March 01, 2010
Skape Takes on 3D City Scapes
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by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News
Skape Takes on 3D City Scapes
By Susan Smith

As architecture expands into the realm of 3D cities, the AEC industry encompasses more diverse data to populate the broader canvas of those cities.

Known for its aerial imagery and height data, UK-based geospatial company Infoterra has been acquiring high resolution lidar data of big cities in the UK for its new 3D product Skape.

Skape is a geospatial 3D city mapping service product from Infoterra that offers advanced imagery of 3D heighted buildings of the UK's major cities. 99% of the data collected for this product is Infoterra-owned, and the company uses its own dedicated fleet of aircraft to capture fully textured imagery. The new product is designed for environmentalists, architects, planners, local authorities and surveyors, among others. Skape enables users to manipulate urban landscapes online by combining high resolution 3D textured city models with 2D mapping and terrain data.

According to Jamie Ritchie, director of marketing for Skape, Skape allows users to access major UK cities, enabling urban planners to quickly develop highly detailed architectural models and save time and costs. Skape lets users import new buildings into city scapes and view them within the context of their surroundings, and remove existing buildings and replace them with others. The online environment has a high level of accuracy so that varying building textures, street furniture, light and sun shadowing at different times of the day, and unlimited vantage points can be observed from anywhere.

Ritchie said, “One of the differences between Skape and other 3D building products is that the buildings and the terrain are very high resolution, we're talking about in London the lidar height accuracy is sub 1m and the oblique imagery resolution is between 5cm and 8cm."

Ritchie said Skape has five different ingredients, including
  • Terrain used in the past which is 1 meter DTM
  • Aerial oblique imagery used in flying all the big cities in the UK
  • physical building geometries created through lidar
  • modeling technique to automate everything

Some complex structures such as St. Paul's Cathedral have had to be done by hand. By combining their own data, high resolution lidar and oblique imagery, the company has created a type of pilot for the UK for other cities, and they are doing other European cities currently. Ritchie said they can create a city in 3D in Skape in six to eight weeks.

Skape utilizes Midas technology for oblique imagery which offers five centimeter resolution in big cities such as London and Birmingham. Ritchie explained that combining 3D city models with 2D mapping is relatively new. “We've been working with 2D, terrain modeling and rough building models for companies such as telecoms for 10-15 years,” said Ritchie. Most “3D” is still 2 ½ D, “whereas we model every single building, and every building has its own geometry and roof geometry. It's new for us, and it's a first in terms of creating individual buildings where we can attribute data --whether it's emergency services data, or occupy data that you can see in Skape. You can see what shops are in the building.”

Complementing Building Information Modeling

Ritchie said they liken the product to being more “like building information modeling (BIM).”

We have seen geospatial infiltrate many markets in the past few years, and it is notable that Skape is very focused on the architectural market. Some of the largest architectural firms in the UK have asked for a cost effective tool that allows them to use far more immersive 3D imagery as an alternative to the expensive process of creating high resolution scanned, surveyed images. With BIM, architects want to attach information to the buildings in 3D.

From the GIS side, a GIS manager who wants to export a model from Skape can put it within a GIS platform like Autodesk LandXplorer or 3D Studio Max. “They don't have to use Skape as a software tool, they can use something else,” said Ritchie. “In the GIS realm we have people using it for light studies for acoustic studies as well as planning for windfarms.”

As an online mapping service, users can buy data, 3D models and 2D ordnance survey mapping from Skape, as well as delete and import buildings, and create online flythroughs.

Those people who are accustomed to using Google Earth and SketchUp will find Skape to be “second nature.” AEC users as well as users in local authorities who are not familiar with 3D will find it easy to use. “The cost of exporting an average 3D model would be in the region of £200,” said Ritchie, adding that in terms of licensing Skape licenses 3D models for the duration of a project so that many engineers and third parties can use it.

Care has been taken to ensure that the 3D models can be exported into Autodesk's DWG format, MicroStation DGN, and 3D Studio Max, as those are the most commonly used CAD software programs in the UK and Europe.

In the very early stages most people are going to use SketchUp and are not going to use expensive software, therefore they'll probably use Skape for very simple visualization. Ritchie said those people using AutoCAD, 3D Studio Max and MicroStation will be exporting it in the formats that are appropriate for their work.

“We've tried to keep it open, so if people want to make it cost effective to export models then they can use Skape and those who want to export it and then use it within AutoCAD or Bentley can do that as well.”

“We've found that Autodesk LandXplorer, which is relatively new product but very powerful in terms of managing 3D models very quickly, is one of the few products that actually handles both interactive information as well as 3D models quite well,” said Ritchie. “I think the market is slowly getting there in terms of management of 3D because it's such big media.”

“Google Earth is your best friend and worst enemy,” noted Ritchie. “It's been great because they've given 3D a wider audience, however, people's perception of how it's used is very different, especially on a professional basis.”

Point Cloud Data

Infoterra (Skape) is working with architects and engineering companies to provide point cloud data service. At this point it cannot actually import point cloud data but is working with clients. Skape's Bespoke Solution makes it possible to acquire point cloud data on the streets quickly and cost effectively. “Simply measuring and getting technical information out of point clouds is fine, but to actually start rendering it and making vector lines is totally another area altogether,” said Ritchie. “What we've found is it's very powerful, however utilizing that data for real professional use is quite tough because the data itself is so huge.”

Skape creates a lot of point cloud of interiors. “You click on a Skape building, it opens up within the building and you get a full building layout in point cloud.” Ritchie predicts that the evolution of BIM in the next couple of years will include seeing the interior building and fire plans and other information.


Bandwidth is of course huge for buildings, so Skape has compressed the buildings and shows them first instance in low resolution. “As you stop and you pause over the building and it comes into high resolution within a second or so,” explained Ritchie. “So we have kind of a delayed reaction, we try to be intuitive of where you want to view. So as you move around the city, soon as you stop it brings in the high resolution model. When you then export it it actually gives you the rule resolution so the highest resolution possible so you can then take it in to AutoCAD or MicroStation and then do what you want to do with it.”

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