Virtual solution to urban malaise

October 4, 1996

Housing estates that soon turn into social disasters, offices with poor working environments and shopping precincts that fail to attract shoppers are familiar and depressing features of the urban landscape.

But a multimillion pound project set to start at University College London aims to help builders, planners and architects, who are famed for not talking to each other enough , to avoid these failures. A research team led by Mike Batty and Alan Penn believes that virtual reality can be used to integrate the design and development of buildings.

The work is to be carried out at the college's new virtual reality centre for the built environment and will involve collaboration with research- ers at Imperial College, London.

The centre has won Pounds 3.3 million in backing from Government as well as firms including Boots, Sainsbury's, and computing specialists Silicon Graphics and Division. Leading architects Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster are also involved.

The virtual reality systems to be developed by the researchers embrace a much wider definition of virtual reality than the headset-glove medium popularised by the science fiction of cyberspace. At UCL, the task will be to create computer systems able to generate two- and three-dimensional designs which are projected on to large screens.

Planners, architects and property developers can work on these virtual reality models together. Professor Batty says: "We will be able, for example, to figure out if locating a building in a part of the city is feasible and whether it can be built quickly and efficiently to a high standard, at lower cost, and in a more socially responsible way."

Typically a building design brief begins with choosing a location. With a project to build a new supermarket, important first considerations are customer profile, the health of the local economy and demographics. More detailed design factors such as traffic volume come later. The "components" of the environment to be created, such as buildings, roads, landscape, are designed in parallel to the development of construction details.

Professor Batty says: "It is this process we believe can be much improved using virtual reality. The various stages can be integrated so that, for example, planners can see the consequences of their actions at one level and builders at another."

The centre will build upon an existing project called "intelligent architecture". The aim here is to create for builders, planners and architects a 3-D virtual reality design environment in which buildings are given some kind of intelligence and can communicate with each other. Professor Batty said: "If for instance an architect positions the building in a location which is not technically feasible, the building in question 'knows' this and 'helps' the designer to avoid the situation. If a building needs costing then it is possible to link up to software which allows this."

And through computer networking, the system might extract information from databases in remote locations. "This is the kind of tool that will enable architects to sift through alternative designs extremely quickly, taking forward the more promising ones."

Other research will include a project to design user-friendly ways for professionals and the public to use information on cities. Professor Batty says: "We have in mind the construction of a 'Virtual London', a visual means of allowing users, including tourists, to rapidly retrieve information about different places and buildings." So a foreign company looking for a new location in the City might use the system to see a particular building and its location, as well as find out the rent.

A pilot model of a "Virtual UCL" has already been developed. It allows data on college buildings to be accessed through pointing and clicking. Sir Norman Foster is keen for the researchers to develop a "Virtual Whitehall" as part of his firm's bid for a project that would transform the area around Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square.

Training of future generations of architects, planners, geographers and builders in these new virtual technologies is also high on the centre's agenda. Professor Batty says the United Kingdom lags far behind North America and Far East in the education of its professionals in these areas. "We have world-class architects like Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster but if we are to keep this lead, there is little doubt that we must accelerate this kind of training in all our universities,"he said.

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