AEC

First-Hand Architecture in Second Life (Tech Trends Feature)

1 Oct, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Architecture professor uses virtual world as design lab.


Terry Beaubois, director of the Creative Research Lab at Montana State University, had offered to give me a guided architectural tour. One Saturday afternoon, I decided to take him up on it. He was in Bozeman, Montana, doing some work in his lab. I was in San Francisco, California, just finishing lunch. We were 1,100 miles apart, separated by two states (Idaho and Nevada) and one national park (Yellowstone). Yet, one hour later, we were standing next to each other, not in Bozeman or in San Francisco, but in the middle of the Dresden Museum in Germany.

To be precise, we were meeting as two avatars in Second Life, a virtual world spread across a series of anonymous servers (figure 1). My avatar, KennethSF Offcourse, and Beaubois', Tab Scott, strolled into the 3D digital replica of the Dresden Museum, one of more than 6,500 real and imaginary places users can visit in Second Life. In the virtual chapel inside the museum, standing next to a realistically textured piano, staring at the high-resolution portrait of King Augustus III of Poland, I suddenly understood why Beaubois had been holding architecture classes in this virtual environment. It's the next best thing to an expensive field trip to Germany.

Figure 1. Columnist Kenneth Wong and Terry Beaubois, director of the Creative Research Lab at Montana State University, made a virtual visit to Montana Hall to inspect its outer architecture in Second Life.
Figure 1. Columnist Kenneth Wong and Terry Beaubois, director of the Creative Research Lab at Montana State University, made a virtual visit to Montana Hall to inspect its outer architecture in Second Life.

Welcome to the Grid

In late July, Beaubois gave a presentation in Nashville, Tennessee, about how virtual worlds, particularly Second Life, could contribute to the study and practice of architecture. His audience consisted of approximately 200 American Institute of Architects (AIA) members. When he asked those who'd been in Second Life to raise their hands, two timid hands came up.

Beaubois is by no means suggesting this 1:10 ratio accurately reflects the architectural community's awareness of Second Life. "People are sometimes reluctant to hold their hands up in those situations," he said.

However, it did make him realize that he and his students have taken up residence in a universe that still remains largely unexplored by his peers. Perhaps that's not surprising. He's been on the cutting edge before.

In the late 1970s, Beaubois belonged to a committee that was a joint initiative between the California chapter of the AIA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). At Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, he pored over the tech briefs to find innovative technologies that could be transferred to the building industry.

"[Ames] was one of the first four or five nodes that went live on the Internet," Beaubois recalled. "I was on the Internet when there were only about four or five other places to talk to."

Still the Beginning

Since its birth in 2003, the virtual community in Second Life has grown to a population of more than 8,800,000. (This March, it was roughly 3,380,000.) It has a thriving economy, with an exchange system for converting game currency (LindeX) into real money. On August 9, for example, Linden Lab reported that Second Life residents spent a total of $1,346,459 within the last 24 hours (that's in U.S. currency, not in LindeX).

But Second Life is an emerging technology as well. As such, we should set realistic expectations for its performance. "The fact of the matter is, Second Life is down from time to time. There are times when it isn't working," Beaubois warned.

On August 9, the Grid Update section in the official Second Life blog registered several bugs: "Network Connectivity Problems" at 3:44 A.M., followed by "Service Outage for Several Regions" at 2:16 P.M. The last update at 6:48 P.M. read, "The Operations team is still hard at work on this . . . "

The World Is a Classroom

Beaubois has mastered the art of flight in Second Life. He zoomed through the clouds like some Olympian god to get to wherever he wanted. On the other hand, I found myself walking into walls and ponds as I followed him. So he had to teleport me (a kind of instantaneous travel through the Second Life terrain) to the private island that serves as home for the Creative Research Lab.

"Take a look at this room," he said, pointing at a fully furnished living quarter. With a wave of the hand, he transformed the surrounding walls from plaster to wood panels. Next, he switched the entire room with a new one. This switcheroo was no magic — just some advance scripting (figure 2).

Figure 2. Using advanced scripting, Beaubois was able to transform the interior of a room by making the walls transparent.
Figure 2. Using advanced scripting, Beaubois was able to transform the interior of a room by making the walls transparent.

"Rather than switching materials or objects, I'm changing out the entire room to show alternative suite solutions," Beaubois said. "Your clients can come back later, look around, and look through the alternatives on their own."

Suppose I want to discuss certain spatial problems I've noticed, such as a fireplace that seems too high or a pillar that's blocking the window view? I can simply take an image with the Snapshot tool from the desired angle, store it in my Inventory, and then share it with Beaubois. Our conversation in the chat window serves as a record of the discussion.

There is, however, something we should know about the dimensions of the objects in Second Life. They tend to be a bit out of proportion. "People like to build their avatars much taller and bigger," Beaubois explained. Without the constraints of the nature of genetics, some residents customize their avatars to be eight or nine feet tall. So if you're an architect who plans to use the Second Life environment as your showcase, you'll have to take this into consideration.

Teaching in 3D

"Architecture is a three-dimensional sport," Beaubois said. "When you're working on a building, if you can walk around a model of the building, it'll be much better — certainly better than staring at the drawing. Some of the drawings can be — should be — in 2D. But I don't see how, once you have a real 3D experience, going back to 2D can be satisfying."

Beaubois recalled that, during one class, he noticed something about the design of a building created by a student. "I didn't say anything to him," he said. "I was waiting to see if he'd see what I saw."

What Beaubois noticed was the location and design of the stairs. The avatars of the student's classmates ended up using the stairs as the seating area, missing out on the viewing area and sight that the student had hoped to impress them with. The behaviors of his classmates alerted the student that he needed to revise his plan. The student later informed Beaubois that the stairs had been redesigned and invited the class back to test the updated building.

"The virtual environment had allowed the student to design-build a space, test it out, and make corrections, all in the course of one class," Beaubois said.

Import/Export Capability

A common question that architects want answered about Second Life is this: Can they import their AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, Revit, or ArchiCAD models into Second Life? The simple answer is, not yet. What many have been doing is importing the floor plans and elevations as JPEG images and using the construction interface inside Second Life to realize their visions (figure 3).

Figure 3. At the moment, importing CAD objects into Second Life is a challenge. But some architects have been importing 2D plans into the virtual environment as JPEG images and building desired structures on the top using Second Life's construction interface.
Figure 3. At the moment, importing CAD objects into Second Life is a challenge. But some architects have been importing 2D plans into the virtual environment as JPEG images and building desired structures on the top using Second Life's construction interface.

"The issue of importing/exporting 3D objects is one that will continue to be addressed by Linden Lab," remarked Beaubois. Like most computer game universes, the world of Second Life is a polygonal world. On the other hand, CAD programs use parametric 2D profiles and 3D objects to generate the necessary geometric forms. "That makes the handoff [from CAD to Second Life] quite challenging, to say the least," Beaubois added.

The desire to be able to import the design files from outside probably stems from the somewhat limited nature of the Second Life construction system. "The people who created the original Second Life system were probably not architecture- or engineering-oriented," Beaubois observed. "So the methodology is somewhat different from CAD . . . Also, because many architects are already familiar with other 3D design software, they may find that they can do some things they'd want to do better in other tools than in the Second Life construction interface."

Lachmi Khemlani, who founded AECbytes, similarly observed, "Some aspects of the building capabilities within Second Life [are] quite sophisticated. For example, objects can be imbued with physical properties so they respond to gravity, inertia, propulsion, and wind from the weather system in Second Life. Objects cast shadows and are illuminated by the sun . . . However, compared to the powerful yet easy-to-use 3D modeling tools that AEC professionals are accustomed to using, the basic modeling interface of Second Life seems quite primitive. It would take a lot longer to model a building design in Second Life compared to SketchUp, form.Z, Revit Architecture, and so on." (See "Exploring Second Life and its Potential in Real Life AEC," AECbytes.com.)

Beaubois warned, "The tool doesn't create talent and capability. Someone who doesn't know how to use Maya or Max can't come into Second Life and expect to be a great 3D modeler. It won't let you have the skills you didn't have before."

If the demand for CAD-to-Second Life import/export increases, Linden Lab most likely will find a way to accommodate it. But until then, Second Life residents may rely on some good Samaritans with a flair for developing scripts or writing codes. One early attempt comes from Adrian Herbez, who created a Maya-to-Second Life script (www.purplestatic.com/MEL_SL).

The Hybrid Model

As Beaubois sees it, the differences between real environments and virtual environments will become less of an issue as people become more familiar with the technology. "It's like talking on the phone," he reasoned. "I'm here in Bozeman; you're there in San Francisco. But we're speaking to each other on the phone. Does that mean we're in a virtual world?"

He shared this little philosophical brain-tickler to make a point. We distinguish between real spaces (our office cubicles and homes) and virtual spaces (islands in Second Life) because we're not accustomed to the technology. It's not yet fully integrated into how we work, teach, learn, and socialize. But for the budding architects in Beaubois' classes, the two environments are not so easily separated.

"We know that this technology is going to be integrated into the building industry in a major way. What those steps are, and what that path is — we're still not certain," Beaubois speculated. "My Creative Research Lab is working with groups like NIBS' [National Institute of Building Sciences'] buildingSMART initiative and European efforts such as Eolus One to further develop the use of virtual environments in relationship to real environments. It's going to be a very exciting time."

For more adventures of Tab Scott and KennethSF Offcourse in Second Life, read "City Turns New Leaf in Second Life," AEC Tech News #207, August 23, 2007. Terry Beaubois can be reached at tbeaubois@montana.edu. If you're a Second Life novice still learning to fly (like I am), you might even bump into his avatar Tab Scott somewhere.




About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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