Esri CityEngine builds flexible 3D cities

The newest ArcGIS add-on is getting easier to use and more appealing for city planners and architects alike.  

By Marilyn Novell

Esri’s CityEngine addition to ArcGIS was showcased at Sig­graph, and it is impressive. CityEngine enables the quick creation of 3D urban environments out of 2D data. But be­yond that, it can take existing 3D mod­els or real-world information in a vari­ety of file formats, incorporate the in­formation into an urban scenario, and manipulate the scene using real-world or fantasy-world procedural instruc­tions. Then any of the data can be out­put to view on the web or repurposed in multiple formats.

Cities like Rotterdam and Redlands, California, are using Esri CityEngine’s compatibility with WebGL to let everyone see and interact with 3D models online via online (cloud) access. (Source: Esri)

Esri effectively illus­trated CityEngine’s capability of ex­panding 2D data to an imaginary 3D environment by using a curious attend­ee’s thumbprint to extrude a convinc­ing city-like environment in no time (in the demo anyway). CityEngine’s flex­ibility in the real world and beyond comes with its compatibility with multi­ple standard file formats, including Col­lada, Renderman, Google Earth, SketchUp, Wavefront, 3DS, Autodesk FBX, and WebGL. The software’s pragmatic side is in its power to analyze and plan large-scale urban development as suggested by its online interface including a tog­gling function of as built/proposed and import/export support for hard geospatial data. Its intuitive interface and ease of downscaling resolution and level of detail when needed allows view­ing of scenarios on the fly.

CityEngine began as a procedural tool (and in fact, the original company was called Procedural) developed in a 1999 thesis by Zurich-based Pascal Mueller. In what appears to be a smart move, Esri acquired CityEngine from Procedural last year and integrated it with its ArcGIS geodata system. The company is keeping CityEngine as a stand-alone product for use in archi­tecture, city planning and development, movies and games, and GIS. What City­Engine brings to ArcGIS is a more com­plex, easily manipulated rule-based 3D modeling tool, and what ArcGIS brings to CityEngine is the power to visualize geospatial data.

City planners and designers will use it, as will architects and developers. CityEngine speaks the language of city planners with savvy capabilities such as the ability to apply a procedural TOD (transit oriented development) and to automatically constrict the 3D model by incorporating building regulations such as setbacks and heights, street widths, and zoning requirements. What’s smart about CityEngine is that it can also take existing data such as parcel informa­tion and building footprints and plug it all into the final scenario. 3D models of buildings like those people build for Google Earth with SketchUp can be added too.

Esri is making architects happy with features like a set of architectural styles that can be applied to buildings and easily changed, and it is making his­torians happy by matching those styles with dates which can be changed by moving a slider along a scale. So the eager city-builder can look at the 2012 model of Paris and run a slider back to, say, 1878, and get an idea how the city might have looked with a different set of façade features.

Developers will use CityEngine’s an­alytical features to, for example, iden­tify the potential for development by comparing real-world sites with their maximum exploitation based on current building regulations.

CityEngine has been used to effi­ciently build 3D models of cities for movies such as Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. According to Esri, Pixar used the software for a flythrough of London in Cars 2. Clearly, virtual en­vironments for games are another obvi­ous application.

The real world applies

At Siggraph, Esri showed case studies of Philadelphia and Paris. Also, working with the city of Rotterdam and Mental Images, Esri built a model of Rotter­dam—an online visualization that gives everyone access to the model.

With the upcoming release of City­Engine 2012, Esri will let us see what they have been working on for the city of Redlands, California, Esri’s home base. Redlands is a politically slow-growth, smallish city (70K) that is using its existing GIS data as well as ongoing lidar scans and stereoscopic imaging to build a 3D model of the downtown area. Additionally, the rule-based capabilities of CityEngine are being used to visualize proposed concentrations of develop­ment. Redlands’ GIS supervisor Phil­ip Mielke says they hope to involve residents in decisions about centralized transit-oriented development and to overcome resistance to building some­times larger, taller, LEED-certified build­ings to avoid the sprawl of neighboring areas. One way Esri is helping smaller cities acquire the technology is by bas­ing licensing fees on population.

The version on display at Siggraph was CityEngine 2011, and Esri is plan­ning to launch an update in September that will streamline some of the features, including the sometimes steep learning curve for directly manipulating the City­Engine code. The big news is that since Esri acquired CityEngine and integrated it into ArcGIS, both systems are the bet­ter for it. It is a happy marriage that ap­pears headed for a long run.

Marilyn Novell is managing editor of Jon Peddie TechWatch.