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Last Updated: Friday, 28 October 2005, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Architecture's virtual shake-up
Tayfun King
By Tayfun King
BBC Click Online reporter

With a glut of tech talent and huge competition in Los Angeles, some programmers are finding real-world opportunities for their virtual skills.

Technology can help scholars to study ancient buildings
From reconstructing ancient buildings to creating new property developments, these days virtual reality is finding a natural home in the world of architecture.

In Los Angeles, UCLA's Visualization Portal is something of a virtual museum, offering a way of travelling back in time to experience the past.

With a 22-foot screen, and incorporating sound effects to bring historic sites to life, its virtual reality models let users explore the buildings in real time.

The project's Diane Favro explains: "It allows us, as scholars, to have an immersive, comprehensive environment where we can feel like we are actually in the space."

Rome was not built in a day. Her team, which is building a virtual model of the city, is also finding this a time-consuming endeavour.

It has taken them five years already. With $1m sunk into the project so far, it is tempting to ask whether it is worth that kind of investment. But Ms Favro believes it is.

"This allows people who might not be able to go to the site or to study a period to really come to understand it in a more immediate way", she says.

"Finally, this kind of technology allows us to do preservation work. We can reconstruct environments without damaging the physical remains."

Practical applications

Another painstaking project has been developed on the other side of UCLA.

Reconstructing environments can help with preservation work
For the past 13 years, the Urban Simulation team has been building a virtual replica of the city of Los Angeles itself.

So far they have only completed 5%. Nevertheless, their model is already helping to assess the impact of new buildings and roads on the local environment and transport network.

The project's Bill Jepson says: "The interesting thing about this is that whilst we first developed it to look at new development in an urban context, what we found is that if you have a real-time accurate model of the city, both dimensionally and visually, there are a dozen or more different applications that can be layered on top of that."

One of those applications is an emergency response system. In future, fire-fighters will be able to see exactly where a fire alarm has been triggered and familiarise themselves with the layout of a building as they race to it.

Lucrative options

Some companies are proving architects of their own good fortune by focusing on smaller-scale projects.

A virtual replica of LA is proving to have several practical uses
In the late 1990s, Liquid Light Studios - a 3D animation company - came into prominence after creating the dancing baby featured in the television series Ally McBeal.

More recently they spotted a lucrative opportunity towering overhead, in the world of construction and design.

By creating 3D animations of developments, they are expanding the horizons of potential home-buyers who, until now, have had to rely on drawings to make their decisions.

Julie Pesusich, of Liquid Light Studios, says: "We've created renderings for as little as $3,500 and elaborate presentations for under a $100,000.

"There are some cases where we've worked with developers who've had a $300 million development budget and they're actually spending just a fraction of their marketing budget on a virtual presentation.

"Presentation's going to buy them a lot of value. They are able to secure capital by attracting investors. They're able to get their city entitlements as well as sell the property before it's even built, which is ultimately their end goal."

3D animations are not suitable for every development project
But do you really get value for money from these presentations? Simon Horton, who commissioned a presentation for his new retail complex, says it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

"The cost benefits of using 3D animation are questionable. It's a very expensive technology and I think one has to have the right project.

"Then it is justified, as great projects require really high-end presentation material and 3D animation certainly provides that."

The appeal of virtual reality is not only seductive in selling developments, but it is also entering new territory in the design process, as Julie Pesusich explains.

"Interestingly enough, in mid-production, once they start to see their design take form, they're able to make changes, revisions, enhancements that they may not have caught until the actual project was built.

"We've had one case where a client was actually relocating escalators inside a retail plaza because it would be a better flow of traffic by having them in a different area.

"Now if they were to find that out during actual construction it would cost them a lot more to make those changes than doing it in a virtual world."

Virtual reality technology is shaking the foundations of the architecture world but dangers do exist.

Once a development has been sold to customers on the basis of a 3D animated presentation, the pressure is on the developers to ensure the end product looks just as good. Otherwise it may be lawyers who reap the final rewards.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0745 . Also BBC World.

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14 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature

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