Tech behind Man of Steel's Metropolis coming to a developer near you

Developers in the games industry and other industries will soon be able to integrate the technology responsible for creating the urban vistas of recent Superman movie Man of Steel into their own applications when Californian company Esri launches the new version of CityEngine next month.

CityEngine is a 3D program that procedurally generates urban environments, based on a simple Python-like scripting language that set out the basic rules for generating buildings in a city. The program was used to build the sweeping vistas of Superman's chosen home, Metropolis, as well as the futuristic cityscape of the (admittedly, probably best forgotten) 2012 remake of Total Recall.

The new version of CityEngine will include an SDK that will let developers incorporate the product's procedural generation technology in their own products, such as games, said Gert van Maren, who is Esri's product manager for 3D and based out of the company's RD centre in Z?rich, Switzerland.

CityEngine's procedural generation means that generating an entire 3D city can be done at the click of a button once a developer has written a script, instead of modelling buildings and blocks one-by-one in a conventional modelling program.

"To model a city of a 100,000 buildings, we just write some code and the city gets modelled. You write the code in an hour, then you hit a button and the city gets created in a couple of minutes; whereas if you have to do it manually, 100,000 buildings would take you quite a while," Van Maren said.

"Because it's algorithmically driven, with parameters that feed the algorithms, if you change a little parameter the city changes instantly in front of your eyes. So if I say in this area the maximum building height is now 10 metres more, or three storeys more, or I want to change the facades of the building to a different colour, I just change a little parameter and the software automatically updates the model."

The largest group of users of the product has typically been in the urban planning and design space, with local government bodies around the world using the software to plan new suburbs or visualise the impact of changes to zoning regulations.

"Typically, urban designers and architects create wooden blocks or polystyrene blocks to get a feel for the mass model of a new suburb of a new city they'd actually go out with a saw and glue and they start gluing it together," said Van Maren.

"If they then want to change something, they've got to start all over from scratch again and get new blocks and start sawing. So you could argue that decision-making process or the design process using CityEngine will be accelerated because of the flexibility in modelling the 3D city."

Local government bodies to deploy the software include Townsville in Queensland and the Auckland City Council in New Zealand, which has used it in the process of drawing up its Unitary Plan for the future of development in the city.

The Auckland council "used CityEngine to model based on current regulations how the city could grow and what it would look like in five years, 10 years, 15 years if they leave the zoning regulations as is," Van Maren said, "and what would happen if they changed zoning regulations."

In addition to providing visualisations of the impact of zoning regulation changes, local government can also use the software to identify areas suitable for further development without changes to existing zoning regulations.

CityEngine has been used for a number of feature films, including Cars 2 (pictured).

The second major group of CityEngine users is the entertainment industry, where it's been used in video games as well as hit films such as Cars 2. "The movie industry finds it useful for the same reason: Normally they have to manually model these cityscapes, now they can do it procedurally, which saves them a lot of time," Van Maren said.

The final group of users is the simulation industry, with CityEngine being used to cut the cost of constructing virtual training environments for defence organisations.

CityEngine has been taken up relatively quickly in the entertainment industry compared to councils, said Van Maren, with Esri encountering some inertia from local government organisations. "We're not replacing an existing product, we're actually changing workflows," he said. "And changing workflows, especially in local government, is rather slow."

"Local government, typically when they go into planning they either do 2D maps or they do some photomontages where they draw something in a photo and try to give audience then an idea of what it would look," he said.

"So switching them to a fully interactive 3D procedural environment – that requires quite an effort on our side to make them see that there are time savings and cost savings."

Esri purchased Procedural, the company that originally produced CityEngine, in 2011. Since then the company has been working on integrating CityEngine with its range of GIS products, such as ArcGIS.

"So I can get my models from CityEngine back into ArcGIS, and I get my base data into CityEngine to start modelling," Van Maren said.

"All the GIS users have the base data – they have the building footprints, the street centre lines – every city in the world already has that. But they don't have the 3D visualisation of that, and that's when CityEngine comes into play. We're taking their existing data, putting that into what we call a data information model, and then take it to CityEngine to model it up into three dimensions."

In addition to adding an SDK for developers to employ CityEngine's technology in their own products, in CityEngine 2013 Esri is adding the ability to display visualisations created with the software on mobile devices such as iPads and smartphones. Further down the track the company plans to add augmented reality capabilities, Van Maren said.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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