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OK, so we lied last week when we said the column was in summer recess. Sorry. Although there aren’t many sci-tech events going on at the moment, science never sleeps and there’s a whole world of cool stuff going on out there. So, in a special edition of the Cogito, we interview Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith of UCL. He works in the Department of Advanced Spatial Analysis, where he develops new ways of visualizing the city in three dimensions (such as the air pollution map shown above). He’s also behind one of our favourite blogs, Digitally Distributed Environments.
So, tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to be playing god with the London skyline.
The story dates back to a phone call from Professor Mike Batty (CBE) asking me to do a PhD after seeing an early webpage on communicating architecture to the public. I always said that I wouldn’t do a PhD unless I could change how things are planned and how the public are informed about planning and architecture in general. You only need to look around London to see some of the mistakes of the past and if we can use the latest technology to inform the public so they can have a free and open say then maybe things will be better planned in the future. It may sound dull (and maybe that’s why I don’t get asked to many parties!) but it makes me wake up each day and think woohoo work, honestly it’s a fun job.
You’ve helped to develop a 3-D model of London that now stretches out to the M25. How was that created and what’s it used for?
It was created with a mix of LiDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) where a plane was flown over London bouncing laser points every metre off the buildings and Ordnance Survey MasterMap data. MasterMap provides us with the building outlines and we can then calculate height data from the laser returns. We also have a number of photorealistic buildings which are custom made using our in-house software.
Will the public ever be able to get their hands on it?
The whole aim is to get the model into the public’s hands and have a free and open source 3D model of London. We currently have it running in Google Earth and are talking with the Ordnance Survey about licensing issues. It’s complicated but hopefully we will get there.
What’s the most exciting project you’re working on at the moment?
It has to be Virtual London, we are rolling it out to three London Boroughs as a first phase this coming week. Using a range of easy to use tools the planners/architects/designers will be able to move from a 2D planning system to 3D. Once the roll out is complete London wide we finally have the chance to visualize the future without having to rely on the often highly rendered architects views which are often from a specific location and more of a marketing aid rather than anything informative or practical.
When we boot up Google Earth, it’s annoying to find that cities like New York are already included in 3-D, but London isn’t. You have to download individual buildings drawn by skilled amateurs. Why is that?
We have talked with Google and if we can sort out the licensing, as I mentioned above, the Virtual London model would come with Google Earth and you wouldn’t have to download models from various websites or blogs, including our own.
How do you see virtual environments in general, and Google Earth in particular, developing over the next few years?
If you look at chat systems using avatars such as Second Life and then merge it with Google Earth I think that’s the one to watch. To fly into the cities of the world and have people walking around them as avatars would suddenly make an inhabited virtual earth. I can see this happening in the next few years.
Does Google Earth have any decent competition on the way?
Not yet but as a unnamed member of a high profile company quoted ‘Google Earth could be the new Netsacpe’. Microsoft has a Virtual Earth coming soon as does a company called ESRI. Google Earth caught a lot of companies on the hop but they are about to come back and try to claim a substantial share of the market. The next six months will be very interesting in terms of Digital Earths.
While a publicly available 3-D London isn’t quite there yet, games such as The Getaway are developing their own, impressive versions of virtual London (even if the gameplay sucks). How are these models put together and how do they differ from the stuff you work on?
The Getaway, London Racer, Project Gotham Racing to name but a few have renderings of London which can take your breath away. They have also had multi-million pound budgets and a team of dedicated modelers. So they look stunning but are made as a game whereas ours is held in a ‘Geographical Information System’ (GIS) which allows any amount of spatial data to be visualized within the model. So different models for different purposes (and budgets).
The Getaway on Playstation 3: have you had any sneak previews?
We have and its difficult to put into words the rendering and the representation of London. It is a work of art and we just hope that this time they can fix the gameplay.
You set up a blog to document some of the cool stuff you help develop in your day job. Tell us a bit about what you’re hoping to achieve with the blog.
The blog was set up to share both the research and our take on visualizing London. In general we publish two or three posts a day, traffic is low but I hope people like the images and movies we produce. A prime example of this and one I’m currently proud of is a High Definition Panoramic movie of parts of London. Linking in a soundtrack and some of the 360x180 degree panoramic views we have captured creates a atmospheric view of London. Its something I hope Tourist Information centres or marketing for London in general will pick up upon as its fantastic on a 42 inch Plasma Screen.
Your panoramic images are pretty spectacular. Which one’s your favourite?
It has to be Hungerford Bridge at night, the print version has been projected so you can see everything the eye could see in 360x180 degrees and it makes a stunning image. I was thinking about selling the prints if anyone’s interested, maybe at a market stall in Camden or online.
And the London questions…
What’s your favourite Pub/bar?
The Hope in Fitzrovia, just off Tottenham Court Road, is where we go most nights after work. Can’t say it’s London’s finest but its good to be a regular. Its not exactly ‘Cheers’ but is the closest we have got.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Without sounding uncultured at the moment it has to be a local Chinese on the edge of Camden of which I currently forget its name.
What’s the best thing about London that not many people know about?
I think it’s the architecture that people just don’t seem to notice. If you look up at the buildings while walking around London you will realise we live in one of the best cities in the world.
What’s your favourite view in London?
Just from the top of Haverstock Hill near Camden Market you get a framed image of St Paul’s. It’s not the classic ‘Primrose Hill’ view but with the sun rising it mixes the urban with classic London, something that can’t help but make you smile.
The world is ending In 24 hours. How would you spend your last day in London?
Well not in The Hope that’s for sure..
What advice would you give Ken Livingstone?
Give us a ring and lets sort out the details for making the 3D model for London publicly available.
Have you ever been sick on the Tube?
Amazing to say but no, there is something about the Tube that makes you seem to able to hold it together until you get out of the station.