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Ask Arup: Visualization edition

For our latest round of Ask Arup, ArchDaily reader Biserat Yesflgn requested tips for visualization software 3ds Max (formerly known as 3D Studio Max). We spoke to New York-based Arup visualization specialist Anthony Cortez to find out how he uses the program, what skills prospective visualization artists need, and how the field is evolving.

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I’ve been here working with Arup for the past 10 years. We use 3ds Max to support our multidisciplinary practices to visualize projects during the design and construction phases, to be able to show the public what buildings and infrastructure projects will look like before they actually get built.

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Cortez uses visualization techniques to identify potential safety concerns on proposed highway alignments. The Civil View feature set in 3ds Max allows you to take 3D road alignment data from Autodesk Civil 3D or Bentley’s Inroads and dynamically link it to 3ds Max.

How do other people use the program? Do architects use it differently than you do, for example?

The strength of 3ds Max is its versatility. It’s not a one-industry tool. From film, visual effects, video games, and commercials to arch vis, people use Max for modeling, texture mapping, lighting, animation, and rendering. Architects use it to visualize models of buildings. There are game designers that use it to create game cinematics and environments; the visual effects industry uses it to create explosions and crowd simulations.

Here at Arup we use all of that stuff that Hollywood and the game designers use, but we apply it to engineering applications.

Rendering of Fulton Center.

We have lighting engineers here in the office; they study how light hits surfaces and reflects off of and is absorbed by materials. We use 3ds Max to visualize how light physically behaves in real life. These days, it’s really hard to tell the difference between a photo and a rendering.

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Rendering of a masterplanning study combining architectural, geotechnical, sustainability, and GIS data to visualize a 34-acre site in South Wales.

There’s also a project that we’re working on, a new New York bridge, where we’re taking photography from various vantage points around the Hudson Valley area and camera-matching the new bridge design to the survey and photographs and create photorealistic visual impact studies, to show what designs look like so that they can move on to the next stage in the approval process.

Those are a few ways we use it.

You’re working a lot with augmented reality applications. Does 3ds Max play a role there?

Well, traditionally the way we export out of 3ds Max is through renderings, still image renderings or animations and real-time rendering game engines. But what’s also emerging is a platform called augmented reality (AR) where we’re able to take 3D objects and superimpose them onto the real world, and you’re able to interact with these 3D objects in real time, similar to what you would see in movies like Minority Report or Avatar or Ironman.

We’ve used AR on a few projects by embedding building information models onto site plans. When your smartphone or tablet recognizes the page, models are overlaid on top, giving you a better understanding of the site design in 3D.

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A client views a GIS-enabled model on an iPad through an augmented reality platform that facilitates interactive onsite collaboration.

This application also works on the job site. Our engineers recently went to Montana for a project and were able to access geolocated design models and superimpose them on the landscape. The value of this is that it allows for real-time collaboration with clients by letting them preview things that the designers are proposing. This leads to better decision making during the design process.

We’re just scratching the surface with this technology, and I’m really excited to be able to push the boundaries on this.

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Cortez demonstrating an augmented reality application that accesses structural, mechanical, architectural, and traffic models.

It seems like the architectural visualization world is changing fairly rapidly. What skills will people need to work in the field in the coming years?

Having a good foundation of the principles of design is key: having a good eye in regards to composition, attention to detail. Being able to understand how to interpret floor plans, elevations, cross sections. And also, on the visualization side, being able to understand how timing in animated objects works. Understanding the way light behaves when it interacts with physical materials, and then having a good sense of organization and optimization of these virtual scenes.

What do you mean by that?

Say you have several lights hit a surface and bounce off of it, then hit a window and go through two or three different levels of glazing of the glass so that it reflects and refracts. Some of the light goes through, some of it bounces off and hits the ceiling, etc. If all of that calculation is taking place it could take hours to render a frame of animation, whereas if you optimize a scene and adjust the geometry and materials settings you can balance the time versus the quality of the render so it wouldn’t take that long — maybe just a fraction of that time — but still have an acceptable level of quality. You need to balance between time and quality.

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We use 3ds Max to visualize how sound waves travel through spaces. The 3ds Max Particle Flow feature allows efficient setup of particles reflecting off of and being absorbed by surfaces.

Other than 3ds Max, what do you consider the toolkit of programs that people have to know?

The rest of the Autodesk design suite, like Revit, AutoCAD, and Civil 3D. Rhino is an excellent tool for parametric modeling. It’s also useful to know the whole Adobe Creative Suite package, including Photoshop, Aftereffects, and Premiere Pro.

What do you think the industry will look like in ten years? What changes do you anticipate?

You would be able to access data from anywhere you are through wearable computing devices, superimposing and interacting with virtual objects on top of the real world; similar, again, to what you would see in movies like Minority Report and Avatar.

I don’t think we’ll have to wait another decade, though. Keep a lookout for companies like Meta, who’s developing augmented reality-enabled glasses.


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Anthony Cortez is a visualization specialist in Arup's New York office. Contact him at anthony.cortez@arup.com.
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