For Urban Planning or Litigating, Simulations Are Persuasive Tools

UB's Supercomputing Center Makes Virtual Traffic Make Sense to the Public

Release Date: June 3, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- By harnessing the power of computational techniques initially developed on academic supercomputers, urban planners, engineers and even litigators are creating vivid animations of urban life to solve problems ranging from urban sprawl to traffic jams to site selection.

Working in partnerships with companies and agencies, the Center for Computational Research (CCR) in the University at Buffalo's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences has developed software that applies these state-of-the-art technologies to simulate traffic at the Peace Bridge, an important international crossing point between the U.S. and Canada; at a major league soccer stadium in Rochester, N.Y., and for a major roadway improvement project for the Florida Department of Transportation in Miami.

CCR also has developed software that allows juries to visualize how a particular automobile accident occurred.

So far, the UB 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.

Its 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 went into these simulations, the final thing we showed the public was 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, Ph.D., 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. (To view a Streetscenes videoclip, click on the image at the top of the page.)

"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, Ph.D., 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 can now 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 negotiating with a major engineering firm to utilize Streetscenes to simulate traffic at Xanadu, the massive sports, retail, entertainment and shopping complex planned adjacent to New Jersey's Meadowlands Sports Complex.

"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 3D 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

"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, Ph.D., 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 Haseeb 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, Ph.D., 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 UB 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.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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