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Building Alternate Worlds with FME

FME assists in building highly detailed navigable 3D worlds.

Ray Bradbury was a master of visualization. His distinctive style, sometimes called “Midwest Surrealism”, often combined elements of reality – the small American towns of his youth – with vivid flights of imagination. His classic The Martian Chronicles – mandatory reading for any sci-fi fan – transported us to his Mars, and his words let us picture, explore, and experience this alternate world. It’s fitting that the NASA team named their Mars rover Curiosity’s landing site “Bradbury Landing“.

Creating virtual worlds – albeit a little closer to home than Mars – is what UVM Systems of Austria excels at. They too sometimes combine reality with possibilities – and the results are remarkable. Their CityGRID(R) product suite handles 3D data from assembly through to viewing, and FME is a key part of the process.

When CityGRID started out ten years ago, buildings were created via photogrammetry. Since this technique relied on deriving information from overhead images, the difference between the edges of a roof and the actual footprint of the building couldn’t be identified. To create more realistic models, they started incorporating footprints from GIS data, creating roofs with overhangs. Four years ago, they made what Dr. Gerald Forkert, Managing Director of UVM calls “one of the best decisions we ever made” – and brought FME into the data preparation mix.

Creating a complete 3D world that could contain hundreds or thousands of individual models is picky and time-consuming work. UVM decided to create a set of custom FME transformers to automate production tasks. Reading from a multitude of source data formats, FME collects and prepares the structure linework, creating models automatically in CityGRID’s internal format, ready for use in the final world. When it encounters quality issues – like a footprint that exceeds its photogrammetrically derived roof, or holes, those are flagged for human intervention using CityGRID’s hands-on modeling tools.

These generated models – along with a host of other data – are built into a complete 3D scene that is optimized for viewing, whether standalone or streaming. FME assists here as well, reading in point cloud data, terrain, orthophotos, and assorted 3D models. The final product is a fully navigable virtual world. Sometimes it is a representation of reality, but more often it is being used to visualize proposed changes, like this simulation of a planned railway. This image is partly reality, and partly proposed construction and reclamation (many of the trees and the pond don’t exist), and they seamlessly illustrate what the final result will be. Because stakeholders can examine the project from any point of view, transparency is increased, and the public consultation phase is greatly eased.

This second scene was built for residents of a town concerned about the effect of the proposed construction of a nearby windpark. This world is incredibly detailed, combining terrain, orthophotos, LiDAR, and generated models, with the extra step of texturizing the sides of buildings with ground-level high-res photos taken by Gerald himself. The windmills were created with Autodesk 3D Studio, and then placed. Through four public consultation events, residents checked out the view from their gardens and usual dog walking routes – and much more easily understood what the effects of the project would be.

Recently, swisstopo selected CityGRID to assist in modeling the some 2.7 million (yes, million) buildings in Switzerland. As they are already FME users, UVM’s custom transformers will plug right into their current workflows and ease the integration. As Gerald told us, “Tailoring the software is so easy now – whatever the customer’s environment is, because it’s FME, all it takes is a few adjustments on the readers and we’re ready to go to production. We couldn’t be happier.”

Still images can’t do justice to UVM’s work. To see what it’s like to be transported into one of their virtual worlds, check out their YouTube channel at safe.local/uvmchannel

To learn more about FME and 3D, go to safe.local/3d

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