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Cities on the move

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technical news & reviews

Flying through space or whizzing along pavements, we examine the real and virtual world of the movement of goods and people

Videogame-makers cracked the problem of interface design - humancomputer interaction - in the 1970s; no one ever needed instructions for Pacman, or Space Invaders, or PONG.

Sadly, other industries have been deplorably slow to follow, perhaps none more so than architecture. But all that could be about to change.

Architect-designer B Consultants - keen player of the everlastingly popular Quake - turned its envy of Quake's library of textures, colours, surfaces and movement to constructive ends. B Consultants adapted Quake's graphics engine into an interactive tool that allows you to take three-dimensional 'walkthroughs' of projects at a very early stage. And it renders as you move through it.

B Consultants calls its creation V/SpaceLAB, and it is definitely a working tool, not a presentation tool.

Niki Holmes, of its art and design department, says: 'It takes three to four days to put a project in V/SpaceLAB - compared with something like Myra where you're looking at three hours to render each frame - and minutes, not days, to input changes.'

It could interface with more traditional CAD packages, too.

'We have written our own file translator that can export/import basic DXF, ' says director Tom Barker.

V/SpaceLAB is bereft of Quake's blood-thirsty monsters, guns and the Gothic feel. 'We've added substantially to the library, ' says director Graeme Jennings, with people, dogs, trees, lighting and even Tomb Raider-style flock wallpaper.

'V/SpaceLAB offers atmospherics, sound, architectural 'vibrancy', and nuances you can't get in traditional walkthrough packages, ' says Holmes.

'Both light and sound work on 'radiosity', mapping paths of interreflections. Shadows are so realistic you can recreate a particular latitude or time of year.'

You can fly

Choose an avatar and walk, or 'fly', through a building like those recently created for a Richard Rogers Partnership hotel scheme in Barcelona.

'In our walkthrough, you could take the lift, walk into a bedroom and look at yourself in the mirror, ' says Jennings. 'We even sent the demo over the telephone line to a client.'

This networked facility means V/SpaceLAB can handle collaborations of up to 45 people on a web-based network.

In addition to the Barcelona hotel, B Consultants has used V/SpaceLAB on designs for the Centre of the Cell, an exhibition area where kids learn about genetics for St Mary's Hospital, Luton; for Zaha Hadid's urban development in Singapore; and for a social housing project in Walsall where 'the planning commissioner actually took the joystick'.

The studio also plans to apply V/SpaceLAB to consultation on regeneration and housing design. 'We hope to put intranets on housing estates where residents can have discussions on how many loos, how much green space and so on, ' says Jennings. 'Then when you come to redevelop them and knock bits down, instead of having massive meetings, you have all the data available online.'

'It would be very simple and cheap to feed all this data back to V/SpaceLAB, so residents could see how their housing would look, where things would be and whether the plans should be altered. This could work in the private sector, too.'

B Consultants has also developed a masterplanning toolbox, which autogenerates building massing from a spreadsheet which contains other data such as cost, heights, energy use, etc. It has also added a third coordinate to cells in Microsoft Excel; outputting this data to Visual Basic produces a 3D representation so any masterplanning document becomes dynamic - changes by any contributor get distributed diagrammatically to the rest of the team.

The studio has plans in the next year to develop this to work with V/SpaceLAB. 'Eventually we should be able to give you a 3D walkthrough, so it alters as you change the spreadsheet, ' says Jennings.

Who's quaking now?

However, Quake's maker, Texas-based id Software, is not terribly sanguine.

'Quake III is not 'open source', ' says Marty Stratton, id's director of business development. 'We make available the Quake III Arena tools and game source (not the actual rendering or 'engine' source) for users and players to make additional content (maps, characters, modifications) which they are allowed to distribute for free only over the Internet. 'I've heard of architectural firms using the game engines to create 'virtual buildings' for clients to walk through. Unfortunately, most firms charge for this (at least for the time to create the environment in the game) and use our technology as a development tool - so essentially they are profiting from the use of our software without actually licensing it from us.'

B Consultants remains unconcerned, however. 'If you sell a system using Quake, you have to buy a licence, ' says Barker. 'However, we design using Quake as a tool and do not sell the Quake product or modifications. The people we work with have to buy a copy of the game in order to 'play' our files, which are distributed in the .PK3 library format as bespoke game assets.'

He elaborates: 'Microsoft doesn't own the words you write using Word, but your editor has to buy a copy to read them.'

This and other software developments may alter architects' relationships with their clients, not necessarily for the better.As Holmes says: 'Things can readily be chopped and changed before you commit to design drawings. This can have a major impact on how a project progresses; the level of input clients have, and how consultation exercises bring things in.'

Whether architects will really welcome more client interventions is something we'll have to wait and see.

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