Visualizing 3D Environments

Projects often demand the integration of digital media and the spaces that they occupy. This means that there is no clear boundary between the design and engineering when we’re realizing a project. Each discipline, from interaction design, architecture, industrial design, and graphic design, to mechanical and electrical engineering, and software development, has its own standards of practice, phase language, etc., that have to be coordinated and choreographed. Most important, we have to ensure that the project’s voice is coherent and consistent and meets our very high standards of quality, as well as the needs, expectations, and hopes of our clients. The project team, including our internal team, the wider team, and the client team, needs a common language.
To facilitate communication between colleagues, abstract orthographic drawings (flat two-dimensional plans sections and elevations) are still the gold standard. But to communicate to all the participants in the project, some of whom will not understand or be moved by abstract and discipline-specific images, we need other tools.
This is not a new problem. Designers have spent centuries developing 3D visualization media that communicate the synthesis of design ideas, theoretical principles, and emotional tone (I spent some time writing about this last summer).
Here are a few examples:


Richard Morris Hunt: Detail, constructed perspective drawing for Fifth Ave. Façade, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.  


Antoni Gaudi, detail: Colonia Güell, hanging chain model


Antonio Sant’Elia, Sketch for an Industrial Plant

Through an ever evolving process of experimentation, we have developed our own approach to exploring and communicating three-dimensional information. Our approach takes advantage of traditional thinking about spatial communication, applying them in the context of new technology.

We are especially excited about recent work we’ve been doing adapting thinking from the gaming world and academic projects to this problem. Dynamic, navigable  Virtual Reality environments have become an on-the-ground reality for us in our design process.

The following is a small diagram of a design process from concept to completion, showing the appearance and key milestones for the six different kinds of 3D media we currently make:


Sketch of Second Story’s design process timeline, and 3D visualization techniques.

The chart shows a process in four principal phases that should make sense to designers from a variety of different professional backgrounds. Each discipline names these phases slightly differently, but the key milestones (concept approval, development approval, realization) are fundamentally similar, and they can help us organize our process.

Ultimately, we must ensure that we execute each of the kinds of communication media at the right time, and always in service of the larger goal: the completion of a great project for users and audiences to experience. As artists, engineers and designers it’s easy to fall in love with the media we make and forget that it exists only to help us realize finished products for people.

This doesn’t happen here, in part because we have a thriving, collegial, self-critical culture, where creatives are constantly observing, encouraging, and challenging each other to make the best possible work, and keeping our eyes on the prize.

Our process is in constant evolution, and we fully expect the list of things we make to continue to change over time.  The media we use to communicate ideas, however, we will always think of as tools in service of a larger work, rather than products in and of themselves (do I detect a theme?) . Here’s a list of the media types we use today, and some thoughts on each one:

  • Sketches: All spatial thinking starts as a sketch. As a quick tool to communicate an idea to a team member or client, and for on-the-ground problem-solving and detailing, the sketch can’t be beat for efficiency. For me sketching means felt tip marker on trace, for others it may mean digital tool, but the idea is the same: Stay loose, and learn new things about your ideas from the process of drawing them. We work hard to maintain and improve our sketching skills in the studio, and it frequently pays off in improved efficiency and clarity of communication.


Preliminary sketches,TedX PDX 2012

  • Physical Models: The human mind and the human body have spent millions of years developing in parallel, so it follows that we can learn things from our physical activities. The designer can learn a lot about a project by making a physical model. Like sketching, physical modelling is a technique that we use in every phase of the design process, from the creation of early massing and rapid prototypes, to full-scale mockups including integration of prototype media, that help us solve details and user interfaces in later phases.


Tessellating solid model (to understand light effects): TedX PDX 2012

  • Static Renderings: Traditionally, static, 2D renderings have been the tool of choice for designers to communicate ideas to clients and other lay people. Brunelleschi is sometimes credited with popularizing the use of constructed perspective drawings to communicate spatial design ideas. His rendering for Santo Spirito shows some of the most important lessons of the perspective drawing- show just enough to give a loose sense of the space, include scale references, don’t be too uptight in your rendering style. Just remember that designers have been at this a long time, and it’s important to draw inspiration from that history. In the spirit of Brunelleschi, we use computer renderings to facilitate conversations. Previously on this blog, I’ve discussed the hazards of photorealism in a professional context. We make rendered images that have obvious elements of fiction in them. We render images to convey mood. This is an attempt to focus attention on the ideas the image is meant to convey rather than the specific objects represented in the image.


Filippo Brunelleschi, perspective sketch for Santo Spirito, 15th century

Preliminary renderings: TedX PDX 2012

  • The creation of Digital Models is central to all of our physical design work. The ability to to quickly create, iterate, and test complicated spatial ideas at scale is incredibly powerful. Modern workflows also allow us to take the product of these design exercises straight into digital environments that are specific to our work here at Second Story. We care about the intersection of digital media and space, because the experiences we create rely on this relationship. In a digital modelling environment, we can accurately simulate the conditions of visual media in spaces and on surfaces, we can research ergonomic issues around tactile media interfaces, we can simulate acoustics, and increasingly we can look at all of these things in a dynamic digital environment.

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Typical model views. We utilize a wide variety of software platforms and techniques- like other media flexibility and adaptability in terms of technique allow us to solve all kinds of design challenges.

  • Dynamic Digital Environments. We make flythrough animations of digital models, to stitch into short films and video pieces we regularly produce. These animations have definite value, but one limitation is that the viewer can’t control them. When we want a person to understand a space and its media, it’s important to give them as much control over the experience as possible. This idea has been explored in detail by researchers in many fields, but to date few professionals have found effective ways to integrate virtual reality (VR) environ ments into t heir design process in intuitive, transparent, and simple ways. We are very excited about recent developments in our studio that allow us to create these kinds of VR environments as a natural part of our workflow. We are exploring ways to deploy these environments across a variety of platforms, to help us quickly and accurately communicate design ideas to our colleagues and clients. Most importantly, these environments can include all kinds of dynamic elements, moveable components, surfaces painted with dynamic media—all controlled by the user, who can navigate and view the space at their will. The communication power available in this tool is immense, and we are very excited to be deploying these environments and making observations on best practices for their use.


Mobile VR environment prototype, controllable navigation via device accelerometer.


Click here to launch a rudimentary Flash-based VR environment, with most of the functionality described above. This environment has only minimal texturing and lighting, and the media is represented as static. Nevertheless, the relationship between the space and the media installation is readily understandable to most users.

We’re already seeing benefits from the development and application of new visualization techniques. In addition to the efficiency that comes from clear communication, we find that colleagues and clients are happier when they have been informed and involved along the way.  Additionally, we’re interested to see that the ways we design digital content and the ways we design physical environments are converging. The processes I’ve described above, especially modelling, rendering, and dynamic environment creation, are frequently a part of “mostly digital” projects— an example would be our recent lab project Satellite, which includes 3D as a key part of the interface, or the face-tracking prototype the Media Lab created recently using a Planar EL display and a depth-sensing camera. Both of these projects take advantage of physical interfaces and depth perception to make user experiences that engage the body in meaningful ways.

Leveraging emerging technologies in new ways is what we’re all about. Finding ways to apply this ethos to our design process is a natural step. We look forward to continued developments on this front, and we’ll keep you posted!

_Daniel Meyers


TedX PDX 2012


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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