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You spin me right round

Panoramic images of 180degrees and 360degrees are migrating from CAD to the Web. For architecture, it's a real . . . revolution BY SUTHERLAND LYALL

When Toyota wanted to hang full-sized cars from the ceiling of the internal street at its new headquarters, architect Sheppard Robson was comfortable with the idea because it knew that every part of the ceiling structure had been designed to carry loads heavier than even the Land Cruiser. The thing was how to position suspended cars.

One way was to get a whole bunch of people up under the ceiling on mobile platforms and an arm waver down on the ground trying out various locations.

Another way was to make a 3D computer model of the interior and have a single designer try out the best positions without the fuss. Since Toyota counted on changing the display as frequently as every three months, it was obvious why it chose the computer model.

As a matter of course, as partner Tim Evans explains, Sheppard Robson makes 3D models of all its designs, almost always early in the design process where they can be used for simple visualisation.

These are Microstation CAD models and are fine for day-to-day work. But if you are going to use them for fly-throughs and walk-arounds with colour and texture and reflection and transparency and lighting, files which are already fairly hefty become gigantic.

Enter Ipix and its spherical panoramic software.The idea of ordinary panoramic images has been discussed widely over the years and has been part of Apple Quicktime VR for some time now, though it has not been used as widely as it might have been. It also needs to be said that Ipix is not the most popular company because of its proneness to take even small fry to law over alleged infringements of its ideas. Use a search engine to find 'panoramic+ipix' and you'll get, among others, several sites claiming they are Ipix-free zones. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this web saga, Sheppard Robson has used Ipix's software.

This version enables you to export panoramic images from a 3D CAD model.

These images are aligned and metaphorically pasted on to the interior of an invisible sphere. You can also use a set of photographs which are lined up in the spherical formation in the software.

Because fly-throughs and fly-arounds follow the presenter's chosen path, it's possible to take a carefully selected series of panoramas and store them for use only when they are needed. In a conventional fly-through you load up the whole CAD file and set the central processor screaming with the effort of creating the 3D scene dozens of times a second as you move through virtual space. With Ipix you move from space to space, literally virtual sphere to virtual sphere, at each imaginary stopping point unloading the information on the previous spherical panorama and firing up the new.Here you can look all around and zoom in on details and move in a limited way. It's not totally flexible - although well designed presentations have no particular need to be flexible. But on computers of the same performance, Ipix files run much faster, less jerkily and are capable of providing more detailed information and are much smaller than with a real-time show.

Toyota agreed to commission an Ipix model and since the real space is unlikely to change for some years, the company now has a permanent model in which it can devise its own demonstrations and exhibitions. As Tim Evans puts it, 'it provides value long after the money has been spent.'

Evans has been deploying another computer technology on building sites.

It's web-cam, a digital camera connected to a computer connected to a web site.You normally associate web cams with either goofy attempts at web conferencing or those sites where the 24 hour activities of a person or group are transmitted live at maybe a frame a second to a breathless world.

Sheppard Robson saw the possibilities of using web-cams to broadcast the progress of various of its sites to act as the centrepiece of a commercial web portal funded by advertisements from contractors and suppliers. The long-term objective, once security arrangements could be established, is to use the building's web site additionally to act as a repository for drawings and documents which can be accessed by everybody involved in the job. That's yet to come. But Sheppard Robson has used web-cams on two projects, the aforesaid Toyota headquarters and currently in the City on the 110,000m 2Citypoint project, a refurbishment of a 36-storey tower in EC2. Developer Wates City of London has a presentation suite in the building opposite using a unique 180degrees CAD presentation based on Sheppard Robson files - though these are not Ipix files. One perceived benefit from web-cams on the Toyota site was that the client in Japan could look up the web site to make sure the building was going up as promised. This is actually paint-drying stuff because the three web-cam images were updated every 40 minutes.Naturally it costs more to have a higher frequency and, on a building site, not a lot necessarily happens in any 40-minute period.

Sheppard Robson is happy with 40 minutes because it works. 'There are cases', says Evans, 'when I haven't had to go on site because we could all see what was happening in the office. But you have to understand it's not a substitute for site visits.Yet.'

I cautiously murmur a question about Big Brother. Evans is reasonably cheerful that there is something in that. But he points out that one contractor kept moving his advertising boards so they were in front of the web-cams whenever they were moved. He's not sure that web-cam evidence would be admissible in a British court, although it probably would if surveillance camera tapes are. Evans argues for an independent body to store such data.

But he's not saying whether the web-cam files have been used in any contract dispute.

The web-cams are rented from GMJ, whose Jo Reynolds explains that it often uses circus folk to install them in unlikely settings. GMJ also specialises in presentations and the 180 degrees show for Citypoint is its work as well.

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