3/2014

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Where do you want to be? Make it with 3D: Urban planning scales new heights using Oulu-based technology

I’m sitting in a giant swing, feeling the first pangs of nausea as the thing starts moving at an amazing speed above what seems to be a fairground. The two ladies sitting beside me seem to be OK with all this, but my head is swimming. “Just say if you feel sick to your stomach,” says Tiina Hynninen, Adminotech’s Business Development Manager. But I keep my gut under control, and actually begin to enjoy the experience.

Of course, neither the ladies nor the swing are real. I’m wearing Oculus Rift’s latest prototype helmet and swaying in an office chair in downtown Oulu. What makes this even more amazing is that what I’m experiencing is just a test level, created by a user somewhere who heard that Adminotech’s Meshmoon platform supports the Oculus Rift technology, and decided to make good use of it.

The Rocket to Meshmoon

Adminotech’s Meshmoon runs on their own Rocket client or via a web browser using the Webrocket without any plugins installations. The service is accessible to visitors free of charge, unless the owner of the virtual world decides otherwise. “The Meshmoon platform now has about 30,000 users and 3,000 sites, and since it’s based on open source RealXtend software, the number is growing steadily. Everyone can easily add their own virtual space.”

You don’t have to create that space in Meshmoon. The platform is supported by several 3D modeling systems, so you can whip up your virtual space in Blender, Unity, 3D Max or several others, import the model to Meshmoon and you’re away. Once the model is finished, users can use their own avatars or the default one to walk or fly around the model, interact with objects, and most importantly, with themselves. Meshmoon is already used worldwide as a virtual meeting room by companies – but that’s not all.

VALO 3D Concept conquers the market

One of the companies utilizing Meshmoon is UKI Arkkitehdit, an Oulu-based architect’s office which is responsible for several large construction designs in Finland. Having realized that the top-down design of modern, often extremely complex and multi-usable spaces like hospitals needed an ideological boost, they designed a method to increase user satisfaction. “We decided to involve the client and the people actually working in the space more deeply in the design process, but we needed to improve the interaction. For that purpose, we built a 3D cave system in our offices and now use the Meshmoon platform to interact more effectively with our clients. But what’s essential about using these systems is our own design and evaluation concept called Valo,” says Mikko Heikkinen, CEO of UKI Arkkitehdit, whilst giving us a quick demo of the new city shopping block in central Oulu.

“The concept enables the client to actually experience the space, and we guide them through with extreme care so the focus is on the essentials of the current design stage. For instance, if we’re at the point where we’re looking at room structure, we don’t want them to focus on the color of the chairs. Every stage is carefully planned and we collect extensive feedback to hone the experience further. With this method, we’ve drastically reduced client costs, because the old way was to make adjustments once the building was being built – and that’s expensive.” Now, with a 3D cave experience, the corrections are made prior to construction, and their version of Meshmoon is modified to meet their needs – walls can be removed, people added and versions browsed with a click of an icon.

Cityscapes of the new millennium

Standing in the cave with the building stretching right out in front of me with the aid of 3D glasses, there’s no effort involved in seeing what the building looks like and how it’s supposed to operate once finished. Another thing that’s plain to see is that this is the way cities are going to be planned from now on: not just on paper or on a computer screen, but standing in the middle of a detailed virtual world that will one day become reality. “We’ve already proposed a city planning model that could be executed with our Valo method,” says Heikkinen, but with cities, the decision-making isn’t always that quick. In any case, he has confidence that with the Meshmoon platform and the Valo concept, there’s a lot to be achieved, even in large-scale worlds. And it seems that, for Oulu at least, the reality isn’t that far off.

“We’ve modeled most of central Oulu already, some by laser scanning, some by standard 3D modeling, and the work continues,” says Hynninen. In the future, indoor spaces can be incorporated into the model. Once there, it’s only a matter of time before services now online can be added into the model, as can commerce. Will the brave new world be a virtual one? We’ll have to wait and see.