A 3D city model can provide enormous benefits to many different users. However, creating detailed, realistic, and up-to-date urban 3D models continues to be time-consuming and expensive. A faster way is needed.
At a glance:
- 3D models of cities, towns, villages, and rural areas are extremely valuable to multiple 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
From New York to London, Berlin to Shanghai, a growing number of cities around the world have launched their own 3D city models. These tools are incredibly valuable, giving a range of stakeholders a powerful new method of understanding the built environment and interacting with it.
Whether it’s urban planners or property developers, telecom engineers or logistics companies, civil society groups, or academic researchers, the ability to explore a 3D model of a conurbation is genuinely revolutionary.
However, creating a 3D model of a city remains expensive, technically challenging, and time-consuming. While some cities may have the budget to create their own 3D models, it is much harder for less wealthy cities to do so, not to mention small towns and villages. If we want to ensure that everyone benefits from the opportunities that 3D models present, a more efficient way of producing them is needed.
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 process of creating 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.
Using advanced processing algorithms, key features are extracted from the satellite images, including building footprints, vegetation, and other physical details. These features are then accurately positioned on the map using geo-referenced data.
If additional data is available, such as Computer-Aided Design (CAD) or Building Information Modeling (BIM) files for individual buildings, this information can be incorporated to create highly detailed and realistic renderings of the buildings and other infrastructure.
Our texturing process combines artificial intelligence, heuristics, and procedural technologies to provide a credible, life-like environment from satellite imagery and exogenous data.
Other relevant data, such as street names, points of interest, and zoning information, can also be integrated to enhance the accuracy and utility of the model.
All of this data is then integrated into a user-friendly interface, typically a 3D visualization software. This 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, and date as far back as 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, it’s possible to 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, checking 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.
- Communications: In a similar vein, providing a 3D visualization of a new development that can be explored using a computer browser or a VR headset helps with marketing and communications, and can encourage acceptance from 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. While a 2D model is relatively ‘light’, as you progress to block models, then building models with standard roof structures, then detailed building models that look similar to the real thing, the data requirements (and computing costs) grow exponentially
If creating and maintaining a 3D city model remains expensive and time-consuming, only major cities and wealthy regions will be able to benefit from them. This means that vast numbers of people – from rural populations to billions of people living in developing countries – will be left behind.
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, to provide 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 unique platform that automatically extracts building footprints, vegetation, and other information from satellite imagery and adds realistic 3D city building texture. This allows users to quickly and efficiently create 3D models using the most recent satellite images of the Earth’s surface. We’re already partnering to create 3D models of cities and entire regions with our clients – and our mission is to make 3D city models accessible for the entire planet.
Learn more about BrightEarth here, or contact us today to begin creating your next 3D city model.