Three years, two thousand person hours and fifteen thousand high resolution photographs later, Galway City has been rendered into a photo-realistic, wholly-accurate, three-dimensional model. Virtual 3D Galway is an immersive model in which you fly through the City, approach it from any angle and examine it from any perspective.
Gavin Duffy, Technical Director of Realsim, a Galway-based realtime 3D simulation company, began this epic project as a proof of concept. He says, “It is as far as I am aware the most detailed model of any city in Ireland. Because we have spent a lot of time and effort photographing from the ground with high resolution photography, very few of our buildings have people or lamp posts in them. So, we don’t suffer that Google Street View clutter. It’s clean, it’s high resolution, it’s geo-spatially accurate, we think it is as good as anything you’ll find anywhere in the world in terms of a 3D model.”
Realsim’s primary focus is in planning and development. Gavin explains, “Our bread and butter business has been supplying large organisations with realtime 3D models of their own property. Our first major customer was here in NUI Galway. The Buildings Office have a 3D model of the entire campus. They fly around themselves when they are talking to engineers or architectural consultants.
“When they are discussing the ever-changing parking plans, they can fly down to an area and say this is what we need to do here. The feedback has been that it is much more effective than looking at one of those white CAD plans. People know immediately what they are talking about.”
Stepping away from using traditional 3D architectural modelers who don’t normally take into account polygon and data volume, Gavin hired in as Chief 3D Graphic Designer, Eoghan Quigley, an experienced gaming programmer. The volume of vector information and the resolution of imagery that are in a given scene is very important. Even as powerful as modern laptop computers are, it is important to optimise data volumes, and there is a skill in getting the right balance between detail and data volume.
As Gavin points out, this has led to other interesting possible uses for the technology behind Virtual 3D Galway, “An interesting potential avenue [for us] is that because the model is game ready, it can then be applied to real-world games. If someone wanted to develop a game for Galway, it could be very beneficial as a promotional tool for Galway itself. We’re not a gaming company, but we can supply a gaming company with a ready-to-go real city environment on which they can develop a game.”
At the beginning of the project, Galway was mapped by a series of aerial photographs – the raw material of the 3D environment. They provide the base map and it’s also the most efficient way to extract three dimensional shapes for the actual buildings.
But what makes Virtual 3D Galway so special is the time and effort spent walking down every street and alley over an area of three square kilometres containing over six thousand buildings, and even doing that was not as straightforward as it may seem.
Gavin explains, “It’s not just a matter of going out and photographing willy-nilly. The factors you’ve got to take into consideration are [things like] sunlight. Sometimes when sunlight is illuminating a building it can add a nice 3D effect, but if it’s completely in the shadow it is better to come back again on a cloudy day. You’re not going to get good photography in Shop Street (Galway’s main pedestrian thoroughfare) on a Friday evening. Nor are you going to get good photography first thing in the morning when all the delivery trucks are there. Particularly for city centre areas you have got to time exactly when you photograph. There were a lot of Sunday mornings [spent taking pictures] but at the same time you don’t want to photograph shops with the shutters down.
“The very process of acquiring the photographs and getting the optimal times in terms of lighting, lack of people, cars, vehicles, was a challenge in itself, but we were willing to put the the time and effort in to get the very best photography for the model.”
Data currency (the recency and relevancy of data) was, is and will always be a major challenge. Urban environments are in a constant state of flux. Old shops close, new shops open. Warehouses are torn down and cinemas built and so on. Sometimes an old map can be worse than no map.
“Building facades change quite regularly in Galway and we’ve ended up photographing the same facade several times just to keep the model up to date… That will be an ongoing challenge: one of the reasons why I think in the long term other cities in the world will probably have to localise the development and maintenance of their [own virtual] cities. [In order] to maintain an up-to-date city model, a local company will need to manage it.
“For example, Google have covered the UK and Ireland but when are they going to come back? The aerial photography for Galway is well out of date. You don’t see Webworks, and you don’t see the TK Maxx building because they were all construction sites then.”
So as environments and technologies change, the need for new skill-sets and outlooks emerge. New opportunities emerge. But Virtual 3D Galway is more than a backdrop to a game or a functional engineering tool. It is a view of ourselves and where we live reflected back at us in an unerringly accurate manner that we have never witnessed before. The true value of Virtual 3D Galway is in what it can tell us about how we live now and perhaps inform us in some way of how we can live better in the future.
Gavin says, “In the absence of knowledge and proper information, fear and distrust build. [Virtual 3D Galway] allows people to see objectively the true shape of things to come.
“Part of the problem that society has had in terms of imagining a way forward is that people have not been able to communicate their vision. If you can create that vision in a virtual environment, it then becomes a very, very powerful means to promote it and even let people in a virtual way to experience it. I think virtual worlds will have a powerful way in helping people to create a really good and powerful vision for the way we should go forward using virtual world technology.”