Beyond Blueprints

William Jepson’s Urban Simulator project is helping architects, designers

and urban planners overcome the limits of space and time

With far greater breadth — to say nothing of depth — than any two dimensional blueprint, UCLA’s Urban Simulator project allows users to experience the ramifications of proposed city development by “driving” through or “flying” over an animated landscape in real time. William Jepson, director of computing in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, headed the team that created the system, a marriage of military flight simulation and virtual reality technologies. Jepson combined three dimensional CAD (computer aided design) models with aerial photographs and videos shot at street level to create a realistic (down to the flora, street signs and graffiti), real time simulation of more than a dozen sections of Los Angeles. Maneuvering the computer mouse as in a video game, urban designers, students and interested citizens can “drive” through an area as it now looks and — by exercising certain menu choices — view it as it would appear after implementing various planning alternatives.
The simulator, which runs on a Silicon Graphics Onyx workstation that enables extensive use of real time texture mapping, was originally conceived to assist in the rebuilding efforts following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The L.A. City Council and L.A. Housing Preservation and Production Department provided funding for a UCLA team, working with Councilman Mike Hernandez, to develop a pilot program demonstrating, with virtual reality, the effects of various planning alternatives for the Pico Union district of Los Angeles, which sustained heavy damage from arsonists. In another project, at the request of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Jepson’s group employed the same methodology to model an existing neighborhood around the Wilshire Vermont subway station. The model was then used to provide the context for evaluating development alternatives. More recently, Jepson worked with developer Maguire Thomas on plans for a mixed use, master planned community in Playa Vista, which is now under consideration. City planners are currently using the technology to ponder initiatives in Hollywood and Westwood.
For students, the Urban Simulator provides the opportunity to create urban plans and easily observe and understand their impacts on the surrounding cityscape. “This system gives individuals the potential to interact with each other in planning their own communities,” explains Jepson, who in 1994 became the first UCLA based winner of the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian Award in Education and Academia. “The methodology we developed for the Urban Simulator scales over a wide variety of applications. Any three dimensional form can be viewed using this system.”
A team consisting of Jepson, the Department of Physics’ Walter Gekelman and the Department of Computer Science’s Richard Muntz and Walter Karplus, is adapting the system for use in medicine and science. “The interface is no different,” Jepson explains. “You don’t have to fly only over cities with this technology. You can fly through human bodies -- or atoms, or magnetic fields -- in order to get a richer appreciation for what’s happening there.”
Jepson’s group, in collaboration with Tom Harmon from UCLA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, already has plans to facilitate student exploration of hazardous waste sites and explore issues of toxic remediation.
Once Jepson and his team had succeeded in developing a system for the quick and efficient creation of modern cities, the next challenge was adapting their methods to generating historic reconstructions. The process requires substantial input from historians and archaeologists, who assist the modelers in such crucial tasks as defining what actually existed during the periods being studied, developing a palette of materials as they existed at various times and reconstructing entire buildings from bits and pieces.
For his master’s thesis, UCLA student Dean Abernathy adapted Urban Simulator methodology to develop a small model of the Roman Forum. Because Jepson’s system understands time, the historic site can be seen not only as it once existed, but as it changed over a 2,000 year period. Moreover, the system enables users to visit the site at a given time, where they can be joined by others on the network. Jepson is presently finding ways of incorporating “avatars” into the system so that two individuals “walking” around the same area in the same time period can see each other represented on screen and speak to each other with the aid of computer microphones. In a project for the Getty Trust, on which Jepson is collaborating with Architecture/History Professor Diane Favro and Classics Professor Bernard Frischer, a virtual reality model of the Forum of the Roman emperor Trajan has been developed from the plans and drawings of Jim Packer, a Getty scholar and professor at Northwestern University. The model allows users to walk through and experience the forum as Trajan might have in the year 114 A.D.
Favro would ultimately like to hold her office hours “in” the Roman Forum. “She’ll ask students to join her on a particular date, and they’ll walk through and discuss what they see,” Jepson explains. Jepson is also introducing virtual actors, enabling students to watch Augustus, say, emerge from the steps of the Roman Forum to deliver a speech.
“This is a dynamic, experiential, interactive form of learning,” says Jepson. “The user is in control, deciding where to go, what to look at and what to learn at any particular point in time.”

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