with reference to procedural modeling. Could you explain in more detail how the two relate and what that relationship is about?

GVM: This goes back to the cost-benefit relationship. Let’s assume a piece of land that needs to be redeveloped. A GIS can hold all of the information related to this piece of land including information related to zoning bylaws. Procedural modeling can then be used to quickly model and visualize different planning proposals in 3D.

As these proposals plans proceed forward to the stakeholders, then increasing amounts of iterative changes will take place. This process is usually very time consuming and where much efficiency can be gained through procedural modeling as the iterative changes can quickly be generated for all landscape data. Ideally, this would be happening on-the-fly.

3D VW: It seems that the iterative nature of urban planning and design is a hot topic at this event, why is that?

GVM: Yes it is. The iterative changing within planning conceptual models is a relatively new concept and is not fully understood by many people, particularly those outside the planning effort. Procedural modeling has the ability to bring graphical 3D representation tied to the data into the process at very early stages. This speeds up the planning cycle and shortens the planning cycle leading to construction.

3D VW: Do you see urban planners as identifying with spatial data and GIS?

GVM: A lot of urban planners and architects work with spatial data, but do not necessarily identify with it as being GIS or geospatial. It is just data in their minds – useful for designing. And most of these people have not considered the geo-processing functions that GIS software offers.

For example, the relationships between buildings are not usually a major concern for architects and there is no or little spatial processing happening. GIS can help, for example, neighbourhood models can be assessed for nearby effects like shadows, solar potential, water utilities, sewage networks etc. This capability could essentially pay for the design itself.

3D VW: How do you intend to provide this capability to customers?

GVM: One option would be to provide this as a Dashboard that accesses ArcGIS servers and other online services. The ideal situation would be that one could design something, and then it gets analyzed quickly for approval or noted based on the model output results. At that point it could re-enter the model if needed.

3D VW: In that scenario it becomes almost intuitive and designers will quickly learn what works and what does not, thereby being able to identify potential designs themselves prior to submission.

GVM: In a sense that is true. The variables will be analyzed against a database or library of scripts and their merits assessed before final output. The ability to process these changes in real-time though, is a key element of procedural software. If the process takes days to complete, then the usefulness will decline.

3D VW: So what is more important, the design or the iterative process?

GVM: They go together. The iterative process should be part of good design. The process continues, iteratively before the final results are obtained and no further changes are desired at that time.

3D VW: Let’s go back to the GeoDesign-Procedural Modeling relationship. Is that a real-time process too?

GVM: Because iterative design is taking place and the design is connected to the GIS database, then GeoDesign can take place in 2D, 3D or 4D. Think of it like a car dashboard with constantly updating information to help you drive the car.

The same applies for GeoDesign. As the dashboard changes, then it will constantly updated the decision making process and design concepts of those collaborating in the design process. As they change the design, the dashboard changes and the new results would be posted back to the collective group. Designers are interested in floor-area, for example, and the dashboard could update floor-area information as the design changes.

3D VW: Is this now developed in ArcGIS and soon to be released?

GVM: We just acquired Procedural only 6 months ago and although some changes have happened, there is much more work to do. We are working on incorporating procedural modeling into the ArcGIS at the present time.

3D VW: Esri is already involved in the building information modeling (BIM) space. How does this work relate to your own BIM related activities?

GVM: Procedural modeling at this stage is mainly focused on the building exteriors. At the same time, ArcGIS is being used for asset management and facilities management, with a strong indoor component. We are not likely to be interested in doorknob level designs with procedural modeling, but procedural interior 3D designs is an area of interest. Also allocation of interior assets is a GIS function but the arrangement of assets is a design discussion which potentially could be done procedurally.

3D VW: Where does the current 3D Analyst product fit into all of this?

GVM: 3D Analyst will become much more analytical in scope. It will also include more of the procedural modeling functions. Procedural 3D content creation should be available in 3D Analyst in the not too distant future.

3D VW: How do you consider 3D and the current state of 3D today?

GVM: I’ve been working in 3D for 15 years or so and have always been close to it. We see the 3D value in terms of business opportunities. Visualization is something others have done well and now it is expected for free. Our interests are in generating business gains and benefits through the use of 3D.

This interview first appeared in 3D Visualization World Magazine ( 


Gert van Maren is 3D Product Manager at Esri R&D Center Zürich, Switzerland. His main responsibility is to support the use of ArcGIS 3D technology (3D Analyst, CityEngine) by being the primary product interface for working with development staff, regional offices, international distributors, and business partners. Prior to this position, he worked as head of R&D for Data Interface Technologies in New Zealand where the main responsibility was the development of the K2Vi 3DGIS&Virtual Reality system.

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