Simulations are persuasive tools
By ELLEN GOLDBAUM
From courtrooms to the town clerk's office, lawyers and developers alike are finding that complicated blueprints of new housing developments or static renderings that reconstruct accidents just don't cut it anymore with today's sophisticated audiences.
Urban planners, lawyers, engineers and others are seeking high-quality computational tools to persuade skeptical audiences and, increasingly, they are finding that expertise in academia.
The Center for Computational Research (CCR) in UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences is among those assisting companies and agencies by applying its state-of-the-art technologies to animating reconstructions of accidents or depicting virtual traffic jams in neighborhoods that don't yet exist.
So far, the center's capabilities have allowed two upstate New York firms to grow their businesses in new markets with significant growth potential.
"CCR is my secret weapon," said Charles Hixon, founder and administrator of Bergmann Associates Visualization in Rochester.
Hixon approached CCR in 2003 with his idea of turning the unsophisticated traffic-simulation software used by engineers into a virtual-reality simulation that members of the public could understand easily.
The main limitation was the depiction of traffic as two-dimensional animations from an aerial point of view. Little green dots represented cars on roads and bridges.
"With all the science that goes into these simulations, the final thing we show the public is dots!" remarked Hixon.
He contracted with CCR to have its Urban Simulation and Visualization Team work with him to develop three-dimensional simulations of traffic complete with accurate local landmarks, such as bridges, street signs, businesses and homes that spectators can view from a driver's perspective.
The result is Streetscenes, a traffic-simulation software package developed by Henrique Bucher, CCR computational scientist, that allows audiences at public hearings, town-board reviews and boardroom presentations an unprecedented ability to visualize how proposed projects will affect traffic on their street and in their neighborhoods.
The package depicts real traffic, incorporating into each scene realistic traffic speeds and volumes, based on the time of day, weather and road conditions, and parameters such as whether or not there is a football game in the neighborhood that day.
"With Streetscenes, you can look at any intersection and find out, for example, 'What's traffic going to be like in front of my restaurant during and after the game?' or, 'How long will it take me to get to work once this new building is constructed?'" said Tom Furlani, associate director of CCR and leader of the Urban Simulation and Visualization Team.
"The Streetscenes interface is very intuitive," he said. "You can simply tag a vehicle and 'drive' it around."
According to Furlani, the graphics cards in personal computers have become so powerful that applications that only a few years ago required high-powered, expensive visualization supercomputers now can be carried out on PCs.
"There is a growing need for highly realistic visual simulations outside of academia," he said. "Our Urban Simulation and Visualization Team allows us to leverage that investment, as well as our expertise in visualization, for the benefit of the community."
Still in its beta release, Streetscenes already has generated interest from the Federal Highway Administration and the transportation departments of Florida, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island.
Bergmann Associates Visualization group is using the software to simulate traffic at Xanadu, the massive sports, retail, entertainment and shopping complex planned adjacent to New Jersey's Meadowlands Sports Complex; a major league soccer stadium being constructed in Rochester; and a major road improvement project in south Florida.
"Streetscenes has opened up so many doors for me, it's been an incredible business development tool," said Hixon.
Also as a result of its collaboration with CCR, TVGA Consultants in Elma is able to provide high-end, three-dimensional accident-visualization services to its clients, which include attorneys and insurance companies.
The firm uses principles of mathematics and physics to reconstruct accidents and analyze the data involved to compute the unknown variables, such as vehicle speeds and changes in velocities.
"CCR's expertise allowed TVGA to transform these calculations into a state-of-the-art, 3-D animation, thus realistically animating the story that used to be told to juries through storyboards," said Haseeb Ghumman, who heads TVGA's Accident Reconstruction Plus division. (The TVGA video may be viewed at < strong>http://www.accidentreconstructionplus.com/Visualization.htm strong>.)
"What we do is take the traffic engineering data and present them in an animated, interactive and realistic fashion so that it's easy for the general public to get a mental picture of what happened," explained Russ Miller, CCR director and UB Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering.
"With UB's help, TVGA is entering a whole new business, hopefully one that will lead us to add positions in Western New York," said Ghumman.
"Our clients are very impressed with the visualization work and the technology that our team has to offer," said Ghumman, who credits CCR's team of Martins Innus, scientific visualization specialist, and Adam Koniak and Adrian Levesque, CCR multimedia specialists, for their high-quality visualization work on the project.
"Animation helps a non-technical person, who may be on a jury panel, more easily comprehend how the accident occurred," he said.
"With our offices throughout New York State, we foresee 3D accident visualization to be more and more effective and desirable in years to come," he said, adding "CCR is going to be busy."
The CCR Urban Simulation and Visualization Team also works with the City of Buffalo and Robert G. Shibley, professor of architecture and director of the Urban Design Project in the School of Architecture and Planning, on the Peace Bridge Gateway Improvement Project and the Olmsted Park Conservancy, and with Ben Porcari at IBC Digital Inc. and BuffLink on the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus.