Making communication come alive with 3D digital tools

How do you visually communicate to more than 300,000 motorists they might have to take a detour on their drive tomorrow? Or encourage potential buyers to scale the heights of Chicago’s tallest residential building even before it’s built?

These feats no longer seem so daunting when you have 3D digital tools to help.

One popular choice with design visualization professionals is 3ds Max –a 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software product from San Rafael, Calif.–based Autodesk Inc.

While used a lot by game developers and visual effects artists, the tool can be effectively used for other more pragmatic reasons, as well.

For instance, it was used by global construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. used last year.

The firm needed to close a vital part of the city’s Bay Bridge last year, and had to communicate to motorists, how construction would proceed step-by-step, and how each phase of the project would affect them.

So it relied on the simulation capabilities of 3ds Max to do the job.

Another 3D modeling software product – Autodesk Maya – was used by Sheena Duggal of Sony Pictures to communicate the beauty of the Chicago Spire – the super tall skyscraper designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Two different initiatives that illustrate to the use of 3D digital tools –not just to design products and structures – but also to communicate the impact of these creations on the people’s lives.

Bay Bridge reconstruction

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge is one of North America’s busiest arteries into the city.

More than 300,000 vehicles roll over the suspension bridge’s surface each day.

However the collapse of the east section of the bridge a few years ago brought home the importance of repairs to the aging structure.

Parsons Brinckerhoff was one of the lead organizations for this expensive and extensive infrastructure project.

Workers needed to block off a football field sized portion of the bridge and re-route traffic on Labour Day 2007 to facilitate creation of a span that would eventually replace the blocked section.

Traditionally, residents and motorists would be alerted of the changes via radio, TV and print ads.

Parsons Brinckerhoff decided to take a slightly different tack.

“We wanted to bring in the public into the design and construction process,” said Brady Nadell, a senior engineer at the company.

Using components of the 3D software product used by designers for the project Parsons Brinckerhoff crafted a brief animated feature illustrating how the new section would be built and eventually be grafted on to the existing span.

The video portrayed how structures would go up on certain dates and where traffic would be stemmed on those days. It was shown to the public weeks before the rerouting was to take place.

“We essentially created a 30-second infomercial, which we showed on TV, theatres and the Internet,” said Nadell.

“The video was so popular that the site showing it received a flood of hits. Because the video quality was exceptional, TV news programs loved replaying the images again and again”.

The same tool was used in the design and construction process.

Four Dimension (4D) features of the application were very useful in illustrating to builders, city officials and non-technical executives how each stage of the construction would proceed.

For instance, a video tracking the project’s progress showed images of what structures would be erected and how they would look in relation to the existing environment based on the project schedule.

Each person involved in the construction got a clearer picture of what was expected from them during a certain stage, Nadell said.

One San Francisco motorist said the video helped avoid a potentially chaotic situation.

“The images served a clear and powerful reminder to the public of how this project would affect them,” said Vincent Atos, a local artist who loves driving around the city to take photos of San Francisco street scenes and structures.

He said motorists were able to know in advance what was going to happen and were able to plan their trips around it.

Chicago Spire

By 2011, when the Chicago Spire is finally completed, its spiraling structure will be one of the world’s tallest residential building.

Its creators sought out Sony Pictures Imageworks, to develop a video that would communicate to investors, potential apartment owners as well as area residents what the Santiago Calatrava, the structure’s creator wanted to evoke through his design.

“I believed Calatrava took a holistic approach to this design. I wanted to create a video that would tell the building’s story of how the structure would figure in the lives of its residents,” said Sheena Duggal, special effects supervisor at Sony Picture’s Imageworks.

She turned to Autodesk Maya to create life-like digital renderings that accurately emulated natural shades and shadows and fluid movements of water.

The tool typically used to create realistic movie effects was used in this case to manipulate images that show how the building would appear under different lighting conditions as the day progressed.

The video thus began with a dove flying around Chicago’s concrete valleys until it reaches the sides of the Chicago Spire and details of the building’s surface are depicted.

A droplet of water illustrates the buildings height as the camera captures its descent on to a pond at the foot of the building.

The graceful movements of a seed being carried away by the wind traces the curves of the Spire.

“Rather than concentrate on the entire building, I focused on individual elements on how they relate to actual spaces,” Duggal said.

Digital design tools have certain powerful features that aid designers, according to Jeff Kowalski, chief technology officer at Autodesk.

“3D tools help designers visualize, simulate and analyze designs even before they [start building],” he said.

In addition, visualization enables users understand how a project would react to environmental changes.

Simulation provides builders with valuable data on how a design would react to situations such as earthquakes.

This enables builders to try out various techniques and load combinations without undergoing the long process of creating physical models.

Analytical tools incorporated in Autodesk products help designers determine which design options would best fit the stated need.

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