3D city models should be accessible to all. Here’s how to make that possible.

A 3D city model can be hugely beneficial, but creating them is currently expensive and time-consuming. Here’s how to change that.

3D city models offer immense benefits to a wide array of users. Yet, the creation of detailed, realistic, and current urban 3D models remains a costly and time-consuming task. We need a faster method.

At a glance:

  • 3D models of cities, towns, villages, and rural areas hold great value for many stakeholders
  • Until now, creating a 3D city model has been expensive, time-consuming, and resource intensive
  • Find out how 3D city models are made and what they’re used for
  • Learn about recent advances which make the creation of a digital 3D city much faster

Cities worldwide, from New York to London, Berlin to Shanghai, are launching their own 3D city models. These tools offer stakeholders a powerful new way to understand and interact with the built environment.

Urban planners, property developers, telecom engineers, logistics companies, civil society groups, and academic researchers can explore a 3D model of a city. This exploration is truly revolutionary.

However, the creation of a 3D city model remains costly, technically challenging, and time-consuming. While some cities have the budget to create their own 3D models, it’s harder for less wealthy cities to do so, not to mention small towns and villages. To ensure everyone benefits from the opportunities that 3D models present, we need a more efficient production method.

What is a 3D city model?

A 3D city model can be defined as: “digital models of urban areas that represent terrain surfaces, sites, buildings, vegetation, infrastructure, and landscape elements in three-dimensional scale as well as related objects (e.g., city furniture) belonging to urban areas”

The creation of a 3D city model starts with the collection of geographical and spatial data directly from satellite imagery. This imagery provides a comprehensive, overhead view of the area to be modeled.

Advanced processing algorithms extract key features from the satellite images. These features include building footprints, vegetation, and other physical details. We then accurately position these features on the map using geo-referenced data.

If we have additional data, such as Computer-Aided Design (CAD) or Building Information Modeling (BIM) files for individual buildings, we can incorporate this information. This process allows us to create highly detailed and realistic renderings of the buildings and other infrastructure.

Our texturing process combines artificial intelligence, heuristics, and procedural technologies. This combination creates a credible, life-like environment from satellite imagery and exogenous data.

We can also integrate other relevant data, such as street names, points of interest, and zoning information. This integration enhances the accuracy and utility of the model.

We then integrate all this data into a user-friendly interface, typically a 3D visualization software. This software allows users to navigate and interact with the highly detailed, accurate model of the city.

A short history of urban 3D models

Urban 3D models have existed for millennia. The oldest known scale models of urban spaces were created by the Tripillian Culture, in modern-day Ukraine, dating back to 6000 BC. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and the emergence of computer-aided design (CAD) enabled the earliest attempts to create 3D visualizations of urban areas. Today, thanks to advances in computer graphics, satellite imagery, GIS, and GPS, we can create much more realistic and accurate urban 3D models.

The introduction of Google Earth and OpenStreetMap have made basic 3D visualizations of the world available to anyone with an internet connection. But for more specialized used cases, authorities need to create their own 3D model. 

How are 3D city models used?

The potential uses of a 3D city model are incredibly diverse. One study from 2015 found at least 100 applications of the technology. That figure has surely increased since. 

Here are just some of the most compelling uses of 3D models for cities, villages, and even rural areas:

  • Risk management: 3D models allow governments, insurers, engineers, and architects to model a range of risks and how they might affect a city or region. They can carry out tests on all manner of risks – be that flood impacts, effects of climate change, overcrowding during events, or earthquake evacuation plans. 
  • Urban planning: A 3D city model can be hugely beneficial for all kinds of urban planning. Whether it’s exploring how a new structure might look on a street, assessing if a building will overshadow others, or deciding where to situate a new train station, these models provide an interactive way of planning the urban environment. Firstly, they allow us to visualize new structures within the existing environment. Secondly, they enable us to check potential overshadowing issues. Lastly, they assist in making informed decisions about the placement of new infrastructure like train stations.
  • Communications: Similarly, we can provide a 3D visualization of a new development. Users can explore this using a computer browser or a VR headset. This approach aids marketing and communications efforts and can foster acceptance among residents.
  • Smart cities and RF planning: Telecom companies and IoT firms can use urban 3D models to find the best locations for sensors, 5G base stations, and other technology. 
  • Spatial analysis: By using a 3D model of a town or city, it’s possible to conduct all kinds of spatial analysis – from noise control through to finding the ideal location for rooftop solar panels, to conducting ecological impact assessments. 
  • Simulation and training: Creating a realistic urban 3D model can be hugely beneficial for many kinds of training – especially for emergency services. When a 3D city model is connected to simulation software it can help police, ambulance drivers, or fire departments practice procedures in a digital version of their actual city.
  • Entertainment and tourism: 3D city models have enormous relevance for the video games industry, as well as film and TV production (e.g. for location research). As VR becomes more popular, tourism departments may use 3D city models to entice visitors through advertising in the ‘metaverse’.

Challenges of creating a 3D city model

Despite major advances in the underlying technology in recent years, creating an urban 3D model remains expensive and time-consuming, and is currently only a viable option for major conurbations. Creating an up-to-date, 3D visualization of a city is challenging because of:

  • Time-consuming processes: Adding detail, such as 3D city building texture is usually extremely time-consuming, specialized, and manual work. Similarly, in many kinds of software, identifying buildings from a satellite image and ‘cutting out’ building footprints is still a manual process. 
  • Staying up to date: Cities, villages, and rural land use can change rapidly. Keeping a 3D model up to date is resource-intensive.
  • Data requirements: The more detail that gets added to a model, the more data processing is required. A 2D model is ‘light’. Block models add complexity. Building models with standard roofs add more. Detailed building models increase data needs. This leads to exponential growth in data requirements and costs.

Creating and maintaining a 3D city model is costly and time-consuming. Only major cities and wealthy regions can afford them. This leaves out rural populations and people in developing countries.

Related: Why the digital divide is holding humanity back

LuxCarta is making 3D city models accessible to all

At LuxCarta, our research and development teams have combined our GIS expertise with advances in artificial intelligence. This combination provides a tool that makes it easy, fast, and cost-effective to create 3D models of cities, towns, villages, and even remote areas – anywhere on Earth.

BrightEarth is our solution. It’s a cloud-based platform that uses AI to automate the creation of 3D city models. It can create a 3D model of any location on Earth, using satellite imagery and other data sources. The result is a highly detailed, accurate, and up-to-date 3D model that can be used for a wide range of applications.

Learn more about BrightEarth here, or contact us today to begin creating your next 3D city model. 

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